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In Unions There Is Strength? Adjunct Instructors Hope So

Washington University's Brookings Hall
Washington University

Updated at 9:16 a.m. Friday with agreement between Washington U. and union, cancellation of NLRB hearing:

For many university instructors with a Ph.D. following their name, the letters might stand for Pretty Hefty Disillusionment.

They’re the ones who, after working for years to earn a doctorate in their field, sadly find that the higher education system has no job openings for them to teach students what they know.

So they bounce around from course to course, sometimes from campus to campus, working one part-time gig to another, never quite sure where their next classroom will be or how much money they will make next semester – if any.

In the words of a staff reportfrom the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce earlier this year, titled “The Just-in-Time Professor”:

“The tenure-track college professor with a stable salary, firmly grounded in the middle- or upper-middle class, is becoming rare. Taking her place is the contingent faculty: non-tenure-track teachers, such as part-time adjuncts or graduate instructors, with no job security from one semester to the next, working at a piece rate with few or no benefits across multiple workplaces, and far too often struggling to make ends meet.”

Dustin Iler earned a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Washington University and is teaching five sections of writing this semester there for a salary of $17,000. For him, the situation is more personal.

“We end up working on a contract basis,” he said. “For example, I don't know if I have any employment next semester. I haven't heard. You can be hired by different departments based on the need at that very moment. So there certainly is a much cheaper form of labor than a tenured professor.”

But adjuncts aren’t settling for an incomplete in their efforts to improve their lot, at Washington U. or as part of a growing movement nationwide. Instead, they are working to gain recognition by joining unions that they hope will provide more stable employment at better pay with benefits like health care. There is even a call for a National Adjunct Walkout Day planned for Feb. 25 of next year.

Meanwhile, Washington U. and the Service Employees International Union are working on an agreement about who would be allowed to vote in a representation election following the submission of a petition by adjuncts to the university. Nancy Cross, vice president of SEIU Local 1 in St. Louis, hopes adjuncts will vote the union in, so instructors can get the same security that unions have gained for other groups of workers.

“A lot of us have an expectation that adjuncts and people who teach at universities have middle-class jobs,” Cross said. “When we've done our research and trying to figure out where jobs are going, we came to realize that the adjunct positions are actually not middle-class jobs and that a lot of students now get out of school with debt, and they're doing these positions but they can't get full-time professorship positions.

“So they cobble together a number of positions in community college and university settings to get a full-time job or to bring money into their home. It's not what it was once perceived, which was that eventually you would become a full-time professor. That doesn't happen a lot now. Many people end up being adjuncts for many years because there isn't a pathway to a full-time professorship.”

Washington U. provost Holden Thorp acknowledges the difficulties adjuncts face and said the university wants to help improve their lot. In the end, he said, changes will be positive for campuses as well.

Provost Holden Thorp
Credit Washington University
Holden Thorp

“The adjunct faculty do an incredible and important job for the university,” he said, “adding expertise that we can't get otherwise. So doing everything we can to make this a great place for them is really important for us. 

“The fact that this is coming up is a healthy thing for higher education in the long run. We need to be thoughtful about the Ph.D.’s we produce and how we employ them, and I think all of higher education needs to come together and think about that.”

By the numbers

Exact numbers vary on the extent of part-time faculty used on the nation’s campuses, but the trend is clear.

A reportearlier this year from the American Association of University Professors compared statistics from 1975 and 2011. While the share of full-time tenured professors went from 35.9 percent down to 20.6 percent, it found that part-timers grew from 31.4 percent to 51.4 percent.

The percentage of full-time professors on track to gain tenure fell by more than half, to 8.6 percent from 19.9 percent, while non-tenure track full-timers grew to 19.4 percent from 12.8 percent.

Many of the adjuncts work at the nation’s community colleges. Figures at St. Louis Community College show that from May 2010 to May of this year, the number of adjuncts rose from 775 to 998, while the number of full-time faculty increased at a slower pace, 376 to 422.

Another AAUPreport, on how much part-time faculty members earn, found that the median rate of pay for a three-credit course is $2,700.

“The data we do have,” the report said,  “make it abundantly clear that part-time faculty members are paid unacceptably low wages, and the extent of this inequity — together with the situation of full-time non-tenure-track colleagues described in the next section — forms a very real (even if still hidden from public view) multi-tier academic labor structure. It’s an inequity that cannot be allowed to stand.”

What difference do such inequities make for the students taking the instructors’ classes and paying tuition? A study by a group known as the Delphi Project at the University of Southern California found these effects:

  • Reduced graduation and retention rates
  • Decreased transfer from two-year to four-year institutions
  • Fewer faculty-student interactions
  • Lower grade point averages, fewer attempted credit hours and a negative effect on the selection of subject areas that students chose as their majors.

Iler, at Washington University, said that for students who are taught by adjuncts, the picture can be mixed.
“Typically,” he said, “you're going to get someone who is very dedicated to the courses that they are teaching, primarily because based on student evaluations, that will be one of the factors in whether you get more work from semester to semester. So the adjuncts I know are incredibly dedicated in the classroom.

“But there are problems that come along with that. For adjuncts such as myself, this semester I'm teaching five different courses. That results in my attention being divided amongst a lot of students. I wish that I could dedicate more time to individual classes, but the economic nature of the situation means that a lot of our attention is spread thin.”

Dustin Iler
Credit Washington University
Dustin Iler

The situation takes a personal toll on the instructor as well, Iler said.

"You have faculty members who are literally wondering how they are going to pay rent come say, January, or wondering what they are going to be doing over the summer. It adds in a whole host of various issues and problems that don't allow for adjuncts to dedicate as much attention as they would like on their students.”

I'll take you, you – not you

That kind of uncertainty was dramatized in a video posted online that portrayed adjuncts as day laborers, standing by the side of the road holding signs proclaiming their academic specialty – environmental science, polisci, maybe sociology.

University officials would pull up to the curb and beckon some of them to come teach a course, leaving others to wait for another opportunity.

Other stories on the plight of adjuncts include a homeless teacher in New York City who was forced to sleep in her car in a university parking garage.

Such scenarios obviously overstate the circumstances for most adjuncts. But the tentative nature of their professional life is very real, says Scott Granneman, who teaches part-time at Washington University and Webster University.

“I’ve been canceled at the last minute,” he said. “I understand that’s going to happen, but the problem is of course if you’re canceled and you’re tenure track, you’re still going to get paid, But if your class is canceled and you’re an adjunct, you get nothing. Even a little bit of recompense would help a lot of people that really desperately are counting on that money coming in.”

Iler said there generally isn’t tension between full-time faculty members and adjuncts, no caste system as such.

“At least on my end,” he said, “from what I know of my colleagues, there's no real ill will toward tenure-track or tenured faculty members. Especially with the kind of volatile nature of the job market, at this point, everybody is very talented at what they do. It's just kind of the unfortunate circumstances of the economy that we have so many adjuncts and so few people getting tenure-track professorships.”

Thorp, the Washington U. provost, says universities have to take a share of the blame for creating the problem and a share of the responsibility for fixing it. He notes that in many cases, adjuncts teach in areas, such as the arts or the business school, where their professional expertise is not available in the full-time faculty.

Still, he said, for university policy makers, “it’s not always apparent to us that we are both producing this workforce and employing to a large extent this workforce….

“I do think that the positive side of this whole thing is that it’s going to to require administrators and faculty – and really the permanent faculty really needs to be engaged in this – to think about what all this means in terms of whether we’re training the right number of Ph.D. students.”

Will it reach the point that universities will assume the role of advising students when their choice of a major may not be the most advantageous when it comes to seeking a job once they have their degree?

“I don't think it will come to that,” Thorp said. “The place where the responsibility for this rests is in the department. Again, not just here but everywhere, to say we're going to have this number of Ph.D. students this year, without thinking hard enough about whether all those students are going to get placed. 

“So if that's done properly, the students won't get the wrong message about whether they should enroll in a particular program or not.”

Thorp said the university is prepared to work with the SEIU to help adjuncts gain greater job stability and increased pay. Both parties worked out an agreement that led to withdrawal of a case before the National Labor Relations Board and cancellation of a hearing that had been scheduled for Friday morning. No details of the agreement were released.

Thorp pointed to a recent contract signed by adjuncts at Tufts University, where part-time faculty will get a 22 percent raise over three years. They also will receive first notice and a guaranteed interview for full-time openings.

Cross, the union vice president, said that kind of progress is what the SEIU is working toward all over the country. She said that the union has been able to make such gains for other campus workers, like custodians and those in food service, and there’s no reason adjuncts shouldn’t have them as well.

She wants to make sure that teachers can concentrate more on what they can impart to their students and less on traveling from campus to campus.

'If you're at Flo Valley and then your other class is at Meramec, that's a big drive to be making to make sure you make the class on time.' -- Nancy Cross, vice president of Service Employees International Union in St. Louis

“I think there is a negative impact if you have to spend a lot of time,” Cross said. “I think it's true more in the community colleges. If you're at WashU and Forest Park community college or Flo Valley, it's not that big of a drive between those locations. 

“But if you're at Flo Valley and then your other class is at Meramec, that's kind of a big drive to be making to make sure you make the class on time.”

As far as the overall benefits from a union, Granneman put it this way:

“By enabling the instructors to speak together with one voice, and deal with the administration in a way collectively, we can ensure that all the instructors are better taken care of. We have a better idea of what's expected of those people, the administration understands their role, we understand our role, and therefore the education for these students at Washington University can get even better for everybody.”

So as the movement spreads, will adjuncts be able to make a big splash in February by walking out of their classes on campuses nationwide?

There may not be enough time to organize such a mass movement, but one commenter on the walkout’s Facebook page who appears to be quite familiar with the ad hoc nature of an adjunct’s professional life says it shouldn’t be a problem:

“Four and a half months to pull off a National Adjunct Walkout Day? Hey, we're adjuncts -- we're used to throwing together an entire semester in 17 hours!”

(Editor’s note: Dale Singer has taught journalism courses as an adjunct instructor in the University College at Washington U.)

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.