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Breaking down why adjunct faculty at Washington University, and across the nation, are so upset

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Washington University adjunct faculty members Jeff Stockton and Michael O'Bryan and St. Louis Public Radio education reporter Dale Singer.

UPDATE: Washington U, adjuncts reach tentative agreement on four-year contract

Washington University adjunct faculty are warning of a walkout on Thursday in order to exert pressure on negotiations between their union and the school, which is refusing to move on the issue of a pay increase. Over 200 faculty and students alike have RSVP’d to the walk out Facebook event.

Adjunct faculty members at Washington University are not alone in demanding better working conditions across the country. Recently, non-tenured faculty at Duke University voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the union Washington University adjuncts joined. Similar discussions at the University of Minnesota, University of Chicago have likewise made headlines.

Last year, St. Charles Community College and St. Louis Community College also joined the union, while adjunct faculty at Webster University lost their bid to join a union.

What is the experience of adjunct faculty that has them calling for better working conditions? And how has unionization changed that? On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the issues, unionization and the planned walkout.

Joining him:

  • Dale Singer, Education Reporter, St. Louis Public Radio
  • Michael O’Bryan, Adjunct Faculty and member of the bargaining committee, Washington University
  • Jeff Stockton, Adjunct Instructor at Washington University

Washington University declined to send a representative to discuss adjunct faculty negotiations.
Listen to their conversation here:

The main points:

Local and national background

“Washington University, St. Charles Community College and St. Louis Community College adjuncts have voted to unionize,” Singer said. “At Webster, where the administration was strongly against it, the vote was no but the university said it would take some action on what adjuncts were looking to gain through unionization. It is part of the movement higher education has gone through part-time instructors as opposed to full-time tenured professors or tenure-track professors.”

A recently-released report from the American Association of University Professors shows that over the past four decades, the proportion of the academic labor force holding full-time, tenured positions is down 26 percent. Full-time tenure track positions are down 50 percent.

Here are three resources for more context:

Articles about adjunct faculty from the Chronicle of Higher Education

Higher Education at a Crossroads: AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16

As Adjunct Professors Unionize, Debate Sharpens Over Cost to Schools

“We need to find a way to move forward from this slide that has been happening,” said O’Bryan. “From the 1970s to now, the number of full-time faculty and part-time faculty has flipped. Three-quarters of national faculty are part-time. The conditions that we labor under, it is hard to see how the conditions we labor under are not going to start harming educational objectives. That’s important to keep in mind for everyone in society when a robust system of higher education is a bedrock of a free and democratic society.”

The move to temporary, contract workers is larger than academia

"I don't see much difference in the academic business model and the commercial business model."

“I think it is consistent with what other businesses are doing, which is bringing in more temporary workers,” said Stockton. “It goes back further than when the economy tanked years ago. That serves as a microcosm in that it allowed any employer to say to those still employed, we need you to do more work. They pushed that until the economy improved enough until there’s more flexibility and workers can move on. Then they started hiring. The people they first try to hire are temporary workers and workers that cost less for them to bring in. Unfortunately, I don’t see much difference in the academic business model and the commercial business model.”

“The movement toward misclassification of part-time employees is something we see with Uber drivers and Fed-Ex but it is now something that is moving into white collar jobs,” said O’Bryan.

Adjunct faculty are not being used the way the positions were intended

For some, being adjunct faculty means they are teaching one class per semester or a few classes per year. For others, as tenure-track positions at university become harder to find, adjunct teaching becomes full-time equivalent (FTE) work.

"As full-time jobs have disappeared, what's happened is that we see replacements of people working two, three, four, sometimes five, six, seven courses a semester, effectively performing full-time work."

“It used to be the case that there would not be many faculty members that used adjuncting as a means of full-time employment, because that’s not what the jobs were designed for when they originally came in. As full-time jobs have disappeared, what’s happened is that we see replacements of people working two, three, four, sometimes five, six, seven courses a semester, effectively performing full-time work.”

That’s important when you think of advising that adjunct faculty give to students, which are not part of hours that faculty members are credited to work. That kind of advising is uncompensated labor.

O’Bryan said that if he were to teach full-time with his per course rate, he would make $36,000 per year with no benefits. The AAUP says that the average starting rate for an assistant professor is $102,000.

“People cobble together a career or a livelihood by doing this at two or three different places,” said Singer. “You’re not only doing uncompensated labor, you’re spending a lot of time in the car.”

Stockton said that universities know they can get well-credentialed people to come teach adjunct because there are an over-supply of teachers and not enough full-time jobs. He also said that universities know adjunct faculty workers will do more than required in their adjunct positions because many are trying to look qualified to be hired for full-time, tenure track positions.

“I don’t think most students would feel that there has been serious damage to their educational experience from having adjunct instructors but the reason for that is because adjunct professors are going above and beyond what they’re paid for and recognized for—we’re teachers,” O’Bryan said.

Higher education, in general, is facing budgetary issues

The University of Missouri system is facing a budget crunch and that’s not atypical from what schools across the country are dealing with. Singer, however, said that you can’t necessarily look at the university as the same business model as private business.

“Sure, they want to save money, they don’t want to go into the red, eat up their reserves, but it is a question of what they’re trying to provide students—not only if adjuncts are as good but if they’re treating them right,” Singer said.

O’Bryan said that, so far, it did not seem that budgetary concerns were part of the issue for Washington University in negotiation with the faculty.

“They’ve never mentioned a financial argument for why they couldn’t help with the programs we’ve been asking for,” O’Bryan said. “That may be a concern for some institutions, but it is not a problem for Washington University in St. Louis.”

Erik emailed to say:

I’ve read news releases from Washington University in the past few weeks announcing that they’ve raised $2.5 billion faster than they thought they would, and that they’re hiking tuition again. As an adjunct professor at Wash U who makes $27,000 to teach six classes per year, I have to wonder: where is this money going if not to compensate instructors?


Neither guest could answer this question.

“By our best estimates, if I teach a 12-student class at Washington University, I take in eight percent of what students are paying in tuition,” O’Bryan said.

What do you think?

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards,Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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