The Pink Collar Workforce of Academia

The Pink Collar Workforce of Academia

Low-paid adjunct faculty, who are mostly female, have started unionizing for better pay—and winning.


(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Victoria Baldassano, an English instructor at Montgomery College and the mother of a child with disabilities, thought turning to teaching from her previous career as a journalist would offer more stable pay and a better career path. But in the nearly eight years she’s been working at the community college, she hasn’t seen much improvement in the long hours, the inadequate office space and the poor salary—she told me she made $26,000 last year teaching a couple of classes and picking up extra work doing disability tutoring.

“I don’t make much more than I would working at Starbucks,” she said on a break from grading papers. “This is the hardest part-time job I’ve ever had.” Recently the president of the SEIU Local 500 at Montgomery College, she and her fellow part-time faculty workers are beginning to organize for better pay and working conditions.

Baldassano and her colleagues are part of a burgeoning effort to demand more from colleges and universities. A recent analysis conducted by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that the pay for adjunct faculty lagged far behind that of their tenured peers, averaging just $21,600 while tenure-track positions averaged $66,000 a year.

“We were really shocked. We didn’t realize how much more they made,” Baldassano said when she saw the pay difference at Montgomery College. So in 2007, she and a few other part-time faculty members gathered to talk about organizing. At first, the administration told them forming a union was illegal, but Baldassano and her colleagues persevered. In 2008 Montgomery College voted to join SEIU Local 500. Though Baldassano notes that “our office space hasn’t improved much,” the college’s new president, DeRionne P. Pollard, who took over in 2010, has been “much friendlier” to part-time faculty. Now, Baldassano said, “We have a vote and a voice.”

The union has also organized others in the Washington, DC, area: George Washington University, American University and, just this spring, Georgetown University voted by a three-to-one margin to join the union, too.

The presence of adjuncts—or, as they prefer to be called, “contingent faculty,” whose employment is based on contract—is nothing new. In the early 1980s, about 20 percent of courses were taught by non–tenure track faculty. As colleges and universities looked for ways to reduce salary costs as the number of students attending college ballooned, the number of courses taught by adjunct faculty increased. By 1998, about 43 percent of courses were taught by these non-tenured faculty.

Recent analysis from the American Association of University Professors found that that while only 30.2 percent of faculty positions were part-time in 1975, by 2005, part-time positions made up fully 48 percent of the academic workforce. Today, some labor groups estimate adjunct faculty hold up to 75 percent of higher education positions.

Baldassano is emblematic of the population of adjunct faculty at colleges and universities around the country in one key aspect: She’s a woman. Though she couldn’t name an exact percentage at Montgomery, she noted, “There are a disproportionate number of women.”

Though the very nature of contingent work means the composition of this workforce is constantly changing, there have been various efforts to take a kind of census of adjunct faculty. It’s one of the reasons contingent faculty has been a difficult group to organize until now. “Honestly, one of the biggest barriers is the nature of teaching as an adjunct. Each adjunct usually has to put together a living by teaching at multiple institutions,” said Christopher Honey, communications director at SEIU Local 500. He noted that “there have been a lot of women leaders” at unions in the area, particularly female faculty members under 40.

Official statistics from the 2009 National Center for Education Statistics analysis say women make up 51 percent of all adjunct faculty, but a smaller survey conducted by the adjunct group Coalition on the Academic Workforce, which asked faculty directly about their employment status, put the proportion of female adjunct faculty at 61 percent. By way of comparison, the American Association of University Professors estimates that full-time tenured faculty are 59 percent male.

Women have a long-running history as adjuncts. Before women were allowed to be full professors, colleges often allowed them to teach at the adjunct level and wives of professors often picked up extra work as adjunct instructors. As Eileen E. Schell, the author of the 1998 sociological work Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction, said that the reputation for adjunct teaching as a women’s profession was so strong that adjuncts were dubbed “the housewives of higher education.”

Schell started out as an adjunct faculty member after graduating with a master’s degree from the University of Washington. Back in 1988, she says, she was sitting in her apartment, trying to figure out what to do when she got a call from North Seattle Community College asking if she could start in two days. “You’re just kind of on call,” she said. She said she worked two jobs in addition to her faculty work, tutoring on the side and even having to wait on tables where her student ate when waitressing part time.

“There’s a myth of meritocracy about higher education,” she said. “There’s this idea that it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to succeed no matter what. You’ll land a very good tenure-track job.” For her colleagues at North Seattle not on tenure track, she quickly realized that wasn’t the case. She saw that many were stuck in these positions, often driving up and down the I-5 corridor, teaching classes at a number of community colleges just to make ends meet.

But as she left North Seattle to began her work on a PhD, Schell said she never forgot that experience, and turned to this often-invisible workforce to focus her research. She realized was there were many reasons women got stuck off the tenure track, but one of the chief reasons she believed was that women were often given messages, whether subtle or overt, that they would be more satisfied with a lower-achieving teaching track that might offer more flexible hours to accommodate a family.

“It was expected that male part-time instructors would move on to something better and the women wouldn’t or they would be satisfied with less,” Schell said. She says this fits into the idea of women earning “psychic income” to make up for the lack monetary earnings.

Maria Maisto, the president of the New Faculty Majority, which advocates and litigates on behalf of adjunct faculty, says this “feminization of the profession” is a problem. “It’s not surprising that this profession that the conditions are the way that they are given that it’s been so closely aligned with women’s work,” she said.

Now, she points out, women are beginning to demand more. But even as adjunct faculty seek higher pay and better working conditions, setbacks are just as frequent. Colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to keep costs down. For instance, as colleges begin to implement the Affordable Care Act, many have elected to roll back adjunct hours so they won’t be required to supply health insurance to as many employees.

Another is that colleges are beginning to roll out online-only courses that they view as more cost-effective than traditional courses. While this began as a high-end experiment, with Harvard, MIT and Stanford startups offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), in May the University System of Georgia announced it would be one of ten public university systems to explore how to better integrate online courses to make a degree more affordable.

It’s not hard to see that the ranks of adjunct faculty will be key to implementing these efforts to move to online courses. While some grading in online courses can be done automatically—say, for computer or math courses where the correct answers can be quickly computed—other courses, like the already heavily adjunct-taught English or composition courses, will still have to rely on part-time instructors and graders.

Maisto hopes that as colleges increasingly turn to online-only courses, they also look to adjunct faculty as a serious voice in implementing them. “We’re at the front line, but we’re not making the decisions,” she said.

Editor’s Note: Since being interviewed, Baldassano decided not to run for a second term as president of Montgomery College Part-Time Faculty Union (SEIU Local 500). Dan Moskowitz has just started his term as her successor.

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