Adjuncts Gain Traction With Congressional Attention

Lisa DeJong for The Chronicle

It’s no longer “so easy to dismiss” the need for improvements in adjuncts’ working conditions, says Maria Maisto, who leads the group New Faculty Majority.
February 03, 2014

Maria C. Maisto went to Capitol Hill last fall to correct what she saw as a misperception about colleges' response to the nation's new health-care law.

By the time she left, she had accomplished something bigger. She had gotten lawmakers talking about higher education's reliance on adjuncts and how their working conditions make it difficult for them to do their best work.

"There's a huge lack of understanding of what it means to be in the adjunct world," Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, said during the hearing at which Ms. Maisto testified.

Not long ago, Ms. Maisto, who has led the adjunct-advocacy group New Faculty Majority since 2009, would have considered it a victory to land a meeting with senior officials at the university where she taught.

Now she had the attention of the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce. After the hearing, Mr. Miller told Ms. Maisto that he wanted to work with her to draw more attention to the plight of adjuncts, who account for about 70 percent of instructors.

His interest in the issue, which resulted in a report in January that highlighted adjuncts’ stories, demonstrates how far Ms. Maisto, her group, and the adjunct-advocacy movement have come.

"I'm very grateful they called me to testify," she says. "It gave me an opportunity to tell the real story of what's happening at colleges and universities—and that's the adjunct crisis."

The new awareness on Capitol Hill is a turning point for the movement as it tries to improve conditions for faculty members who work off the tenure track, says Adrianna Kezar, a professor at the School of Education at the University of Southern California who studies changes in the academic work force.

Both Republicans and Democrats left the recent hearing wanting to know more. That bipartisan interest helps the cause, too, says Ms. Kezar. "Things move fast when both sides see a problem."

Mr. Miller’s attention comes at a time when colleges are using adjuncts more than ever, and contingent faculty members are increasingly willing to unionize. "The sheer numbers of adjunct faculty have gotten so large," Ms. Kezar says, "it can no longer be an invisible problem."

Road to Capitol Hill

Ms. Maisto has sought to keep the challenges facing the professoriate’s largest swath in the limelight.

Over the years, her advocacy group has cultivated allies of all kinds, including faculty unions interested in organizing adjuncts and scholarly associations whose members face a job market flooded with positions off the tenure track.

The New Faculty Majority has also made inroads among higher-education groups, whose conference programs increasingly reflect adjunct-related issues. The annual meeting this year of the Association of American Colleges and Universities included a session about how adjunct instructors’ working conditions affect student success.

And the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, during its annual meeting in January, released a report that said the treatment of adjuncts should be a criterion in accreditation standards.

In a move to emphasize what is at stake if adjuncts aren’t treated better, the group and its allies in recent years have argued for a link between the working conditions of adjuncts and the learning conditions of students.

Now colleges’ response to the federal Affordable Care Act has surfaced as a new battleground for the group—one that played a role in getting Mr. Miller’s attention.

Last April, Ms. Maisto went after institutions that had reduced the number of hours that adjuncts could work, keeping them below the 30-hour-a-week threshold that would make them eligible for employer-provided benefits under the new federal law. She wrote an opinion piece about the issue for a website, TakePart.org, that is focused on social justice. Mr. Miller's staff members were among the people who read it.

"They were looking for witnesses for the hearing," says Ms. Maisto, who this semester teaches one course in composition at Cuyahoga Community College, in Ohio. "And they liked what I had to say."

Mr. Miller says in an interview that he used to think of adjuncts as professionals, like lawyers or real-estate brokers, who taught a class on the side in their area of expertise. But after talking with Ms. Maisto, he realized that he "didn’t know any of the details of who adjuncts really are."

When his staff members interviewed Ms. Maisto to learn more about the points her testimony would make, he says, "she obviously knew her stuff, and she was living the issue."

Drafting her remarks for the Congressional hearing took Ms. Maisto about a week. The biggest challenge "was making sure I got it down to the five minutes that I had," she says. "I wanted to make sure that I didn’t get cut off."

As it turned out, Ms. Maisto had plenty of time to get her point across. Many committee members, both Democrats and Republicans, asked her a follow-up question or two.

"Maria hijacked the hearing," Mr. Miller says, laughing.

In his closing remarks at the hearing, Rep. John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota who chairs the committee, noted that members had been "having a little side conversation here as we started to think about the adjunct issue."

They had all received an "education," he said, about adjunct faculty members, even though the hearing had been billed as a forum to learn how the new health-care law was affecting colleges and schools.

To Ms. Maisto, that was encouraging.

"On both sides of the aisle, there was acknowledgment of the issue," she says. "It was obvious the hearing wasn’t going to solve their differences over the ACA, but they were smart enough to see that this is another issue that does come under their purview that they’re going to have to pay attention to."

‘Just in Time’

After the hearing, Mr. Miller and Ms. Maisto talked about an online forum he planned to set up to collect the stories of adjuncts nationwide. Six days later, the forum was live.

However, Mr. Miller didn’t know that he was seeking comments during one of the busiest times of the academic year, the weeks leading up to the end of a semester. Ms. Maisto took to Twitter, Facebook, and email lists, among other venues, to drive people to the Congressional site. Others joined her.

"I know that this is a busy time of the semester for everyone, but please take ten minutes and write to him," urged Betsy Smith, an adjunct professor of English as a second language at Cape Cod Community College, in a comment on a Chronicle Vitae article about Mr. Miller’s efforts. "When we have a willing ear in Washington, we should take advantage of it."

When the forum closed, after about six weeks, almost 850 adjunct faculty members, from 41 states, had submitted statements with details about how long they had been employed as adjuncts, what kind of pay and benefits they received, and how their ability to do their jobs was hindered by their working conditions.

The House committee’s 36-page report, titled "Just-In-Time Professor" and put together by Democratic staff members, features anecdotes from a range of adjuncts. Some have been adjuncts their entire academic career, while others are new to the field. They are in various disciplines and teach at public and private, two-year and four-year colleges.

Nonetheless, the similarities reflected in the report were striking, Mr. Miller says.

"You look at their credentials, their background and experience—there has to a conscious decision to treat them this way," he says. "Then you start to look at it through a student’s eyes, and then you think, I’m getting a person who’s stressed out, maybe just drove three hours to get to my class, doesn’t have time to see me afterward, and you think, Wait a minute, there’s some false advertising going on here."

Mr. Miller, who has served in Congress since 1975, announced in January that his current term would be his last. He hopes that over the next few months, committee members, colleges, and adjunct faculty members can work together to come up with solutions for the problems that adjuncts face. He and others also hope that the increased attention to the issue will prompt colleges to make some changes on their own.

Ms. Maisto says she’s pleased that it’s no longer "so easy to dismiss" the message.

"We have all this momentum, and it's just continuing to build," she says. "When we first started out, we were just trying to get people to listen."