Adjuncts Argue Low Pay Represents Changing Priorities At Universities

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

“Why are aren’t you out in the streets? Why aren’t you following the same tactics that were used in the labor movement almost a hundred years ago?”

This question was posed to a panel of adjunct professors at an education summit hosted by the Atlantic last week. Adjuncts are generally low-paid and tend not to have the same benefits and protections tenured faculty have. There is also a lot of instability in their work, making it difficult to plan their finances.

However, although adjuncts may be quieter in their organizing work, they’re no less powerful or present. Many of them are already organizing for better pay and benefits, according to Wanda Evans-Brewer, an adjunct professor at Concordia University Chicago and contingent labor activist who was on the Atlantic’s panel.

In fact, adjunct professors have become what some may consider an unlikely partner in major labor movement campaigns.

Evans-Brewer herself has been involved in the Fight for $15 campaign and has written on SEIU’s website about the need to improve working conditions for adjunct faculty members. Other adjuncts have participated in grassroots protests pushing for more affordable college tuition and debt forgiveness. And a group called the New Faculty Majority, which advocates for more stability and pay parity for adjuncts, has played a major role in increased adjunct activism, John Curtis, director of research for the American Sociological Association, pointed out at the summit.

Adjuncts’ fight for a better working environment fits in well with broader fights against universities becoming more “corporate,” as well as resistance to ongoing racial discrimination as well as sexual orientation and gender discrimination.

These professors’ low pay is a result of a changing mindset about cost savings and financial priorities in universities, adjuncts argue, not a necessary decision to save costs. And many of them are people of color and women, who often can’t make it to the high echelons of academia due to structural barriers and racial bias issues. Women make up anywhere between 51 percent to 61 percent of adjunct faculty, depending on which data you’re looking at, while 59 percent of tenured faculty are men. People of color, meanwhile, are very underrepresented in several areas of academia.

McDonald’s workers and supporters rally outside a McDonald’s, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Chicago.
McDonald’s workers and supporters rally outside a McDonald’s, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Chicago.

What adjuncts are fighting for

The world of academia isn’t known for providing professors with luxurious lifestyles, but the pay and career stability of an adjunct professor, who works part time, is far worse.

A survey released earlier this year found the majority of adjuncts earn less than $20,000 from their university teaching work. In comparison, many college presidents at public universities are making anywhere six figures per year and presidents of private colleges often earn as high as seven figures.

It’s hard to fully understand from teaching income alone how much yearly income adjuncts bring in. Adjuncts are difficult to track because they’re a transient group of workers — in other words, they tend to teach at one university one semester and another university the next. Adjunct professors say that the transient nature of the job makes financial stability even harder to achieve.

One in six adjuncts have only two weeks to prepare for a course, and 40 percent have between one month and three months notice, according to a 2014 survey released by the University of California at Los Angeles. But some faculty say they also contend with scenarios where courses are cancelled at the last minute. Not only is the time preparing for the course wasted, but they find it more difficult to financially plan ahead.

“Within 48 hours of a course starting, you can get notice that a course is closed so any plans you have for living are taken away,” Evans-Brewer said at the summit. “That’s why I’m in poverty, because there’s no continuity to any of it.”

“What it does is create academics on welfare.”

She points out that given the amount of money professors spend getting the education to build and transfer knowledge, they’re given very little in return. Evans-Brewer said she is concerned she’s giving away her intellectual property for peanuts.

“What it does is create academics on welfare and you could have a double master’s and you actually qualify for Section 8, there is something wrong with that,” Evans-Brewer said. “You fought fairly, you stayed in school, you stayed out of the criminal justice system, you did not become a baby-making machine if you’re a woman, whatever it is that society says makes you qualify as a contributing person in society. And as a professor, you’re scrambling.”

Evans-Brewer added that adjunct faculty tend not to be asked by the university if they want to seek tenure or aren’t alerted to full-time positions at the university.

Marisa Allison, a research fellow with the New Faculty Majority, said that for many women in the “sandwich generation” — which means they are taking care of both their children and their elderly parents — allowing the opportunity for part-time adjunct work is necessary. The group is more interested in seeking pay parity and parity in benefits.

Why it matters for students

Lack of pay parity and parity in benefits and things like office hours isn’t just a problem for the adjuncts themselves, however. When adjuncts are ill-prepared because they have little notice they are teaching a course, or when their mind is scattered because they’re going through financial struggles, they aren’t giving 100 percent to their students, Evans-Brewer argued.

“It affects them because you’re split. You’re never quite there. Many adjuncts are traveling between universities so you’re traveling to different universities trying to make ends meet, you’re stressed about child care, so you can’t completely instruct,” Evans-Brewer said. “There’s just stuff you do when you prepare and you want your class to be successful. You don’t necessarily have the time for it and because you’re contingent and they’re not giving you the office, the office hours, that kind of luxury, because they don’t have to.”

“You’re never quite there.”

Plus, the fact that adjuncts are often traveling and don’t have office hours make them less accessible to students. That lack of accessibility could hurt students’ academic performance as well as a connection to an important mentor in their career, some educators argue. Because of lack of job security, some professors say that there is more incentive to lower academic standards and inflate grades, taking away the rigorous education students are supposedly attending a university to receive. Adjunct faculty say they also have less of a sense of the department’s vision because they are isolated from tenured faculty. The research on how a large adjunct faculty affects student success is mixed.

Students also aren’t exposed to a diversity of views when the adjunct population, which includes many professors of color, are shut out from some of the perks universities offer tenured faculty. Adjunct professors aren’t able to take opportunities that produce knowledge as often either, such as research, instead of repeating information to students, Allison pointed out.

“As universities move to create more diversity in the student population, we’re not seeing that necessarily reflected in the faculty,” Allison said. “When we see that women and minorities are found in the lowest tiers of the faculty, often times the work that they do for instance is distributing knowledge instead of producing knowledge, which was historically seen as the job faculty were supposed to do. So what we have is an entire generation of people who are in these lower tiers who are not producing knowledge for the next generation and that does create a problem in the diversity of knowledge.”

The growth of adjunct activism

In the past few years, adjuncts have become more involved in campus activism and organizing for better working conditions, despite the potential risks that come along with being vocal in the fight for parity in pay and benefits.

Service Employees International Union has played a major role in that fight. Going into 2014, SEIU changed its metro organizing strategy to include adjuncts in nine cities across the country. The American Federation of Teachers has also reached out to adjuncts in cities across the country in the past couple years through locals throughout the country under the name United Academics. In 2014, the AFT led a city-wide organizing campaign for adjuncts in Philadelphia as one of its first major forays into adjunct organizing.

The SEIU’s Faculty Forward Network, a nonprofit, is responsible for getting adjunct professors involved in the Fight for $15 and other labor movement efforts through talking about the “corporatization” of universities. Although adjuncts may have once seen themselves as apart from the service industry and other blue collar workers, framing the university as a corporation sends the message that these fights are much more similar than people think.

As students rail against the priorities of universities — favoring amenities such as new pools, sports arenas, and buildings named after donors over quality of student services and instruction as well as lower tuition — adjuncts and students become natural allies.

Both adjunct professors and students have reason to be angry that someone who sat in a corporate boardroom a couple months ago will become their new university president. The ouster of Mount St. Mary’s President Simon Newman, who previously worked in private equity, happened after both students and faculty became dissatisfied with how he pursued his goal to make the university more profitable. More often, adjunct faculty are working with graduate students, who are often asked to do university research for very little compensation, which they say doesn’t cover living expenses.

Recent victories for adjuncts

Adjuncts’ organizing efforts are finally beginning to pay off. Change is still happening slowly for many adjuncts, however.

SEIU has unionized adjuncts at Tufts University, Montgomery College, Georgetown University, Northeastern University, Lesley University, and American University. Northeastern University secured a tentative agreement for their first union contract earlier this year. The contract allows for raises, compensation of 15 percent of full-course pay when classes are canceled with very little notice, and faculty who work more than 30 hours a week on campus will receive a 50 percent subsidy for health insurance.

Hamline University also negotiated its first contract, securing similar wins as Northeastern, and adjuncts at Rutgers University won pay increases and hope to negotiate for health care benefits and defined career paths, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Graduate students at prestigious schools across the country are also forming unions, and although universities have pushed back at these efforts, students aren’t backing down. Although the future of collective bargaining for adjuncts and graduate students is uncertain, it’s clear that even academics are ready to “go out in the street” when they have the organizing muscle of national unions behind them.