Fine Arts adjunct professors face challenges, sacrifices

Ron Jesiolowski wakes up each morning in his Moon Township home, about an hour away from Waynesburg University. Some days he will drive down to the university to teach students drawing and watercolors. Others, he will teach adults at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley. And on some other days, he will volunteer at a Presbyterian senior citizen home, providing art lessons to 80 through 90-year-olds.

After working as a director of design in corporate America for more than 40 years, Jesiolowski said he felt compelled to teach art, to give back.

“I’ve always been an artist since I was born,” Jesiolowski said. “I’ve always wanted to give back, so this was a way to do it with the new generation.”

In the United States, institutions of higher education have shifted to rely more on adjunct and part-time faculty. These instructors differ from tenure or tenure-track professors and are less expensive to retain—with lower salaries and fewer benefits. At Waynesburg, part-time faculty are used to supplement curriculum and offer unique expertise, said Dr. Dana Baer, provost.

“Using adjuncts and part-timers allows colleges and universities to increase the diversity of the teaching staff,” Baer said. “The instructors, meanwhile, can count on flexible hours and less academic demands–part-time professors in Fine Arts, for example only teach up to nine credits, or three full classes a semester, compared to the six full classes of a tenured professor.”

But there are also defined challenges.

As an part-time instructor in Waynesburg University’s Fine Arts Department, Jesiolowski said, sacrifices have to be made: whether that is financial compensation, time teaching students or involvement in the university.

The greatest challenge, he said, is money. Given the work that goes into teaching a class, grading work and forging connections with students—on top of commuting to and from Waynesburg, Jesiolowski said the compensation is “minimal” for part-time faculty.

Though he has worked at Waynesburg University for almost five years, Jesiolowski said that part-time workers can never achieve the level of inclusion and acceptance that comes with the tenure-track. They aren’t included in department-wide meetings, and their sporadic schedules prevent them from establishing permanent bonds with students. There is a lack of personal relationships across the board, he said, because he isn’t “permanent” here.

“You can’t really help students to the degree that you’d like to,” he said. “You can’t really commit to them, knowing you can be disposed of. It’s that lack of personal relationship that comes with not being permanent.”

Part-time work looks different in each academic department. The Fine Arts Department reaps specific benefits from relying on part-timers, said Andrew Heisey, chairperson for the department.

First, bringing in part-time faculty allows for a wide range of viewpoints and expertise, a valuable asset when teaching artistic skills, Heisey said. The Music Program, for example, employs part-time instructors to teach different instruments.

“Because we have part-timers coming in, they get a different perspective,” he said. “We need that expertise.”

Second, many of the part-timers in Fine Arts are still practicing artists and musicians, which adds to their credibility and expertise, Heisey said.

When the goal is to provide the best resources available to students, Heisey said it is useful to bring in such a “diverse” group. Still, it can cause some burdens.

Heisey said he is the only full-time professor in any of the visual arts. With “quite a big community of part-timers,” he said it can be difficult working around scheduling conflicts, and the department can’t always depend on a part-timer to take on more responsibilities.

“The downside is, you can only rely on that person so much,” Heisey said.

Heisey knows the greatest burdens fall on the part-timers, themselves, though. He said many of them are employed at other institutions outside of Waynesburg and have to travel long distances to make it to all their different jobs. They have to find and pay for their own health insurance and must work harder to make ends meet. Heisey said at least one part-time faculty member in the Fine Arts Department relies on food stamps.

Jesiolowski believes the Fine Arts department is likely better than others, though. He said Heisey makes a concerted effort to meet the needs of part-timers whenever possible–but that doesn’t stop them from being left out from the university community as a whole.

“There’s so much I feel I have to give and so many ideas I have to improve the program or even the environment,” Jesiolowski said. “But you don’t have a voice.”

For Jesiolowski,  it feels “like a one-way street.” While tenured faculty receive funding for special projects and additional schooling, part-timers aren’t given the same attention and compensation. They aren’t invested in, he said.

On the other hand, Baer said Waynesburg takes active measures to include part-time faculty in the academic community: allowing access to facilities and scholarship dollars, invitations to professional development initiatives and other programming.

“It’s important because they are part of our community,” Baer said. “They do touch our students, just like full-time faculty.”

For Baer, the primary goal is to provide a valuable education, while making fiscally responsible choices for the institution.

At Waynesburg, part-time faculty are especially utilized in professional programs, like the Criminal Justice Department and the Department of Communication—and Fine Arts. Baer said these part-timers often work day jobs in their professional fields before teaching, and students benefit from their experience.

“It’s intentional because you’re getting folks who are in the field,” she said. “There’s value to that.”

The success and satisfaction of each part-timer is a case-by-case basis, Baer said. Most part-timers at Waynesburg are either employed in their professional fields or teaching at other nearby institutions, like California University or CCAC, which eases the financial burden. Teaching part-time is helpful depending on each “personal situation,” she said.

At many institutions across the country, adjunct professors have unionized in recent years to rally for employment benefits, funding and other privileges. In 2013, the death of a long-time adjunct professor at Duquesne University, who lived several years in oppressive poverty while suffering from cancer, drew considerable attention to the working conditions in practice.

Many nearby universities, including Robert Morris and Point Park, have established unions. Adjunct rights have been at the forefront of higher education news for several years now, as the number of instructors achieving tenure progressively declines.

Baer said Waynesburg isn’t following the national trend—with a consistent amount of full-time faculty and a steady reduction of the number of part-timers, the university does not rely on part-timers like many other institutions. In fact, Baer said, Waynesburg would like to hire more full-time faculty and improve the student to faculty ratio.

Jesiolowski has no hard feelings about the shortcomings of a part-time system. Working in corporate America, he said the challenges of working with part-timers is no different in any other industry. As a director of design, Jesiolowski said he, himself, struggled to make contractors feel like “part of the team.”

“When there’s communication that goes around that says you don’t get benefits,” he said, “You can’t help but have a feeling of segregation—of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

He also said the university benefits a lot from the “seasoned, real-world experience” of many adjuncts. Baer said this is always an objective when bringing part-time faculty to the university.

For Jesiolowski, the monetary reward was irrelevant to his desire to “give back” and serve through education. That was worth all of the burden, he said.

“It’s giving back,” Jesiolowski said. “It’s the ability to help the next students. It’s the love of teaching and the love of helping other people.”