Commentary

It's Time to Review Your Adjunct Employment Policies

James Yang for The Chronicle

February 16, 2015

The National Adjunct Walkout Day planned for February 25 is an effort by adjunct and part-time faculty members to raise awareness of working conditions and lower pay compared with those of their full-time faculty counterparts. It follows some high-profile adjunct organizing wins by the Service Employees International Union at a host of colleges, including, most recently, Washington University in St. Louis.

It also comes on the heels of a surprising and important ruling by the National Labor Relations Board related to Pacific Lutheran University. That decision opens the door to union organizing not only among adjuncts but also for full-time faculty members who have historically been viewed as members of management. Colleges are perhaps more vulnerable now to organizing drives and pressure to improve the working conditions of their faculty members than they have ever been.

Dealing with that challenge will require considerable strategic creative thinking by college presidents. They must attend to the well-chronicled concerns of faculty members at a time when their campuses are seeing diminished public funding, significant expenses, market and governmental pressures to keep costs down, and a crushing regulatory environment that has caused the administrative ranks to continue to swell.

Also swelling is the number of adjuncts. They now make up 50 to 75 percent of those teaching in higher education. Why colleges rely so much on adjuncts has been discussed thoughtfully and at length elsewhere; chief among the reasons are that they are not as expensive as tenure-track professors, their scheduling can more easily align with the needs of the college, and firing them is not fraught with the same peril as firing full-time faculty members.

It should hardly come as a surprise that all of the factors that make adjuncts attractive to administrators make them equally attractive to union organizers. For example, at Washington University in St. Louis, where adjuncts voted 138 to 111 in favor of organizing, the core issues were low wages, lack of benefits, and lack of job security.

Last fall, Tufts University came to an agreement with its adjuncts that is already being hailed as a template for other organizing drives. The contract includes pay increases of up to 40 percent in some departments; by September 2016, all part-time faculty members will make at least $7,300 per course (and those with eight or more years of service will make at least $8,760). In addition, nonclassroom work, like mentoring and advising, will be compensated, and adjuncts with three-year contracts will be compensated for canceled courses.

Regarding job security, all adjuncts at Tufts will have at least one-year contracts and will be eligible for longer appointments based on their length of service. The adjuncts will also be entitled to first notice of and fair consideration for full-time positions, including a guaranteed interview.

In sum, Tufts adjuncts do not look like adjuncts anymore. The Tufts deal, coupled with aggressive organizing efforts, has the potential to fundamentally and quickly change the marketplace for adjuncts.

Other colleges are left with several strategic considerations:

1. Should they be proactive? For college presidents who want to quell unrest within their adjunct ranks, now is probably a good time to assess how their adjuncts are treated in comparison with their counterparts at peer institutions or at Tufts. If pay scales or benefits are out of line, this is a good time to make adjustments. At a minimum, within senior administration, there ought to be a continuing, informed conversation about this issue. Presidents and provosts ought to know how much adjuncts are making and whether they are entitled to benefits. They also ought to have a rough idea of what their peers are doing in these areas.

2. Should they stay the course? Another option is to continue with current employment and compensation practices for adjuncts. Whether this is a strategic call or a decision born of necessity, the downside is clear: In this climate, the likelihood of a walkout and/or active organizing is higher now than it has been in decades. Leaders who adopt this approach need to think about how they will handle something like a one-day walkout (Hint: You cannot discipline adjuncts engaged in protected concerted activity), what position the university is prepared to take in the face of an organizing drive, what collective-bargaining negotiations would probably look like, and how those negotiations would be staffed.

3. What alternatives do they have? As the economics of an adjunct-heavy faculty change, administrators need to reconsider their business models and assess whether there are ways to leverage technology (which, like adjuncts, can deliver course content effectively and efficiently) or other practices to get more bang for their increasingly limited bucks. Of course, those decisions must be made in the context of the relative strategic advantages of each college. In addition, one way to limit the use of adjuncts is to increase course loads for full-time faculty members, an approach that requires thoughtful analysis.

In sum, the part-time-faculty labor market is in the midst of substantial change, and college presidents should be having thoughtful, strategic conversations with their leadership teams about how they will position their institutions for those changes.

Scott Schneider is head of the higher-education practice group at Fisher & Phillips, a national labor-and-employment-law firm that represents employers.