NEXT WEEK, 950 members of Northeastern University’s adjunct faculty will have the opportunity to vote to form a union, part of a national movement to improve representation of these largely unacknowledged campus mainstays. In the Boston area, adjuncts have already voted to unionize at Tufts University and Lesley College, and a similar effort is underway at Boston University. As with any vote on whether to unionize, it comes down to whether the overall condition of the workers would be enhanced or restrained by a union. This one should be a no-brainer, however: Private universities, with only a few exceptions, have treated adjuncts as a kind of migrant workforce, paying them as little as possible and offering minimal support of any other kind. Forget about job security: Adjuncts sometimes must wait until a week or two before classes begin to learn whether they’ll be teaching or not. Forget about benefits: At many universities, they’re charged to park or use the gym.
In any other context, this would be merely a sad tale of workers lacking the clout to force better conditions. But the role of adjunct faculty is crucial and growing. They teach students who are charged an average of $31,886 for a private university in Massachusetts. If the status of adjuncts were improved — to allow for earlier notice of class assignments, for instance, so the teachers could prepare better lesson plans — the entire academic experience would be enhanced. Students would be better taught. Universities would cultivate a more qualified teaching force, beyond the tenured or tenure-track faculty.
Alas, the last point underscores the complexity of campus politics. Some of the full-time faculty fear that having a better-tended crop of adjuncts might tempt universities to cut back further on tenured positions. That’s a realistic concern, as financial pressures on universities grow. But it benefits no one — not the tenured faculty, and especially not the students — to fight this battle at the expense of the adjuncts. Keeping them dispersed and downtrodden doesn’t enhance the status of the regular faculty, except in comparison. The surest way to advance the cause of all faculty members is to remind the university of its core academic mission, and the role that both teaching and research play in it.
The best response the universities can muster is to point out that the adjunct system is predicated on the teachers having other jobs to sustain them. That ignores the reality of thousands of adjuncts for whom teaching is their full-time work. Improving the status of adjunct faculty is a cause that benefits the entire university community, and all should embrace it.
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