In the 1970s, 80 percent of college professors were full-time employees, according to the National Education Association. Today, part-time adjunct professors represent more than 50 percent of college faculty, says the American Association of University Professors.
Adjuncts offer huge savings. They’re typically paid by the course, with no benefits.
But critics say that savings comes at cost to students and faculty. Nationwide, adjuncts are fighting back by unionizing. In March, Duke University adjuncts overwhelmingly approved a union, and other campaigns are in the making.
Some blame the Great Recession of 2007 and the funding cuts that followed for the steady growth of adjunct professors. That’s certainly relevant, says James Carmichael. But he says there’s more to it. Like a glut of PhDs that gives colleges the upper hand.
“The only reason most are adjuncts is because there is not a place for them in the tenure track system,” Carmichael said.
Carmichael is president of the North Carolina Conference of the American Association of University Professors. He is also a tenured professor at UNC Greensboro.
“This year, we noticed in the new hires in the fall that there were more non-tenured, adjuncts, hired than there were tenured track hires and they’re teaching more than full-time faculty are,” Carmichael said.
Adjuncts teach more he says because tenured and tenured track professors must worry about non-teaching duties in representing the university, such as being published in an academic journal.
Adjuncts at UNCG average about $3,000 a course, according to a school official. Carmichael says that’s not nearly enough when you consider course preparation, grading and student advising.
“It’s pretty pathetic. They have no voice in the department, they teach at the whim of what are perceived to be curricular needs and they don’t leave. It’s very much like having a job at McDonald’s,” he said.
At UNC Charlotte, Provost Joan Lorden says their adjuncts also average about $3,000 per course. However, highly-specialized professors can make up to $6,000. Lordon says 541 of the university’s 1450 professors are adjuncts. That’s up from 405, five years ago.
“One reason you want part-time faculty is because they bring specific skills and background and professional experience in many cases to the classroom,” Lorden said.
For example, she says part-time faculty provides them the ability to offer languages like Russian, Chinese and Farsi. Another reason is money. Lorden says a lot is saved when you don’t have to pay benefits – and that savings helps the school offer more programs and build more facilities.
Pay is certainly a big issue for adjunct faculty, but it’s not the only one. Most adjuncts don’t have offices or other appropriate settings to meet with students after class. Lorden says it’s not a problem at UNC Charlotte.
“All of our part timers have places they can work on campus,” Lorden said.
“Yeah, you share a little office with no window with three people and a mouse,” said John Cox, a newly-tenured international studies professor at UNC Charlotte.
Before landing at UNC Charlotte, Cox worked as a bartender and waiter when he was an adjunct at UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Florida and George Mason University. He thinks adjuncts are exploited.
“Most adjuncts obviously enter the profession out of sincere dedication to education and they’re committed to students and they’re being taken advantage of. We have dozens of administrators who make in excess of $200,000 a year while the people doing the teaching are being paid minimum wage,” Cox said.
“Our university found a way to give our chancellor a 20 percent pay raise, so he now makes $390,000 a year with a large house and expense accounts. The university system hired a new president for $775,000 a year and we don’t know how much of tens of thousands she receives in compensation,” Cox added.
Some research backs up those assertions. According to a UC Berkeley labor report, 25 percent of adjuncts are on some kind of public assistance.
To be sure, some adjuncts don’t want to work full time. Some only teach a course or two to keep busy during retirement as extra income. Whatever the case, the adjuncts we spoke to say they want the stability of knowing they will have jobs from one semester to another and not have classes canceled or assigned at the last minute with no time to prepare for them or time to look for other employment—all reasons many adjuncts are turning to unions.
“We’re in 11 markets now with campaigns to organize faculty,” said Malina Cadambi-Daniel, who is helping organize adjunct faculty for the Service Employees International Union. She says the union has won approval and helped negotiate contracts at more than 40 campuses.
“Folks received course cancelation fees, improved job security, professional development money to go to conferences, so these contracts have dramatically improved people’s lives on campuses,” Cadambi-Daniel said.
SEIU’s successes include Tufts, Boston and Lesley universities. Celia Morris, the union’s president at Lesley says SEIU helped them negotiate a 30 percent pay increase; some adjuncts are now eligible for health and retirement benefits and they will be paid when classes are canceled.
“I think this is the beginning of a movement toward social justice in higher ed that’s not just benefiting my university,” Morris said. “I’ve had the opportunity to go down to North Carolina and talk with some of the people starting that effort and others in North Carolina considering what they can do collectively.”
At Duke University, adjunct and non-tenured faculty approved a union there in March by a vote of 174 to 29. Contract negotiations are scheduled to begin this fall. Matteo Gilebbi, a Romance Language lecturer at Duke helped spearhead the union campaign.
“I never felt the university was investing in teachers who aren’t on a tenure track, but want to continue teaching and want the energy they bring to the class recognized,” Gilebbi said.
Gilebbi has a PhD and says he’s paid about $7,000 per course. He says it’s difficult to learn what others are paid or the percentage of faculty that is adjunct because Duke is a private institution.
“We think it’s about 30 percent and I think the only way to change this trend is for contingent faculty to get together and have a collective voice. It’s great that we have this union,” Gilebbi said.
The unionization efforts are not as strong at public universities, even though they typically pay adjuncts less. That’s because many states, including North Carolina, prohibit public universities from engaging in collective bargaining.
Related: The Atlantic-The Adjunct Revolt: How Poor Professors Are Fighting Back