Can the Adjunct Issue Get Resolved?

What the walkout is about.

December 2, 2014

In the last few years the attention on adjunct faculty working at colleges and universities has increased significantly. This has been happening in the context of the public asking for greater accountability as the price of a college education has increased exponentially. The increased reliance on adjuncts is a phenomenon most types of institutions have been experiencing—private, public, two-year, four-year, etc. At community colleges, it is not uncommon for 60 to 70% of the teaching faculty to be non-tenure track faculty. While there are many benefits to hiring adjuncts, issues of adjunct compensation and benefits are serious concerns as the Consumer Price Index continues to rise faster than average wages paid to adjuncts. Tales of Ph.D. graduates earning salaries so measly that they cannot pay their student loans have become all too common. On February 25, 2015, adjunct faculty across the country are planning a large-scale National Adjunct Walkout Day to bring attention to their plight.

Adjunct Professors at Community Colleges

The tenure system is eroding at many colleges and universities and the employment model itself is being challenged within the higher education industry for a variety of reasons. At most community colleges, the ratio of adjunct to tenure-track faculty has long been disproportionate with more adjuncts hired than full-time faculty. Adjunct professors bring current industry experiences from their fields to the classroom. Some work during the day and teach evenings, weekends, and online, while others juggle multiple teaching assignments at various institutions. Career changers who first worked in industry or in their technical fields are yet another group. Thus, integrating adjuncts in the life of an institution is often a challenge.Integrating adjuncts in the life of a college requires intentionality.

Giving Voice to Adjunct Concerns

A frequent concern of adjuncts is that they have little voice in the decision-making process at the institutions where they teach. There is significant variation across institutions, institution types, and systems as to whether adjuncts have voting power within the governance structure, if and when their input is solicited, and how much weight it is given. As an adjunct professor in a program where all but one of the teaching staff is non-tenure track, I enjoy the privilege of having all departmental and other meetings scheduled on the weekend. This is often not the case and quite rare. (Ironically, our program is the fastest growing in the university).

Similarly, benefits for adjuncts vary widely across the nation with some institutions providing health and other benefits while others do not. Even for those that do provide benefits, they vary widely in terms of what is offered, the period of employment after which they are offered, their equivalence to benefits for which full-time faculty are eligible, among other differences.

Could Tufts be Setting the Example for Faculty Compensation

This week, Tufts University adjuncts ratified a three-year agreement that will give them significant pay increases, job security, health and retirement benefits, tuition reimbursement, professional development funding, among other employee benefits. Under the agreement, adjunct faculty will also be compensated for advising, mentoring, and teaching directed study courses, according to The Boston Globe. This appears to be the best compensation package reported, since the issues of adjunct of compensation became a hot topic.

It is not surprising, however, that Tufts is a leader in this area. Not just an elite and resource-rich institution, Tufts has stood on the right side of equity and access issues relative to its peers. (For full disclosure, I have two siblings who are Tufts alumni). Will other institutions in its league follow suit, is one of the questions. Time will tell whether after three years, Tufts will continue with this model and how it might evolve over time as general cost of living increases. While this is good news for faculty teaching at elite institutions, I suspect others teaching at community colleges and non resource-rich institutions are not holding their breath that similar packages await them.

What Can be Expected from the National Walkout Day?

It will be instructive to see what the impact of the National Walkout Day will be beyond simply shedding light on the issues. Unlike many countries where public higher education operates under uniform standards, there is no unifying system in the United States. The variations discussed, among others, pose an array of significant challenges to the adjunct movement.


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