There’s Something Sneaky Going on at Colleges Across America

Doug Wright was a highly respected and dearly loved adjunct professor who taught humanities courses for many years at several colleges in Utah. As a so-called part-time faculty member who had the same responsibilities to students as any full-time faculty member, he was given only temporary assignments, sub-professional pay, and was not eligible for health insurance. When he was diagnosed with cancer in May 2009, he spent his life savings on treatment.

A close friend, Paul Babin, made a film about his struggle. The film, The Place Beneath, was an appeal to the country to make health care accessible to all people who need it. 

In an epilogue to the film, Babin describes a party that Doug and his friends held in early November 2009. The film had found a home on the internet, and as he celebrated six months of a hard-fought fight, Doug was to learn that Vice President Joe Biden had seen the film and had been moved to write to him expressing his thanks. The day after the party, Doug also learned that the Affordable Care Act was soon to become law.



Four years later, higher education has failed to learn Doug's eloquent lesson. An alarming number of colleges are not extending healthcare to the faculty who constitute the majority of the teaching professionals on their campuses and who are educating the majority of the students (usually the most vulnerable remedial and first-year students).

Instead, these colleges are reducing "part-time" faculty members' assignments. Because faculty are not hourly workers, this is meant to guarantee that these professors will not be eligible for employer-provided healthcare. It will also reduce these professors' incomes just when they will be responsible for purchasing their own insurance under the new law. Only one institution in the country, Allegheny Community College, has declared its intention to raise adjunct wages while reducing workload in order to compensate for the lost income.

In other words, rather than fulfilling their responsibility under the letter and spirit of the law, most colleges are instead employing legal loopholes and manipulating definitions of faculty work in order to avoid it. Many institutions claim that the only way they could afford to provide health insurance to adjunct faculty would be by drastically raising tuition.

As the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education(CFHE) has pointed out, however, such statements are not only false but they inappropriately pit students’ rights to affordable, quality education against their professors’ rights to affordable, quality healthcare.

The ramifications of these institutional responses to this law are wide-ranging. The effects on educational quality will be staggering, since so-called part-time faculty constitute over half the faculty workforce, 70 percent or more at community colleges nationwide.

The Affordable Care Act mandates employer-provided healthcare to any employee who works 30 hours or more, so many colleges are claiming that professors do—or should do—no more than one hour of work outside of class for every hour they are in class. Not only does this misrepresent what professors actually do, and should do, but as faculty members take on more work to make up for the reduction in income, they will have even less time available to students.

Finally, the reduction in income will also make many more adjunct faculty eligible for public assistance than already are, and will directly affect their eligibility for public student loan forgiveness, to which the 30-hour threshold also applies.

Faculty advocates have begun to make the IRS aware of the effects of these institutional responses to the ACA. In reply, the IRS has issued preliminary guidelines that warn colleges not to misrepresent the amount of work that professors actually do in determining their eligibility for insurance.

As the agency finalizes its guidelines, both it and the institutions it oversees should remember the lessons that Doug Wright lived and taught. Doug died on November 29, 2009 thinking that the Affordable Care Act would ensure that no American citizen would ever have to endure the pain and indignity of fighting a potentially deadly disease without health insurance. As a teacher deeply committed to his students, his community, and his country, he turned the last six months of his life into the ultimate teaching moment. 

He could have left quietly and privately. Instead he made his experience into a lesson about dignity and responsibility, recognizing that, in the words of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, "access to medical care, like access to education, is fundamental to a just society."

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Maria Maisto is a once and future adjunct professor, president of the national nonprofit advocacy group New Faculty Majority and the executive director of the New Faculty Majority Foundation. She is co-author of the report “Who is Professor ‘Staff’ and how can this person teach so many classes?” as well as several other publications on the effect of faculty hiring practices on the quality of higher education.