Imagine a “professor.” For many, the idea evokes images of a well-compensated, full-time scholar with the academic freedom, job security and prestige associated with tenure. Now think again, but this time envision a Ph.D. who spends hours a day commuting between the two or three colleges at which he’s taken on course assignments, in an attempt to make a living. The pay is low, the job security is non-existent and a full-time position is a kind of pipe dream – let alone the possibility of tenure.
For years, the fact that 70 percent of professors fall to some degree into the latter category, off the tenure track, has remained higher education’s “dirty little secret.” But the secret is getting out, and that might be the defining faculty story for reporters who cover higher education. Adjuncts have long been campaigning for better working conditions – which they argue are also student learning conditions – but their rhetoric really started to take hold in 2013.
Part of the reason adjuncts gained this recent, unprecedented national attention is the Affordable Care Act. In the wake of that law’s enactment, colleges and universities began to introduce caps on the total number of courses adjuncts could teach per semester to limit the number of employees who would qualify as “full-time” under the act. By capping adjuncts’ hours, the logic went, colleges and universities reduced the risk of having to offer them subsidized health insurance.
For adjuncts, the caps were a double-blow. Not only were their hopes of gaining access to affordable health care from their employers dashed, but the caps also meant many would be taking home less income from teaching fewer classes. Adjunct wages vary widely, from about $1,500 a course to up to $6,000, depending on the institution type and other factors. But across the board, they earn relatively less than their tenure-line colleagues and many work at several institutions simultaneously in lieu of a full-time position.
But there was a silver lining to the wave of caps. Because the health care act was major news, national media outlets picked up the story, bringing new attention to adjuncts’ general struggles. Soon, even Congress took note. Ultimately, members of the House Committee on Labor and the Workforce produced a report called “The Just In-Time Professor,” calling for further study of the changing faculty. Although the report reflected what many adjunct activists had been saying for years, adjuncts took the Congressional attention as a major leap forward in their fight for better working conditions. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation – a powerful voice in administrative circles – even weighed in with its own report on adjuncts, which suggested that non-tenure-track faculty issues play a bigger role in campus evaluations going forward.
Another reason adjuncts gained unprecedented attention is Margaret Mary Vojtko. The elderly adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University died last year, sick and destitute, after working for the university for decades. Her story went viral after an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by a United Steelworkers union lawyer said the Catholic university should have done more to help her. Details about Vojtko’s life remain hazy, and some have said the op-ed was more about the Steelworkers’ bid to unionize adjuncts on the campus than about Vojtko, but the story hit a nerve. Many adjuncts said their fears about their own futures were realized in Vojkto. Others outside academe said they had no idea what an “adjunct” was until reading Vojtko’s story. She inspired countless news articles, blog posts and the Twitter hashtag #iammargaretmary.
At the same time, adjuncts advanced internal efforts at organizing. In 2013, the Service Employees International Union went public with its plan to organize adjuncts across the Washington, D.C., metro area, hopefully forcing up wages and bettering working conditions across the city. By spring 2014, SEIU estimated that it represents more than half of the adjuncts in the District, and similar metro efforts are under way in eight other cities nationwide, including Boston, Philadelphia (where the American Federation of Teachers is pursuing a similar strategy), Los Angeles and Seattle, as part of SEIU’s Adjunct Action Campaign.
Also in 2014, the faculty union at the University of Illinois at Chicago, affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and AFT, went on strike over their first contract. Among several sticking points was a so-called “living wage” for the university’s full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members, who are part of a separate but affiliated bargaining unit. Adjuncts activists praised the move, as tenure-line and adjunct faculty interests are often seen as divergent.
Adjunct unions have seen challenges, too. A vote to unionize with SEIU failed at Bentley University, and adjuncts who voted on an SEIU union last year at Pacific Lutheran University have seen their votes impounded, pending the institution’s appeal of a local National Labor Relations Board decision granting the vote.
Another kind of adjunct faculty across the country, graduate student workers – at least those who hoped to form unions – were relying on another groundbreaking NLRB decision to validate their legal standing in 2014. But that decision, regarding graduate student workers at New York University, never came, as the United Autoworkers union, with whom the students are affiliated, reached a surprise agreement with the university. It allowed the graduate student workers to hold a union vote overseen by arbitrators, instead of the NLRB. Graduate students at other campuses had been hoping that an NLRB vote in favor of the New York students would have effectively reversed an earlier board decision banning graduate students from forming unions at private universities. Many of these groups are now considering other strategies.
Of course, some 30 percent of professors remain on the tenure track, and the percentages at certain kinds of institutions are much higher. But even tenured professors face their host of concerns, and many say the profession isn’t nearly glamorous as it’s imagined to be.
First, professors – especially those at public institutions – have seen their pay effectively cut or flatlined since the recession. Last year was the first year since 2008 that professor pay increases kept pace with inflation, according to a recent report from the AAUP, but these gains paled in comparison to expenditures on sports and administration. Senior faculty members in particular face what’s called salary compression, meaning that their pay isn’t all that much better than junior colleagues fresh out of graduate school. That’s because professor pay – again, especially at public institutions that follow pay scales – hasn’t kept up with the outside market. Some institutions have taken steps to address it with lump-sum adjustments, but it remains a problem across higher education.
Professor advocates also say they’ve seen challenges to academic freedom in the last year, particularly in relation social media use. After the Navy Yard shootings in Washington, D.C. in 2013, a University of Kansas associate professor took to Twitter with some inflammatory comments about children and the National Rifle Association. Some state legislators immediately called for his dismissal, and the university placed him on leave from teaching indefinitely. Professor advocates criticized the university for doing so, but the university has not backed down and its Board of Regents is set to vote soon on a policy that would regulate faculty members’ use of social media. In addition to social media, professor advocates say there are unanswered questions about academic freedom in relation to who owns the content developed for online courses – the professor or the university.
The past year also has seen increased threats to shared governance. Specifically, faculty members at a host of institutions have criticized their administrators for not conferring with professors – who, according to the principles of shared governance, retain primary control over the curriculum – before targeting academic programs for closure. Several smaller, private institutions, including Felician College and Carroll University, have been accused of firing tenure-line professors due to festering budget concerns or worries about low future enrollment, rather than dire, immediate financial problems. In at least one victory for faculty members, though, the University of Southern Maine announced it was reversing its decision to lay off a dozen faculty members, following outcry from students and the surrounding community.