Adjunct Professors Organize, Demand Recognition

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Being an adjunct instructor is hard work. Educators, regardless of where they fit in, work harder than most folks at their professions.Adjuncts instructors in today’s universities and colleges face extra hurdles that most educators would balk at. Built into the system are difficulties unique to the adjunct experience in higher education.
For starters, the pay per course is far less than tenured faculty, job security is a figment of the instructor’s imagination, and health insurance coverage doesn’t generally exist. As a “guest lecturer,” you may not know if you’ll be re-hired until a few weeks before classes start. Because they can’t count on keeping a job at any one institution, adjunct instructors have to keep prepping for courses with all kinds of focuses. People may float from department to department. Tenured and tenure-track instructors generally don’t face this problem. They stick to the subjects they are most familiar with, and so. For instance, if an instructor were to go to the trouble of preparing a syllabus for a survey history course, she could find out she had been “bumped” out of her class by a full-time instructor. In addition, many such lecturers don’t have offices, instead pushing classroom materials, books, graded papers, and maybe dinner on pushcarts. Despite teaching the same course for years, your name doesn’t appear in the course catalog.When applying for tenure-line positions, you discover that hiring committees don’t seriously consider long-time adjuncts for open regular positions. After all, if you had the tenure-track talent, you would have been hired somewhere.
When we were organizing a union for non-tenure track instructors at ISU we encountered one instructor who taught at three schools. After scheduling an office hours visit with a student, he found himself waiting alone. He emailed the student, asking her where she was, only to find out he had gone to the wrong campus. Despite facing these (and other) obstacles, nontenure faculty remain dedicated to their students, their fields of study, and their professional development. Unfortunately, the trend in higher education for the past twenty years has been to replace full-time tenured faculty with multiple adjunct instructors teaching the course load of one tenured instructor. According to the Education Resources Information Center, over the past decade the numbers of adjunct instructors have risen dramatically. According to the Department of Education, between 1995 and 1997 two-thirds of all newly hired professors were adjuncts.
The scene in American higher education is the result of some national factors. One is that there is a very real budget crunch in federal and state government. The other is that college is increasingly viewed as mandatory for anyone looking for gainful employment. So numbers of students have increased, especially as high-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector have drastically decreased due to NAFTA and other agreements. The actual process of hiring adjuncts is a low cost one for the institutions. Eager instructors facing the prospect of adjuncting often distribute their resumes to the schools in their immediate area (and beyond).
Search committees aren’t formed, prospective hires aren’t flown in, high-level meetings between deans and professors are not held. A chair that needs a lecturer to fill a slot can run down a list of names and generally call and hire one on a week’s notice. Contrast that with the average year it can take to hire tenure-track professors. Adjuncts are the higher education equivalent of Manpower Inc., employees. They are disposable, cheap, and their concerns are largely invisible to university decision-makers.
In the background of all these issues, education is increasingly treated like a commodity to be bought and sold.Market forces (as opposed to any inherent value in the material) determine the value of teaching and research. Where historically instructors taught and learned a subject for its own sake, the influence of today’s corporate values is hard to miss. It’s easy to see why university officials with this perspective aren’t embarrassed by their own out of control salaries; after all, they only match what’s common in the private sector.
As part of that corporate view of education, state funds are more commonly being used to fund public corporate partnerships where the university may pay for facilities, equipment, and land and provide a pool of cheap labor—students who are only too eager to add extra credentials for their own post graduation employment plans. The effect is that the state subsidizes labor for private companies through collegiate research parks. Ultimately, many fear that the system that views education as a product will reduce learning to transmission of the latest greatest thing.What will be lost is the concept of the intellectual community that fosters growth and understanding.When faculty works as a community, they become better researchers and teachers.
Within this framework, it’s important to provide the stability for adjuncts that enables them to create that kind of intellectual community. Some might ask, why bother? Adjuncts are generally viewed as lecturers only, a stopgap solution to a shortage of teachers. Such arguments ignore the fact that many adjunct lecturers work on their own research to further their careers and their subjects. Poor treatment and exclusion of adjuncts creates a caste system within universities, separating the tenured and the tenurable from the non-tenurable.
Since 1999, the Illinois Education Association has organized unions representing adjunct and non-tenure track faculty at Illinois State University, the City Colleges of Chicago, Columbia College, Roosevelt University, and the College of DuPage County. The IEA has had a local for adjunct faculty at Oakton Community College since 1986. This year, two bills were passed by the legislature and signed by the governor that would make it easier for education workers to organize and increase the number and types of part-time faculty who may organize their own unions to represent their interests.
Through collective bargaining, instructors at College of DuPage won a standardized workload. Adjuncts at Roosevelt University won timely notification of reemployment, a fair grievance procedure, and class cancellation stipends. Columbia College adjuncts won an average 68% increase in their pay per course. City Colleges of Chicago and ISU instructors are busy bargaining their first contracts now.
Instructors at these colleges typically viewed their victories as victories for their students as well. Many adjuncts we have encountered equate their issues with poor learning conditions for their students. Instructors who have to hurry from campus to campus (they are often jokingly referred to as “road scholars” since they typically work at more than college) may not have much time for office hours or extra student support. Instructors working two and sometimes three jobs risk cutting into preparation and grading time for their students.
After working several years for a graduate degree (or two, or three…) the lack of respect adjuncts face is demoralizing. Faced with all the issues common to the profession, and with little hope of attaining tenuretrack positions, instructors are increasingly turning to unionization as a concrete way of improving their conditions. Beyond bread and butter issues like pay and benefits, unions provide adjuncts with an opportunity to reclaim their self-respect. Unions can force universities and community colleges to the realization that adjuncts are valuable members of the academic community and should be treated accordingly.
For more information on this issue, visit the following websites:

Dan Chambers and Steve Vaughan both live in Urbana. They are organizers for the Illinois  Education Association, have worked on organizing drives at ISU and the City Colleges of Chicago, and are now involved in organizing the academic professionals at the U of I. Dan is a frequent contributor to the Labor Hour on WEFT.

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