Higher Education Takes a Hit

Higher Education Takes a Hit

As university budgets dwindle, adjunct professors around the country are looking to unionize in a desperate effort to protect their jobs.


When Jeremy Nienow started a Ph.D. program in anthropology at the University of Minnesota in 2003, he thought being a professor would offer him more time with his family than his travel-heavy job as an archaeologist. But academia turned out to be not as Nienow had imagined. Now graduated, Nienow teaches six courses as a part-time instructor at three different institutions. He spends much of his time on weekends grading papers instead of with his daughter. He jumps from one campus to another, has no office and does not receive either health or retirement benefits.

“I take work wherever I can get it, in any form I can get it,” he said.

Nienow is among 391,000 part-time or “adjunct” faculty at community colleges and public universities, positions that have increasingly replaced full-time, tenure-track jobs. Despite being the source of most of the teaching at colleges, these short-term appointments pay only about a fourth as much, per course, as tenure-track positions, seldom come with benefits and offer little job security or possibility of advancement. Like Nienow, many adjuncts and part-timers are obliged to travel between campuses to scrape together a living, unable to pursue the types of research questions that first attracted them to academia.

“I have absolutely no time for research,” Nienow said.

The percentage of “contingent faculty”–a term that includes part-timers and full-time, non-tenure-track lecturers–on university payrolls has risen from around 43 percent thirty years ago to 70 percent in 2005. The rate of these hires at many colleges has only accelerated amid the economic downturn. To cash-strapped educational institutions increasingly run like corporations, adjuncts and part-timers are cheap labor–stopgaps in university budgets.

“We’re the flex faculty,” said Niame Adele, a sociologist and part-time instructor at the University of New Mexico.

Call them flexible or fungible, it is precisely this vulnerability that makes part-timers and adjuncts an expedient solution to budget shortfalls.

“The big picture is that all institutions are employing more and more ‘casual’ employees,” said Marc Bousquet, author of How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. “The crisis legitimates the option of bringing on more nontenured faculty.”

Hard numbers are not yet available, but experts say the recent trend cuts across public universities and community colleges. Two-year institutions across the country–long at the forefront of the “perma-temp” trend in higher education–are replacing full-time faculty with part-timers or adjuncts to meet budget goals. The University of Connecticut, facing a 10 percent cut in state funding and a 22 percent drop in its endowment, is looking at hiring adjunct faculty to shore up course offerings and keep student-faculty ratios low. In Tennessee, Charles Manning, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, proposed what he called an expansive “new business model” for state colleges: in addition to hiring more adjunct professors and putting full-time staff in “advisory roles,” he suggested that students get tuition breaks for taking courses online and that advanced students take on some of the teaching load.

“Higher education has become a corrupt institution facing financial crisis,” said Cary Nelson, president of the National Council of the American Association of University Professors. Nelson explains that amid steep cuts, schools have the choice of hiring adjuncts, eliminating faculty positions altogether or–a less likely outcome–“look[ing] in the mirror” at larger structural problems with how they are run.

Over the past twenty years, colleges have become “multi-tiered workplaces” in which a select cadre of older, tenured academics enjoy job security and benefits while undercompensated adjuncts, teaching assistants and– increasingly–undergraduates do the majority of instructional work.

But this change has not come about because of the increased cost of educating students: over the past 15 years, tuition at public institutions has risen 2 to 3 percent above inflation, per year; yet the amount of money spent on educational services has remained stagnant. This is due in part to a decline in state support, but also to a shift in priorities. The money, Bousquet says–and the savings reaped by hiring adjunct faculty–has gone toward ballooning administrative costs, positions and salaries; venture partnerships with corporations; and the construction of costly, extravagant facilities that critics say have more show value than instructional utility.

“There is a race to market campuses to yuppies with expensive building projects, to increase the leisure value of [a] campus,” Nelson said.

Buoyed by endowment growth and income from tuition hikes, before the recession, private universities across the country undertook massive expansion plans, adding state-of-the-art stadiums, chemical labs and community spaces. Now that these sources of income are strained, administrators say they must trim back elsewhere to proceed with scheduled construction. Many colleges, however, are stopping short of reducing salaries for top-paid administrators, which have risen 35.6 percent in the last five years. Ohio, which announced it would cut overall spending on public higher education by $25 million, is sparing any cuts in salaries of its 154 top administrators, among them the highest-paid university president in the nation, Ohio State’s Gordon Gee, who makes $775,008 per year (before bonus). The median salary for public university presidents in Ohio is $355,000. On top of rising administrator salaries, the number of administrators at many colleges has risen as well, according to the Associated Press.

Faced with unfair employment practices and deprived of any representation on administrative boards, part-time and adjunct faculty at institutions across the country have begun to unionize. Adjuncts at Mongomery College in Maryland, who teach 42 percent of the instructional hours, unionized this past year under the aegis of the SEIU. The NYU adjunct union, under the umbrella of the United Auto Workers, won health coverage–and some of the highest salaries for adjuncts–after unionizing in 2002. Similar unionization efforts have been successful at Pace University, Suffolk University, George Washington University, Rhode Island College, and many others. Despite these organizing successes, some adjuncts say that under the sponsorship of some national organizations, like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which also represent full-time faculty, they often get short shrift.

That may soon change, if fourteen adjunct activists from across the country succeed in forming the New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity. The group, whose organizers first connected on a list-serv, is still in the planning stages. But co-chairs of the organizing committee Deborah Louis and Maria Maisto said they have already received membership requests.

Previous efforts to sustain a national advocacy organization–namely, the National Adjunct Faculty Guild, which existed between 1994 and 2002 –have fizzled; but Louis and Maisto said a number of factors led them to believe that this latest effort will have more success.

“Now, with all the Internet potential, it becomes a whole different ballgame,” Louis said.

The economic climate, Maisto added, has also made adjunct faculty “more vulnerable than usual,” making participation more likely.

“In this economy, who are the first on the line?” Maisto said. “It’s the adjuncts, because we don’t have a lot of protections.”

The New Faculty Majority, which is slated to launch by the start of the next academic year, will not be a national union, though organizers said it will support local adjunct unionization efforts. Organizers said that adjunct faculty on some campuses are disinclined to consider unionizing and that national advocacy thus requires flexibility in their approach.

“We’ve got to take really different approaches [in different areas],” Louis said.

In addition to pushing public policy that benefits adjuncts, part of the organization’s goal is simply to shed light on the plight of contingent faculty.

“It’s about an academic class system that exists, that the general public doesn’t know about,” Maisto said.

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