The Trends Report

Adjunct Advocacy

Contingent faculty members are demanding—and getting—better working conditions

Matt McLoone for The Chronicle

Anne McLeer (right), a former college instructor and an organizer for SEIU, speaks 
to faculty members during a union meeting at Maryland’s Montgomery College.
March 09, 2015

Academe’s part-time instructors have long complained about low pay and poor working conditions, and now their protests are finally being heard.

By joining together in labor unions, part-time instructors at several colleges have managed in recent years to win major improvements in their pay, benefits, job security, and overall working conditions. And even where they could not unionize, such instructors have used greater activism to send the message that there are limits to their exploitation by college administrations seeking to stretch instructional budgets.

"Five years ago, we were still trying to get people to understand there is a problem," says Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for contingent academic workers formed in 2009. Now, Ms. Maisto says, a growing consensus around the difficulties faced by adjuncts means college administrators can no longer "pretend that the conditions of adjunct faculty don’t need to be addressed."

For their part, college administrators have begun to see payoffs—educational, financial, and otherwise—in taking steps to make adjunct instructors feel more satisfied and supported in their work.

Sanjay Rai, senior vice president for academic affairs at Montgomery College, where adjunct instructors are unionized, says administrators at his Maryland institution not only meet regularly with adjuncts’ union leaders but are helping integrate such instructors into the faculty. This approach, he says, helps the college attract talented part-time instructors with "real-world experience," one of its selling points.

Even before part-time instructors at Tufts University voted to form a union in September 2013, they earned more per course than their peers at most other Boston-area colleges. Tufts’s administration did little to oppose their unionization, and their first contract provides them with pay increases, professional-development funds, guaranteed interviews for open full-time positions, and opportunities to earn two- or three-year contracts after several years with good performance reviews. James M. Glaser, dean of Tufts’s School of Arts and Sciences, says Tufts respects the adjuncts’ contributions and wants them to "feel like they have been treated well by the administration."

Many administrators used to argue that their colleges could not possibly afford to alleviate adjuncts’ complaints without big increases in tuition or public support. Where adjunct unions have forced their hands, however, administrators have been finding the money to offer such instructors benefits, better pay, and job security, even if their pay still lags well behind what is offered to tenure-track professors.

More broadly, administrators have been discovering low-cost, or even free, ways to buy good will among part-timers. They include soliciting part-timers’ feedback, instructing department heads to avoid last-minute class assignments or cancellations, and providing part-timers with orientation sessions, basic academic-freedom protections, and access to instructional resources, support services, and campus facilities.

Previously, "people didn’t realize that you could improve the conditions for non-tenure-track faculty without spending a ton of money," says Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and co-director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. The project has contributed to a growing body of research on steps colleges can take to help adjuncts do their jobs.

The change in college administrators’ thinking is evident in shifts in the academic work force. After decades of steady growth, the proportion of college faculty members employed on a part-time basis has begun to shrink everywhere but at doctoral institutions, according to a recent analysis by Colorado State University’s Center for the Study of Academic Labor.

The job growth at associate, baccalaureate, and master’s institutions is in positions that represent a middle ground between part-time and tenure-track: gigs employing instructors full-time on contracts lasting one to five years. Full-time contingent instructors fare much better than part-timers in terms of their pay and benefits and how much say they have in shared governance. Some research has found such instructors to be every bit as satisfied with their jobs as tenured or tenure-track professors.

One reason for the move toward hiring more full-time instructors has been a growing recognition that reliance on part-timers carries hidden costs. It’s expensive to recruit and hire a big chunk of the academic work force at the start of every academic term. And a mounting number of studies suggest that a college’s heavy reliance on part-time instructors, who are generally not compensated for helping students outside class, hurts students’ prospects of academic success.

At colleges where part-time instructors have unionized, they have been reaping significant bread-and-butter gains through collective bargaining. Such is the case at the University of Oregon, where adjuncts are part of a broader faculty union affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers. Their first contract, which took effect in 2013, provided most contingent faculty members with renewable appointments lasting at least a year, sabbatical rights, clearly defined criteria for promotion, and base salaries of $24,000 to $36,000.

The Service Employees International Union has used an organizing strategy that focuses on entire metropolitan regions to bring about similar gains. At Washington, D.C.-area colleges, where about three-fourths of adjunct instructors now belong to SEIU-affiliated unions, contracts negotiated so far include provisions shielding them from arbitrary dismissal, establishing clear evaluation standards, setting minimum compensation rates per course, and guaranteeing some payment for courses canceled at the last minute.

"Patterns are developing in the contracts that are beginning to set standards across the institutions," says Anne McLeer, a former George Washington University instructor who oversees organizing efforts for the SEIU’s local affiliate. With job security, she says, adjunct instructors feel empowered to speak out on other issues on campus.

Ms. Maisto of the New Faculty Majority says she still hears about "a lot of abusive practices." But, she says, a sense that they are part of a national movement is emboldening adjunct instructors to speak out for themselves.

"People are no longer feeling as isolated as they used to feel."

Related: What Adjuncts Need

Related: A Shift in the Work Force

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