An integral cog in the American higher education system is starting to fight back.
According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), adjunct professors make up 41 percent of university-level teachers in the United States. Many adjuncts in the Boston area and the country as a whole, however, feel that they are not getting the compensation, job security and benefits they deserve.
Part-time faculty members at Northeastern University voted to form a union this May, following the examples of Tufts and Lesley. Their actions are a result of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) campaign that began in 2012 and have since brought a bigger push for unionizing amongst Boston area universities.
Based on information from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau Statistics, the average reported annual income for a majority of part-time faculty is $35,000, with Massachusetts’s adjuncts making an average of $4,000 per course. The average full-time instructional faculty made $76,600 in the 2011-2012 academic year, and the median salary for a postsecondary-education administer in 2012 was $86,490.
Many adjuncts teach what is considered a full course load, two to three classes per semester, which entails about 30 to 40 hours per week of planning, teaching and student meetings. Others have a more difficult time, teaching four or five courses at three different universities, working to coordinate a haphazard schedule and make ends meet.
Last September, the plight of adjunct professors hit the main stage after the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko. The 83 year old longtime adjunct at Duquesne University was fired shortly before her death, after making only $10,000 in her final year of teaching in poverty and without health insurance.
“Adjuncts and other contingent faculty likely make up the most highly educated and experienced workers on food stamps and other public assistance in the country,” says Congressman George Miller in his report on contingent faculty.
Most recently, Carlo Rotella, director of American Studies at Boston College, submitted an op-ed to The Boston Globe on the issue.
“I don’t exactly have a rich history as an academic union firebrand,” writes Rotella, “But I am in favor of the current movement for adjunct, part-time, and other non-tenure-track faculty at colleges and universities to unionize.”
Rotella points out that these individuals are “essential to the enterprise of higher education” but are often regarded as disposable, without job security or benefits. Although a union at Boston College would create more challenges for the director, such as budgetary and staffing constraints, Rotella understands that the unionization of adjunct is in his “broader self-interest.”
“Like a society, [a university] functions better if it’s not designed expressly to use up and crush the many in order to serve the privileged and increasingly isolated few.”
Another Boston College faculty member, Founders Professor of Theology Father James Keenan, is exploring the ethicalness of modern university systems, focusing on adjuncts in one chapter of his new book. Referring to them as “indentured servants,” Keenan says the increasing number of adjuncts is a prime example of the many issues that universities tackle. “Overspending, cost-cutting, supply and demand, and big-business mentality that is co-opting the way [universities] educate” all come into play when it comes to adjuncts.
While many argue that unionizing is costly for both universities and professors, banding together may give adjuncts the leverage they need to gain the benefits they need and the status they feel that they deserve.