Adjunct Professors Need a Better Ground Game

Colleges and universities increasingly rely on contingent faculty and pay them next to nothing. It’s time to create statewide adjunct unions to increase their power.

It’s no secret. In recent years, there has been a growing concern over colleges and universities increasingly relying on adjunct professors to teach a large portion of their classes. ​​According to some reports, roughly 75 percent of instructors teaching college-level classes in the U.S. are not on a tenure track and more than half of all faculty hires are part-time and paid next to nothing. One report found that nearly 25 percent of adjuncts rely on public assistance programs, with 40 percent unable to afford basic household expenses.

There are already a series of proposals to address the crisis. A coalition of unions that represent teachers and professors called on Congress last month to allocate money to higher education institutions for more tenure track lines. Holly Brewer, a professor at the University of Maryland, wrote in these pages that the government should impose a salary hike for adjunct teachers. While it’s true that we need a serious investment in tenure track lines in academia and that all adjuncts should earn more per course, these proposals won’t address all the problems faced by adjuncts. And they are unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.

Adjunct professors shouldn’t wait until Congress finally decides to do something about the problem. Rather, they should fight to improve their working conditions now by creating statewide adjunct unions to strengthen their collective bargaining power.

There are already unions that represent adjunct faculty, such as SEIU; but because national unions create chapters for adjuncts at individual institutions, victories are secured on a patchwork basis. A union chapter may negotiate a pay raise for adjuncts at one college, for instance, but the adjuncts at another one a town over may still need to be on food stamps. That’s why we need a statewide approach to ensure that improvements are more widely felt—and to give adjuncts more power in greater numbers.

As an adjunct myself, I know firsthand how contingent faculty are treated. Adjuncts are, of course, expected to prepare for courses with a similar amount of work as tenured faculty. We develop courses, build syllabi, engage in research, order books, and create online course modules before the semester starts. Typically, however, adjuncts are only paid during the time we are actually in class teaching—so not only is a significant amount of unpaid labor built into our contract, but we also usually have to teach (and commute) for about a month before we receive our first paycheck for the semester. This is a particular hardship for adjuncts, because we often have to commute to multiple schools rather than living near our full-time job. Train tickets, gas, car insurance, and tolls all add up.

This semester, for example, my commute costs me $60 a week on the train. I will have to make that commute four times before my pay begins. Meanwhile, the unpaid labor doesn’t belong to me as intellectual property. One school I’ve worked at has taken a course I developed and taught for it multiple semesters. It is now offering that class in the department, taught by someone else. It’s also common practice to show past syllabi made by adjuncts to the current adjunct teaching the course. Last year, I had an adjunct contact me and demand that I help them prepare to teach the course using my syllabus.

Unfortunately, getting paid a month after significant unpaid labor is a best-case scenario. Despite our signing a contract when we take an offered course, the school has no obligation on their end to fulfill that contract. Sometimes, a course only runs based on enrollment, which often isn’t known until right before a semester starts—or even after. Your course might get canceled after you have put weeks of work into developing the syllabus and preparing for the semester. Even worse, it might get canceled after you’ve turned down teaching other courses. The school is under no obligation to find you another class to ensure that they live up to their side of the contract.

Moreover, there is no job stability in being an adjunct professor. There is no assumption that a school will continue to offer you courses to teach, no matter how many semesters you have worked there. Every semester starts a new crisis of trying to cobble together enough courses to support oneself and stay connected to academia through an institutional affiliation. This affiliation isn’t just necessary to earn income; it is also important to access expensive academic journals needed for research purposes if you wants to contribute to your field and have any hope of one day landing a full-time job. Additionally, the instability from semester to semester, and therefore the sharp change in income, can make accessing government benefits complicated.

I hope Congress can usher in a wave of new tenure lines through allocating more funds to higher education institutions specifically for that purpose. But I’m not holding my breath. Even if we got such an investment, we still need to professionalize adjuncting within academia. More than half of all adjuncts have a master’s degree, and a third have a doctoral degree. Adjuncts are doing the same work as tenured full-time professors. While some individual schools have adjunct unions, their bargaining power is reduced by only being at one campus and leaves people without unions to fend for themselves.

A statewide adjunct union that actually has bargaining power needs to fight for more than just higher pay and benefits (though those would be great). Schools should be pressured to hire adjuncts for the whole school year, not semester to semester. Work on course development should be factored into adjunct pay.

A statewide adjunct union, which would include adjuncts at both private and public schools, could also have professional development resources to help people build their résumés. That should include library and academic journal access as well as reduced conference fees and publishing advice. The union could treat adjunct teaching as a step in early scholar development, as well as protect adjuncts’ intellectual labor.

Such a union could ultimately help students, too, who can lose contact with adjunct professors after the semester ends if their school emails become defunct. With a centralized adjunct union, there could be a directory so students can find professors for advice or recommendations if they leave the institution. Of course, centralized adjunct bargaining power could have supported remote teaching and better COVID-19 protocols going into this semester.

Academia seems to want to rely on low-paid adjuncts without acknowledging that the field is changing. If universities aren’t going to invest in tenure track teaching lines, then we need to make sure that they participate in and support the professionalization of adjuncts. Even if colleges in dire financial straits do get an assist for more tenure lines, it won’t eliminate all adjuncts. Even if we reduce adjunct labor to 20 percent of the teaching load in this country, that 20 percent still deserves the right to earn a living wage and basic benefits.

Our best path to success is to adopt the successful model of creating unions to fight for the dignity and protection of workers. The bigger those unions are, the more powerful they will be. Adjunct college professors are fulfilling an essential role in American society. They are teaching the next generation and preparing them for the workforce. It’s high time they get a ground game.

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Mia Brett

Mia Brett has a doctorate in history and writes about legal history and current events.