NMC's Decision To 'Outsource' Employment Of Adjunct Professors Spurs Debate
By Craig Manning | Aug. 17, 2023
Outsourcing that will irreparably damage the culture at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), or a necessary solution to pay employees what they are worth? That’s the crux of a debate around NMC’s newly-minted partnership with Edustaff, a downstate educational staffing firm that will now serve as the employer of record for some of the college’s adjunct professors. The same debate previously raged in 2015, when NMC considered (and later decided against) working with Edustaff. What changed since then, and what will the new arrangement mean for NMC and its educators? The Ticker investigates.
Founded in 2010, Edustaff works with educational institutions nationwide to fill staffing needs. The organization’s primary focus is helping K-12 school districts with substitute teacher staffing, but Edustaff has grown to offer other services, too – including recruiting, staffing, and payroll for colleges.
NMC first considered having Edustaff handle the employment of its adjunct professors in 2015, framing the partnership as a way to give adjuncts higher pay up front rather than spending that cash on pensions that adjuncts – typically considered “contingent” or “temporary” workers – might never access. Critics of the move saw the proposal as an act of outsourcing that would erode the college’s commitment to part-time employees, damage student-instructor relationships, and hurt NMC’s campus culture.
On May 27, 2015, then-president Timothy J. Nelson announced via an NMC Communiqué that the college would “no longer be investigating a partnership with Edustaff.” In explaining the decision, Nelson wrote that the college always intended “to retain important hiring, wage, supervision, and evaluation decisions with our employees,” even in the event of a potential Edustaff partnership. The week prior to Nelson’s announcement, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill that changed the game on that front.
“I am not interested in pursuing an approach where NMC could not set wages, conditions of employment, evaluation, and provide professional development resources as it currently does,” Nelson wrote. “It appears this legislation could prohibit this.”
Speaking to The Ticker this week, Mark Liebling – NMC’s associate vice president of human resources – says the legislation in question never became law, leaving the door open for NMC to restart talks with Edustaff.
The college did just that earlier this year: On May 4, NMC President Nick Nissley sent an email to faculty and staff informing them that NMC would be partnering with Edustaff. Effective July 1, all new adjunct professor hires at the college are technically employed by Edustaff rather than by the college itself. Existing adjuncts, meanwhile, have the option to continue with their current employment arrangements or switch over to the third-party firm.
“As you know, institutions of higher education have utilized the expertise of adjuncts and supplemental employees to fill unique or temporary needs,” Nissley wrote. “A significant constraint in offering higher compensation has been the increasing cost of pension benefits administered through the Michigan Public School Employees' Retirement System (MPSERS). Payments to MPSERS require that employees contribute 3-11% from individual paychecks. In addition, the College is required to contribute 28% of gross wages, which totaled nearly $1.2 million in the last year. Most often, those who teach or work part-time will never realize the vested benefits of the retirement system...”
Liebling says the college decided to take a second look at Edustaff due to inflation and rising operational costs, as well as climbing living expenses in northern Michigan.
“We see that, for our employees, standard of living is going to be slipping, just because we have not been able to keep up with inflation in terms of our pay increases,” Liebling tells The Ticker. “That had us looking for opportunities to do things that are beneficial to the college and beneficial to employees, and [the Edustaff partnership] came up. There’s a very high percentage of pay, for contingent staff, that goes into the state retirement system. And with this group of employees in particular, because they're contingent, there aren't that many that actually benefit from this pension program. 10 years vesting is required to get any kind of a pension from it.”
Because Edustaff is not an educational institution, it is not obligated to follow the same rules around MPSERS as NMC. As a result, new adjuncts at NMC won’t have the option to participate in the pension program. What they’ll get instead, Liebling says, is higher take-home pay – an immediate 7 percent increase, compared to NMC’s “direct employed rate” – and “better benefits than what the college has been able to offer,” including both health insurance and retirement plan options.
How much money NMC will save will depend on how many existing adjunct professors choose to switch over to Edustaff – and will increase over time as more new adjuncts are hired. Liebling says the college is projecting a 60 percent participation rate in the new employment model, which would equate to around $200,000 of savings in annual payroll costs. So far, he adds, 40-50 current NMC adjuncts “have made the decision to move over” – a number Liebling expects will increase as the school year gets underway.
One key difference between this Edustaff partnership and the one NMC considered in 2015? The original plan would have included a mandatory participation requirement for some existing employees. The college would have grandfathered some longer-standing adjuncts into the old employment model, based on how vested they were in the MPSERS system, “but we didn’t know where or how to draw that line,” Liebling says. “This time, we’re just letting employees decide if they want to continue down [the MPSERS] path or move over to Edustaff. If they do move over, they’ll get higher wages, but they’ll also lose those college contributions into that pension program and their participation in that program freezes. So, that’s the trade-off, but we’re not making the decision for people.”
That difference might explain why the matter has been less controversial this time around. According to Andrea Gerring – an adjunct professor in NMC’s art department since 2012 – “local press published opinion pieces by members of the community against this move” in 2015, including columns by local attorney Grant Parsons and NMC instructor Susan Odgers. NMC’s own White Pines Press also ran “a passionate plea” from adjuncts titled “Oppose NMC Outsourcing.”
For her part, Gerring is still wary of the Edustaff partnership, suggesting that it will have a negative impact on the “belonging” that adjuncts feel on campus. She also pushes back against the college’s claims that most adjuncts don’t ever see their pensions from MPSERS.
“Can an adjunct position be considered unique or temporary when currently 209 out of 290 instructors at NMC are adjuncts?” Gerring asks. “As an adjunct at NMC for the past 13 years I am vested and look forward to my MPSERS pension.”
Liebling, meanwhile, assures that NMC is dedicated to making sure the new approach doesn’t hinder the level of belonging or support felt by anyone who works at the college.
“In our case, Edustaff is really just a payroll administrator,” he concludes. “From a standpoint of process and belonging, we're not making any substantial changes at this point. it's very important to us – as it is to the faculty as a whole – that we not create a two-tiered system within our adjunct ranks. We want everybody to feel like they have the deal that they've selected, and that their sense of belonging and inclusion is going to be consistent.”Comment