• September 4, 2015

A Canadian College Where Adjuncts Go to Prosper

A Candadian College Where Adjuncts Go to Prosper 1

Robert Leon for The Chronicle

Bill Nikolai (left), a librarian at Vancouver Community College who was elected assistant department head by his peers, with Frank Cosco, president of the faculty union, who says, "We don't have a completely equitable situation, but we try to make it as equitable as possible."

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close A Candadian College Where Adjuncts Go to Prosper 1

Robert Leon for The Chronicle

Bill Nikolai (left), a librarian at Vancouver Community College who was elected assistant department head by his peers, with Frank Cosco, president of the faculty union, who says, "We don't have a completely equitable situation, but we try to make it as equitable as possible."

Vancouver Community College, like many institutions of its kind, relies heavily on part-time faculty members. But its policies for promoting and supporting them have helped the Canadian institution avoid the criticism of activists who accuse many American colleges of exploiting their adjuncts.

That's because Vancouver instructors who are hired by the term but work at least half time for 19 out of 24 months achieve "regular" status—a form of job security that provides a level of protection largely unheard of for faculty members who aren't tenured or on the tenure track. "Once you're hired as a term instructor, people take it very seriously because the department heads and deans know that this person is going to be around awhile," says Frank Cosco, president of the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association. He is a full-time faculty member with regular status who has worked at the college for more than 20 years.


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The work environment at Vancouver is the result of more than two decades of collective bargaining between administrators and the faculty union, which represents all faculty members. As a result of the union's contract, the gap between full- and part-time faculty members is narrower than at most institutions, and is often held up as an example of how to treat adjuncts, who make up the fastest-growing slice of the American professoriate.

In fact, a report last year by the American Association of University Professors named Vancouver as one model of how to improve the circumstances of adjuncts in the United States, many of whom are poorly paid and lack job security and health benefits. The association's report called for the conversion of part-time appointments to tenure-track jobs. Shortly after the report's release, some experts on adjuncts said there was no incentive for institutions to provide contingent faculty members in the United States with more job security, among other things. Paul D. Umbach, an associate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, said that at best, colleges would "nibble around the edges" of such a proposal.

"We don't have a completely equitable situation, but we try to make it as equitable as possible," Mr. Cosco says.

For starters, pay for part-timers is based on what full-time faculty members make. So instructors who teach half time make half as much as full-time colleagues with similar experience who do the same work. Depending on experience, the pay ranges from about $54,000 to $82,000 in U.S. dollars.

Because seniority is accrued at the same rate by full- and part-time faculty members with regular status, a part-time instructor could outrank a full-time colleague in seniority. (The union's agreement calls for layoffs, if any, to be by seniority, regardless of full- or part-time status.) Health benefits are available to all faculty members who work at least half time. Maternity leave is available after six months of contract work.

When it comes to workload, no distinction is made between full- and part-time instructors, Mr. Cosco says. In addition to teaching, part-timers are paid for related work such as office hours, grading papers, and preparing course materials.

Perhaps the most important feature of Vancouver's system, say experts on adjunct issues, is that it allows faculty members who were initially hired term-by-term to be promoted into jobs with more-secure status. Once they work enough days during a two-year period, and provided they do not receive a negative evaluation, the conversion to regular status is automatic. The college has about 725 faculty members—475 of whom have regular status. "We purposely focused on the person, not the position," Mr. Cosco says.

A fine point of the union's agreement helps adjuncts who are seeking job security: After working for six months, they have the first right of refusal for any new teaching contracts offered in their departments to temporary employees.

Bill Nikolai, a librarian (a faculty position at the college), achieved full-time regular status a different way—he was elected by his peers to be assistant department head, a position for which the status is automatic. A onetime English teacher in Japan, he studied to be a librarian and, after graduating almost two years ago, landed an adjunct job at Vancouver.

"When I applied for the job, I didn't know anything about regularization," he says. "Then, when I got here, I started learning more about how things worked."

Stephanie Hummel, an instructor of English as a second language, began working at Vancouver in January and has taught every month since except April and May, when she didn't have a contract. Her latest contract ends in August, and she won't know whether she'll be teaching in the fall until just before classes begin.

But the potential job security is worth waiting for, she says. As an instructor elsewhere in British Columbia, she could earn only $30,000 at the top of the pay scale, despite her 10 years' experience and master's degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

"Even for nonregular staff, working here is a step up," she says.

Sal Ferreras, dean of the college's music school, calls the perks available to Vancouver's adjuncts "goodies that make something challenging like part-time work a little bit more meaningful." Both the college and its students, he says, benefit from the stability of the work force.

"A lot of people who work part time for us are grounded in this institution and continue to develop themselves professionally," says the dean, who began his career at Vancouver as a part-time faculty member. "They have a particular affinity for this institution. The likelihood of them leaving this position is not very high."


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Access to professional-development opportunities also contribute to that loyalty. Faculty members who work at least half time for seven months of the year can get about $250 to cover the cost of conferences, research, subscriptions, and other professional expenses. They can also compete for grants of up to $5,000.

Lorraine Rehnby, who started at the college in 2008, was able to take professional-development leave for the first time in March 2009. She spent the 50 hours of leave time on a project to help her ESL students improve their vocabularies. It involved putting a Canadian twist on a popular American word game, Apples to Apples, in which players match nouns with adjectives they think best describe them. The words "Mount Rushmore" on one of the game's flashcards became "Mount Logan," a Canadian landmark.

The opportunity to create learning materials that her colleagues can also use is invaluable, she says. "I have so much support, a huge number of resources, and if I have questions, they get answered straightaway," says Ms. Rehnby, who is working during the summer term and hopes to achieve the more-secure job status in October. "I'm really lucky to have this job."

Vancouver's faculty-union contract expired in March, but its provisions remain in effect until a new agreement is in place. Bargaining will pick up again in earnest when the academic year begins, says Mr. Cosco, the faculty association's president. The union wants to see a few months shaved off the time faculty members need to work to attain regular status, and also wants to make faculty members who work less than half time eligible for health benefits.

Mr. Ferreras, the music dean, says department heads, whose teaching duties vary widely, would most likely say they want more release time to do their administrative duties, among other things.

Still, the work done in previous years appears to have paid off: Part-time employees feel like an integral part of the college community, says Mr. Cosco.

"If you want to work at VCC," he says, "it can be a career when you're hired the first time."


1. 22176686 - July 26, 2010 at 10:54 pm

The Vancouver Community College Faculty Association has proved that true solidarity between part-time and full-time faculty is possible. But it means the end of the two-track system that the American unions continue to support.

It means truly equal pay, a step from part-time to full-time status, and real job security for everyone, not simply the lucky few on the tenure track.

As long as the American unions split the faculty between the tenure-track and the non-tenure track, with separate but unequal salary scales and benefit packages, union solidarity will remain a cruel hoax.

Adjuncts should lose patience with union leaders who provide excuses as to why the Vancouver model will not work in America. It will work if we have the will to make it work.

2. skepticalteach - July 27, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I agree with 22176686. If every adjunct/part-time/contingent faculty member joined the New Faculty Majority, we would have a voice! Visit their website - http://www.newfacultymajority.info/national/ - NFM is a new, independent national organization for adjunct and contingent faculty in all disciplines and at any public or private university, college or community college in the US. It costs nothing to join.

I'm fortunate to be an adjunct at a community college that is better than most on conditions, rehire, and some benefits (tuition waivers), but

It's past time to seriously stand up to the antiquated system of tenure and provide part time/contingent faculty with equal pay, benefits, and security.

One bright spot is the gazillion grad students and Ph.D.s just graduating know what it's like to work for nothing, questioning the whole business of tenure and why it hasn't changed. The whole model has to change because the majority of these recent grads will never, ever obtain a tenture track position, and they just might get motivated.

3. more_cowbell - July 27, 2010 at 01:35 pm

While this seems to work at a small institution such as VCC, that offers mostly certificates and trades training, I wonder how well it'd go down in a major university with tenured profs and graduate programs.

4. jacklongmate - July 28, 2010 at 09:15 pm

Thank you for profiling Vancouver Community College and the accomplishments of the leadership of its Faculty Association. The workplace provisions secured by faculty in Vancouver can only be dreamed about by the majority of U.S. faculty, who are contingents. Whereas in U.S. colleges, one can teach for decades and still have no job security, with pay that is significantly discounted (far from equal pay for equal work), with a workload limited to some percentage below full-time, with no incentive to pursue professional development, British Columbian faculty have those things virtually from the day they start.

Jack Longmate
Olympic College
Bremerton, Washington

5. sacroiliac - July 29, 2010 at 06:46 am

As needs to be mentioned (to readers in the US) on the numerous times that the Chronicle discusses the Canadian education system, the Colleges in this country are not part of the university sector.

6. osholes - July 29, 2010 at 09:12 am

Vancouver has a high cost of living so it is only humane for employers to compensate people sufficiently so that they can actually live in the community where they work. Institutions in other regions of the world should take note: adjust your compensation for your cost of living.

7. jcisneros - July 29, 2010 at 11:37 am

Granted each national situation is unique, I live in the most regressive state for adjunct faculty in the United States. Texas.

The University of Texas System has started hiring PhDs in adjunct "lecturer" positions, where the pay is low, at some components as low as $2,000 USD per class, no benefits to speak of, and a maximum of 10 courses per year. $20,000 USD per year for a person who invested upwards of $150,000 and 8 years of their lives. I am acquainted with a Harvard PhD at the institution I am at who makes pay similar to what I have outlined.

Is it any wonder future PhDs like myself are terrified of the job market in the United States?

Of course, the economy is the common excuse used for hiring less tenure-track faculty and there will be no real incentive for University Systems to return to a larger tenure-track component.

Professor Longmate is entirely correct.


8. fcosco - July 29, 2010 at 01:21 pm

Hope the interest in a more equitable employment system for higher education spreads; there's actually no reason for it to be as bizarre as it is and there's no reason not to start immediately to make changes that would vastly improve people's work lives.

Just wanted to add a comment for those who think this system at Vancouver Community College is restricted to non-academic fields. Outside of 4 doctoral universities like UBC, British Columbia has an integrated system of six new universities, two institutes, and ten colleges each of which teach everything: academic, foundations, trades, technologies, health and other career programs. They all have some baccalorate degrees. They all have what we call university-transfer courses where a course they take with us is fully transferable to UBC or any other institution. All of these places have the same salary scale as VCC does. Not all of them have the same degree of equity for their new instructors as we do at VCC but I'd say the same principle prevades them all -- that new hires on all paid equitably, are all on a track that leads to a lifetime career, have full rights of union representation and protection, and that they are included in the life of their departments, their institutions and their unions. All of us are unionized and with only a couple of exceptions all of us come together for mutual support in a very progressive federation of unions, the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC.

Always welcome any questions or comments.

Frank Cosco
President, VCC Faculty Association
Executive Member, FPSE of BC

9. duchess_of_malfi - July 29, 2010 at 04:53 pm

Thank you for this interesting article.

Research on part-time faculty in the U.S. shows that their salary satisfaction is similar to that of full-time faculty but benefits satisfaction is much lower (NSOPF: 2004, Part-time instructional, tables 52, 53). Considering the costs of turnover, benefits would be a good investment for colleges and universities.

I think that poster #1 is right about the need for real union solidarity, but I have not seen it in the U.S. Just getting a union at all is not going to be easy at my university. I don't know if we tenure-track and tenured faculty have different attitudes about contingent faculty in the U.S. compared to Canada. I would be interested to know more about that.


Chronicle writers and editors: please decide what you want the word "adjunct" to mean. Currently, your use of the word is unclear. In this story, as in many recently, it seems to mean both "part-time faculty" and "contingent faculty." Part-time faculty are the largest group, but not the only group, within the category of contingent faculty. In the U.S., more than 20% of all full-time faculty are contingent (NSOPF: 2004, table 12). That's about the same as the percentage of full-time faculty who are tenure-track, and for 4-year institutions, more full-time faculty are contingent than are on the tenure track.

10. more_cowbell - July 30, 2010 at 03:35 pm

This is true - in Canada, "adjunct" means something entirely different than in the US. We call our part time contract teachers "sessionals."

11. amnirov - July 31, 2010 at 06:11 am

I think that the long and short of it is that tenured and tenure track faculty do not want adjunct faculty to have equality. Having a tenure track job, or actually being tenured is something that is earned, not achieved through "seniority" or time served. TT jobs should be fairly and competitively won, and tenure should be rewarded through publications, grants and presentations, reasonable teaching and service.

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