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THE PODIUM

Parents: The adjunct system is wasting your kids’ tuition

Professor Eric Nierenberg, an adjunct professor, teaches at Brandeis University. Adjuncts around the state are organizing for better working conditions.

Aram Boghosian/The Boston Globe

Professor Eric Nierenberg, an adjunct professor, teaches at Brandeis University. Adjuncts around the state are organizing for better working conditions.

Parents, it’s commencement time in Boston. Proud families fill the streets and hotel rooms from the Back Bay to Waltham and beyond. You can see the mixture of relief, hope, and anxiety on every face as graduation marks the beginning of life’s next chapter.

I’m a parent, too, but I also teach part-time at a major university in Boston. While I’m excited for our graduates and fellow parents, commencement time is full of worry for me and thousands of other faculty members in the Boston area.

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I’m an adjunct. I’m not sure if I’ll be back next semester.

My job — and my passion — is to teach the next generation of leaders. As millions of parents contemplate the next episode in their sons’ and daughters’ lives, there’s something you should know about what’s happening in higher education and what adjuncts are doing to help refocus your tuition dollars on the classroom.

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Nearly 15,000 contingent and adjunct faculty teach in greater Boston. Many work at multiple schools, trying to make enough to support themselves and their families on low pay with no benefits. All have advanced degrees, and many live at or below the poverty level.

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We are now a majority of all college and university faculty, both regionally and nationally. Adjuncts are not temporary employees. Most of us do not work part-time hours. Yet, we are denied full-time pay and benefits, and have no job security. Many only survive by creating a heavy, piecemeal schedule across multiple schools. Adjuncts often have insufficient time to prepare to teach a course because they have little advance notice they are teaching at all. Without an office, we may have difficulty meeting with a student to discuss anything confidential, such as grades, or to provide additional instructional assistance.

You won’t see this in any university’s glossy brochure but it has become a catchphrase for many adjuncts: Our precarious working conditions are students’ learning conditions. I’m asking for your help in raising the standards at America’s colleges and universities.

Every adjunct I know is dedicated to their students’ well-being and strives to ensure their students receive the same quality of education as they would from a full-time faculty member. However, working conditions have deteriorated to the point where they are intolerable. Adjuncts across Boston are uniting to form unions so we can focus on identifying and implementing solutions to these systemic problems.

There is a union election under way at Northeastern University, where I teach. This is the largest adjunct union election in the country, with more than 900 adjuncts. Boston University, which has a similar number of adjuncts, is in the process of organizing to file for their own election. Adjuncts at George Washington, Georgetown, Lesley and Tufts universities, among others, have already voted to unionize, and thousands more nationwide are voting this spring as this grassroots movement gains momentum.

Together, adjuncts are working to bring higher education back to its core mission of providing affordable, accessible and excellent education to our nation’s students. We are not only educators, but also parents deeply concerned about what skyrocketing tuition and a shrinking pool of good jobs will mean for our children’s futures.

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A 2013 study from Kent State University shows that unions, like the one we hope to form, help keep costs in check and improve student performance.

We all have a vested interest and a personal stake in this. As a parent, your voice is critical to the future of higher education. Urge your school administrators to listen to the important issues adjunct faculty are raising. Educate your family and friends about the importance of making adjunct faculty working conditions part of the college decision process. Ask about the issue at college fairs and on campus visits. Insist your tuition dollars be spent in the classroom and demand the administration respect our freedom to choose to form a union.

Together, we can raise standards in higher education, give adjunct faculty some job stability, and make commencement a celebration for more families in Boston.

Read the whole series: The new U.

Susan McNamara is an adjunct professor at Northeastern University.
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