Most Americans experience the higher-education crisis in the financial pinch of their children’s tuition bill or the burden of post-college debt. But to understand how the crisis feeds into the economic crisis facing the next generation, ask an adjunct professor why she’s struggling as hard to teach as her undergraduates struggle to graduate—and why both sides of America’s academic marketplace seem priced out of both decent jobs and an enriching learning experience.
Even at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University, considered an Oxonian academic gem in a state that ranks among the highest in economic inequality, non-tenure-track professors are fighting to form a union—the first of its kind in the right-to-work state.
Vanderbilt’s contingent faculty filed an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board in February, seeking to unionize adjunct, part-time, and full-time non-tenure track faculty, in a proposed unit covering roughly 350 faculty members in various schools, including the Divinity and Graduate Schools. But the vote, which had been scheduled for April, was set back after the administration abruptly announced that it planned to challenge the vast majority of ballots during the vote count. The move led to the withdrawal of the original election agreement, and now, pending a further NLRB review with a different unit arrangement, the workers are awaiting a rescheduled vote.
Sociology lecturer Amy Cooter believes the administration is simply obstructing what should be a neutral voting process by effectively threatening months of litigation. It’s another bureaucratic obstacle that reflects the institutional inertia that keeps many contingent faculty at the bottom of the ivory tower.
While she hopes that collective bargaining could expand access to long-term and tenure-track positions, many of the organizing committee’s concerns involve job quality: ensuring that adjuncts are fairly paid for courses, that there is consistency and equity in benefits plans across different employment tiers, and providing transparency in workplace decision-making.
To bring their working conditions more in line with those of tenured faculty, Cooter says, the value of a union is “more about quality-of-life measures, making sure people are paid a reasonable salary…making sure people have clear rules about how they’re hired or even fired, because right now most of those rules aren’t spelled out anywhere, and they’re highly subjective depending on what department you’re in.” Cotter herself is relatively fortunate; she has steady pay and a three-year contract. But like many of her young academic colleagues, since earning her doctorate a few years ago she’s been stuck on a non-tenure track indefinitely, in a glutted academic labor market that offers ever-fewer long-term positions. The uncertainties inherent in the increasingly competitive research process also affect workplace dynamics, she adds, because contingent faculty have difficulty securing funding support: Depending on how secure their contracts are, her colleagues at Vanderbilt and many other private liberal arts institutions are often reluctant to push for research funds from their departments “because it’s been made clear to them…that they have other priorities in this department, and they may face certain kinds of backlash if people don’t keep their head down and do their job.”