Beyond the NLRB Ruling in Favor of Adjunct Faculty

Finding our moral compass.

April 1, 2015
Aside from the omnipresent issue of cost, two topics dominated the higher education discourse this past year: the first was sexual violence on campuses and the second was adjunct faculty compensation. With a National Adjunct Walkout Day planned for next month, in December 2014 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) handed adjunct and tenure-track faculty a victory that is likely to make their path to unionization easier and help improve their labor conditions across colleges and universities.

In a case brought forward by faculty from the Pacific Lutheran University, the NLRB ruled that adjuncts cannot be considered managers and thus ineligible for union membership. Furthermore, the Board set a precedent for religious institutions that may seek religious exemptions to keep adjunct faculty from unionizing by ruling that, unless the adjunct faculty play a religious function, they are also eligible for union membership. These are major victories for adjunct faculty. Until the ruling this past December, the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision in NRLB v Yeshiva University had made it difficult for adjuncts at private institutions to unionize as they were considered managerial staff. In its most recent ruling, the NLRB identified certain criteria for assessing whether adjunct faculty are managers. They center around whether the faculty exercise control over:

1. Academic programs
2. Academic policies
3. Enrollment management policies
4. Finances and
5. Personnel policies and decisions

Adjunct Faculty Profile and Challenges

Adjunct faculty comprise over 75% of the teaching force at U.S. colleges and universities totaling over 1 million instructors, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Although significant variation exists in adjunct faculty salary and overall compensation across states and across institutions, data collected by the AAUP demonstrate that the pay of continuing faculty in those positions has not kept pace with inflation. This past year, several news outlets ran stories highlighting the struggles of adjunct faculty members, with some coming forward to admit that they receive food stamps and other forms of public assistance. It’s hard to forget the extreme story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, the 83 year-old adjunct French instructor who died last year feeling undervalued and unappreciated. While these may represent extreme cases, there is increasing acknowledgment that the label of “hyper educated poor” is not entirely a misnomer for many adjunct faculty members.

Emotional stories aside, this is some of what we know about adjunct faculty conditions based on empirical data collected by the AAUP:

  • According to the AAUP’s Coalition on the Academic Workforce study, the median rate of pay per course taught by adjuncts in 2013 was $2,700, with full-time compensation ranging from about $18,000 for community college faculty to slightly above $30,000 for private doctoral university faculty.
  • In the last two years, on average, public sector faculty salaries grew more slowing than those at private-independent or religiously affiliated institutions.
  • Medical coverage and other benefits often differ from tenured faculty, if they are provided at all to adjuncts.
  • Adjunct faculty often have no access to private office space to work with students. Additionally, they often lack other institutional supports like technology, access to travel funds for conference attendance, and support to secure grant funding for their academic pursuits.
  • Adjuncts often have minimal or no “meaningful” participation in shared governance.

Finding our Moral Compass

As college participation rates continue to increase, the number of faculty needed to teach new students will continue to rise. The issue of adjunct faculty compensation is one that is becoming a national embarrassment for higher education which generally holds itself to a higher standard of ethics and equity. The idea that we can charge significant tuition and fees to students and fail to adequately compensate those who make that opportunity possible goes counter to what we stand for as institutions that serve as vehicles for social change, socioeconomic advancement, and social progress.


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