Adjunct music instructors work long hours for low pay, uncertain benefits

Rachel Alexander

Graphic by Berfield

Laura Curtis has been teaching piano at Whitman since 1997. She holds a master’s degree in music, instructs around 35 students per semester and is often busy from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with lessons, rehearsals, practicing and accompanying. For this, Curtis can expect to earn a little more than $20,000 per year from Whitman.

Curtis is one of Whitman’s music teaching assistants: instructors who are hired on a per-semester or per-year contract basis to teach private lessons. Currently, students pay $300 per semester per credit of instruction, with one credit equal to a half-hour private lesson per week over the course of the semester. Music assistants receive $264 per credit they teach. The remainder of the fee covers employer related payroll costs such as social security, Medicare and worker’s compensation. An instructor with teaching 40 half-hour lessons is considered to be employed full-time by the college, and would earn a salary of $21,120 before taxes.

Susan Pickett, chair of the music department, explained that although an instructor working full time would only have students 20 hours a week, many instructors have other time commitments as part of their job. Group lessons, unpaid accompanying and preparation for recitals all take up substantial portions of time for many faculty members.

“That is, by custom, part of the job of teaching music,” she said. “These group recitals and classes are an extra part of the work.”

These extra pieces of work can add up. Music assistant Robyn Newton said that during the first two weeks of the semester, she often works from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. because she has to find music and recordings for all of her students. On top of these hours, Newton has worked other jobs during the 13 years she’s taught at Whitman. She used to work from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. as an optician, then come to Whitman and teach voice from noon until 6 p.m.

“Most adjuncts have two jobs,” she said. “It’s not something that you can really make a living doing. The only reason you would do it is because you love it so much.”

Provost and Dean of Faculty Tim Kaufman-Osborn explained that Whitman’s fee rates are designed to be competitive with similar colleges.

“We really try to rely on what similar institutions are offering,” he said.

Walla Walla University currently offers music instructors $350 per semester, and all but one other Panel of 14 school currently offers more than Whitman’s $300. Pickett said that largely because of this, Whitman is planning to raise music fees to $350 starting in the fall 2012 semester. Of this, instructors will receive $310 per credit taught.

Kaufman-Osborn said that setting music fees is complicated, because charging too much might keep students from being able to take lessons. However, he acknowledged that paying faculty and staff a fair wage is important to the college.

“Leaving aside all of the complications of teachers of musical instruments . . . if Whitman is not paying a living wage to someone, then I think in principle that’s a problem,” he said.

Not all music assistants work full time for Whitman. Many instructors teach less common instruments, such as oboe and French horn, and have only a handful of students. Some only work for Whitman for a few semesters. But regardless of how many students they have, their level of education or the number of years they’ve worked for Whitman, all assistants sign more or less the same contract.

“The exact same policy applies to someone who’s worked [at Whitman] for 12 years,” said Curtis.

Kaufman-Osborne said that paying instructors more based on their experience would further complicate the fee system. He acknowledged that the current flat fee system could be seen as unfair to some instructors who have been at the college for years.

“It’s a legitimate question,” he said.

As part of their agreement, music assistants teaching at least 30 credits are eligible for benefits on a prorated basis with 40 lessons being 100 percent full-time. At 40 lessons, Whitman would pay 100 percent of the employee’s health insurance premium.

The number of credits an instructor is teaching is calculated based on enrollment on the tenth day of the semester. Any instructor who is below the 30-credit minimum on this day would lose health insurance coverage for the semester.

Curtis lost her insurance coverage once, a few years into her career at Whitman when she dipped below 30 credits for one semester.

“I couldn’t even keep my policy intact and pay for it myself. There was no option,” she said. “It bothered me that there was absolutely nothing [Whitman was] able to do to help me out, even though I had taught there full time since ‘97, knowing that I was not leaving, that I wanted to continue to teach, that I wanted to have full time work.”

Not wanting to lose coverage again, she opted to enroll on her husband’s insurance. However, he will turn 65 in five years, which will change his insurance to Medicare and will not cover Curtis. She said that at that point, she will probably have to go back to the Whitman plan.

Pickett said that in an ideal world, she would like to see Whitman offer music instructors the option of prorated insurance premiums so that part-time instructors would have some contribution by Whitman toward health and dental insurance, even if they fall below 30 credits in one semester. However, she knows that Whitman is unlikely to change this policy.

“It would be a very expensive proposition,” she said.

Curtis believes that Whitman could find the money to pay music assistants or cover their benefits.

“It’s a reflection of priorities,” she said.

Pickett noted that the role that music assistants play in college life is often overlooked.

“I think all of us at Whitman. . . students and administration alike, need to fully appreciate with almost every public event, the music department is called on to provide music,” she said. “Our contract teaching staff represent a major force in the quality of those performances.”

Senior Carissa Wagner, a music major, said that private lessons help students get involved with music on campus.

“The way that most people get involved with the department outside of music majors is performance,” she said.

Junior Madelyn Peterson is one of the many non-music majors who have benefited from having music assistants available.

“Music has always been a really big part of my identity,” she said. “When you’re working with your teacher, you’re really listening to the nuances of the piece you’re working on. That’s when music really comes alive to me.”

Peterson believes that the contribution these teachers make is often undervalued.

“I think music teachers at Whitman work really hard. They care about the work they do,” she said.

Newton said that although she often works long hours, she appreciates being able to teach college students.

“We get paid very little for doing a lot of work,” she said. “It’s a good thing we love what we do.”