An Activist Adjunct Shoulders the Weight of a New Advocacy Group

David Ahntholz

Maria C. Maisto, until recently a part-time adjunct professor at two Ohio colleges, grades papers in a cafe.
September 10, 2009

There was a time when Maria C. Maisto didn't know much about the struggles of adjunct professors. She didn't know that teaching six courses could still pay less than $20,000. She didn't know that adjuncts are likely to be on the outskirts of faculty governance. She didn't know that adjuncts can't count on unemployment checks to fill in the gap when they're not able to teach. But four years after teaching her first English-composition class at the University of Akron, Ms. Maisto knows all of that. In fact, now she thinks about the plight of adjuncts all the time.

"It's hard to know what the reality is for many adjuncts until you live it," says Ms. Maisto, an adjunct who this week left her job at Akron for a full-time, non-tenure-track job at Cuyahoga Community College that pays more and offers benefits. But if Ms. Maisto has anything to do with it, adjuncts' working conditions will no longer be invisible to those outside the academy. She is leading a new association, named New Faculty Majority, intended to be a national voice solely for the 70 percent of faculty members who work outside the tenure track. They are typically poorly paid when compared with their tenured and tenure-track colleagues, have no health benefits, and no academic-freedom protections. And the major faculty unions, adjunct activists say, cater to the concerns of tenured and tenure-track professors. So for the last seven months, Ms. Maisto and others have been painstakingly building the framework for the group, even as many adjuncts lose their jobs as part of colleges' cost-cutting moves. New Faculty Majority isn't a union, but it does plan to work closely with unions and other organizations to achieve common goals.

"There are a whole range of different issues to address when it comes to adjuncts," Ms. Maisto says. "We want to make sure that adjunct- and contingent-faculty perspectives are represented at the table so people aren't talking about us when we're not in the room."

Ms. Maisto is determined that the new group succeed, but it faces serious challenges. Past attempts to create a national network that fights adjuncts' battles on a day-to-day basis have failed. Adjuncts, particularly those who work part time, are immensely preoccupied with trying to make a living and are not likely to have time and money to give to the fledgling group. The new organization will also have to figure out how to recruit from a pool of people who traditionally don't join such groups because they fear for their jobs, especially in this economic downturn.

The Making of an Activist

Ms. Maisto, 41, graduated from Georgetown University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in foreign service with a concentration in humanities. After earning a master's degree in English at her alma mater, Ms. Maisto moved on to the University of Maryland at College Park to pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her oldest daughter, now 10, was born just after she completed the first chapter of her dissertation. Her adviser urged her to continue her studies, but Ms. Maisto—who also has two other children, ages 8 and 2—says she and her husband realized that "just wasn't going to work."

Instead, Ms. Maisto took jobs at two higher-education associations in Washington, but she could never shake the feeling that she belonged in front of a classroom.

After her family moved from the Washington area to Akron in 2004—in part to escape a pricey housing market—Ms. Maisto began teaching as an adjunct at the university in the fall of 2005. The first sign that the path she chose might not be so smooth: "I didn't get a handbook," Ms. Maisto says. "And there was no orientation." The second sign: She became pregnant with her third child and knew that "there were no resources for adjuncts in my situation." During the entire 2006-7 academic year, which would have been her second at Akron, Ms. Maisto was out of work and out of pay.

"Meager as the salary is, you need every penny," says Ms. Maisto. "That created an incredible strain on my family."

Getting Organized

Something needed to change, Ms. Maisto thought. She credits a fellow part-timer in Akron's English department, Peggy Richards, for pushing her into advocacy. "I could see she had such strong feelings about changing things for the part-time faculty here," says Ms. Richards, who has taught English composition for 20 years at Akron. "It's incredible the amount of energy she has."

When the university's Faculty Senate held elections in the fall of 2008, Ms. Richards convinced Ms. Maisto to run for the position of part-time faculty representative. "I told her, Here's where you get your foot in the door on campus because you have legitimacy in an elected position." She won.

Around the same time, some adjuncts were bandying about via e-mail the idea of forming what would later become known as New Faculty Majority. Ms. Maisto, who had largely been a "lurker" on the group's e-mail list for some time, was increasingly intrigued by the possibilities of a national organization.

But ironically, it was a tenured professor who sent a February 2 e-mail message that pushed the list's members beyond their rhetoric and put New Faculty Majority on the path it is on today.

Peter D.G. Brown, a German professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, had started two adjunct-advocacy groups from scratch—one at his own campus and another statewide organization that is part of United University Professors. "I felt the time was really right for a national organization," he says. But "I didn't really feel like I was the appropriate person to get the ball rolling, being a senior, tenured faculty member."

Instead, he turned to Joe Berry, a nationally known adjunct activist who, in a sense, had been at this juncture before. Months earlier he was part of an unsuccessful push to transform the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor into something similar to New Faculty Majority. The coalition, known as Cocal, mostly focuses on conferences and regional meetings. Cocal is also the creator of the very e-mail list on which New Faculty Majority came to life. However, it is not structured to take on adjunct issues in a sustained way. Yet Mr. Berry, chair of the group's Chicago chapter, declined to take the lead in New Faculty Majority's beginnings.

"I was extremely busy, and I just made the decision not to be heavily involved in the center of it at this time," says Mr. Berry, a visiting adjunct labor specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In a nod of support, however, Mr. Berry says, "Given the history of activity among contingent faculty, there's no bad activity. Anything that gets more people into motion is helpful."

A Volunteer Effort

In early February, Mr. Brown sent a message calling for volunteers to serve on the organizing committee, and Ms. Maisto was among those who stepped up. Soon after, the committee, which included Mr. Brown, held a two-hour conference call, the first of many to plot the new group's course. When the call was over, Ms. Maisto had been elected co-chair of the committee. She would share the job with Deborah Louis, an adjunct for 38 years who teaches political science, criminal justice, and women's studies online for Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, in North Carolina, and Eastern Kentucky University.

"It was exciting to see how committed people were to what we were doing," says Ms. Maisto, who is now president of the group's board of directors. "I just remember being ready to get to work. We had a lot to accomplish."

But the duo wouldn't work together for long. About four months in, the task of laying the groundwork of the new organization proved to be too taxing for Ms. Louis.

"It was daily work, all day and through the night responding to e-mails," says Ms. Louis, who has a Ph.D. in political science. "We broke into subcommittees, but then every organizational issue was so important everybody wanted to say something about everything. I was juggling too much stuff to be able to continue giving it fair treatment, especially in a leadership role."

Time conflicts plagued another member of the original organizing committee as well. The well-known adjunct activist Keith Hoeller, who has worked tirelessly for adjunct rights in Washington State, also left. Mr. Hoeller gave, for him, an unusually guarded explanation: "I had to use my time where I think it's more efficient."

To be sure, there are seasoned activists still engaged in getting New Faculty Majority up and running. But does the absence of some heavy hitters signal a bumpy ride for the group or merely pave the way for others to make their mark? Matthew Williams, vice president of the group's board of directors, is banking on the latter. After all, he notes, the pool of people across the country who teach outside the tenure track numbers about 800,000.

"Of course, we're not going to be able to get everyone involved, but even 2 percent of that," would be a good beginning, says Mr. Williams an assistant lecturer in communication at Akron who also teaches Web development and Web analytics for Akron's continuing-education and workforce-development unit. He sees an "evangelical approach—tell one person and they tell one person and that person tells another person" as the best way to for New Faculty Majority to grow.

Over the summer, Ms. Maisto and Mr. Williams say, they sometimes spent six to eight hours a day on New Faculty Majority business. It's a workload that they will probably continue to struggle with now that they are back in the classroom.

The Lure of Full-Time Work

Meanwhile, the financial strain that comes with being an adjunct has forced Ms. Maisto to grapple with whether she can afford the possible cost of her dedication to New Faculty Majority—her family's economic survival and privacy. She recently applied for a full-time professional staff job on the Akron campus that pays more and comes with health benefits. Ms. Maisto didn't get the job. But as the group's leader, she is worried about what her job choices may signal. "I hate that some adjunct activists might question my commitment to teaching because I applied for that job at the university so I can make a decent living and also work with students."

But the same way that adjuncts' financial fortunes can take a turn for the worse—a dropped class, a salary cut—Ms. Maisto found out this week how quickly things can begin to look up—even if only temporarily. Cuyahoga Community College, where Ms. Maisto had just begun teaching a Saturday English composition class last month on top of three courses at Akron, asked to her to fill in for a full-time, non-tenure-track professor who couldn't finish the fall semester. Ms. Maisto quit her job at Akron, where the semester was about two weeks old, and immediately picked up that professor's three classes—and the higher pay and benefits she had sought that went along with it.

"I wrote a really long letter to all of my students at Akron explaining the situation and how the system works in such a way that adjuncts have choices that they have to make," says Ms. Maisto, whose husband, a former high-school teacher, is now on the job market. "It all happened very quickly. I was worried about how Akron would act when I told them, but my department head was very understanding. She knows what it's like and what we're dealing with."

Akron quickly found adjuncts to take over Ms. Maisto's classes, and she talked to them about the material she had covered so far. Where she'll be teaching in the spring is uncertain.

"I don't know what will happen next," Ms. Maisto says.

In the meantime, Ms. Maisto and others are busy recruiting members.

Reaching Out Online

Mr. Williams sees the group's online presence as crucial in its recruitment efforts. The Web, Mr. Williams says, allows the group to send information to people who might support New Faculty Majority but are afraid to align themselves with the group publicly.

"People feel safe online, and that's important for us," says Mr. Williams, who says his love of teaching led him to quit a lucrative information-technology job to work at the university. Still, to supplement his income, Mr. Williams is a marketing and Web-communications consultant and also hits the highway to do cross-country deliveries for a company that makes teardrop trailers. "If we can gain a critical mass of people on a particular campus that are willing to receive information about what we're doing and what they can do to help, that's a good start. Still, that doesn't mean a lot if we don't see some results."

The group's Web site, which Mr. Williams created, provides a way for people to donate money for the group and offers educational material about adjunct issues, among other things. Membership is free until the end of the year, and eventually local chapters of the organization, as well as regional conferences, might develop.

Mr. Williams also believes that it is key for New Faculty Majority to go beyond the data and put a human face on the problems adjuncts deal with. But just last year, Ms. Maisto learned firsthand how challenging it can be to spread her message in that way. In November the local paper in Akron ran an article that scrutinized the compensation package of the University of Akron's president. The article compared his salary to that of the average faculty member—a figure Ms. Maisto says applied to full-time tenure-track professors, not to people like her.

She wrote a letter to the editor to correct the misinformation and highlight the working conditions of adjuncts who are not employed full time at the institution. But despite the letter's generally positive tone, "we had the hardest time getting people to sign their name," Ms. Maisto says. In the end, the letter was printed with Ms. Maisto's name and an editor's note that said, "Also signed by 20 others."

Such events however, have merely served as a source of motivation for those working to fine-tune New Faculty Majority. There are the Sunday-evening conference calls, held at least once a month, with board members—Ms. Maisto sometimes calls in from her car. There are Web-site tweaks to make. An affordable dues structure to iron out. And, of course, discussions about how to get the money needed to operate.

The group will soon be a tax-exempt nonprofit, it has bylaws, and is now incorporated in Ohio. It also has applied for a separate nonprofit status that allows the group to engage in lobbying. Other small successes include mentions on various blogs, and Ms. Maisto says she and other members of the group have been invited to speak at a few academic conferences.

"I'm constantly communicating with people and reading everything that's out there," Ms. Maisto says. "I think change is going to happen," she says. "We're at the point now where it has to happen."