Opinion

DANTE RAMOS

Adjunct professors unionize, revealing deeper malaise in higher ed

The University of Massachusetts Amherst
Jonathan Wiggs/Staff/File 2014
The University of Massachusetts Amherst

When people outside academia think about life inside it, we often imagine tweedy tenured professors who are blithely innocent of all earthly concerns. Yet more than 40 percent of the teachers at US colleges and universities are adjuncts — part-time faculty members who are paid by the course. Like TaskRabbits and Uber drivers, these instructors are in the vanguard of an unpredictable freelance economy.

Adjuncts on more and more campuses are responding in an old-fashioned way: by turning to a labor movement that, despite its flaws, is their best option for handling specific types of grievances.

Amid a national freak-out over the cost of college, marginally employed professors aren’t obvious objects of sympathy. Yet the surge in union activism among adjuncts reveals cracks in the American higher-ed model that universities would just as soon paper over.

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Recently, adjunct faculty members at Duke University voted to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union, following a trend that’s gained particular force in Greater Boston, the nation’s higher education capital. Adjuncts at Tufts, Lesley, Northeastern, Boston University, and other schools have voted to unionize. Some contracts are in force; others are in various stages of negotiation. Longtime Lesley adjunct Celia Morris, the president of the SEIU’s higher education unit for the Boston area, expects to have 3,500 members soon.

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Many of the same complaints arise on campuses around the country. The per course rate — $2,700, without benefits, is a frequently cited national average — doesn’t work out to much when divided over the hours necessary to plan and deliver lessons, correct student work, and sit for office hours. Even at a Boston-area school such as BU, where rates of $6,000 to $6,500 a course aren’t unusual, an adjunct teaching several courses a year still earns far less than tenure-track professors do.

Meanwhile, courses that take time to prepare may be canceled at the last minute, with no compensation provided, if not enough students enroll. Other frequent beefs: Adjuncts get little support for professional development and, because they lack offices, have nowhere to meet discreetly with students.

“If you had privacy, you could [provide help] in your office in a professional manner. When you’re doing it when you’re walking down Comm. Ave., it’s a little dispiriting,” says Jay Atkinson, a BU adjunct writing instructor and SEIU supporter.

In an interview, Atkinson, who’s also a working author, sounds like he genuinely takes pleasure in teaching. Not so the countless purveyors of a genre that you might call adjunct misery porn — tales in which college teachers lament their meager pay, their isolating working conditions, and the abandonment of their dreams.

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In one sense, it’s ironic that universities that view themselves as high-minded communities of scholars, and grant some professors tenure accordingly, would make extensive use of contingent faculty. In another sense, it’s entirely predictable: When a university employs some faculty members who enjoy vast autonomy and are all but impossible to fire, it’ll inevitably seek maximum flexibility in its dealings with other instructors. Fortunately for schools, there’s a vast supply of adjuncts, because universities produce far more PhDs — for reasons of institutional prestige — than they will ever employ in tenure-track positions.

Yet it’s crazy that so much of the economic risk in higher ed falls on the adjuncts, who are doing more and more of the actual teaching that goes on at universities.

The SEIU has set a pay target of $15,000 per course, which even the union admits is a stretch; by one estimate, that would cost schools $20 billion a year — far more than they could ever save by trimming administrative bloat, that bê te noire of faculty activists. Larry Ladd, who advises universities on business issues, says most of the growth in costs stems from an intense competition for students — a competition that schools have no choice but to participate in. Still, if members succeed in pushing up their pay somewhat, the system would adapt, he predicts.

Universities might respond, for instance, by hiring fewer adjuncts. A shift toward a smaller, better paid corps of teachers may be a good outcome — especially if it encourages some frustrated scholars to seek new opportunities outside academia sooner rather than later.

As unionization efforts multiply, university administrators are apprehensive, and understandably so. While unionization drives began with adjuncts, organizers have extended the campaign to groups, such as nontenured but salaried full-time instructors at BU, whose concerns are less sharply defined. Bargaining systems that address legitimate problems today may ossify into cumbersome bureaucracies over time.

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There’s a lesson here for universities: They’ve backed into a business model that relies on a steady supply of underemployed instructors. And if the angst of adjuncts alone doesn’t persuade schools of the need for change, maybe the growing presence of union organizers will.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.