New Impacts Seen for Faculty Unions

Colleges where professors have collective bargaining rely more on the tenure track and less on adjuncts, but spend less on academic support, study finds.
March 28, 2008

Faculties that are unionized have significantly higher percentages of courses taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members, as opposed to adjuncts, according to research presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. At the same time, colleges that are unionized tend to spend less per student on academic support services, the analysis found.

Officials of the national faculty unions said they did not know of similar research findings. Much of the previous research on faculty unions has focused on the most direct bread and butter issues: wages and benefits. But the authors of the new research -- two doctoral students at Vanderbilt University -- said that it was important to explore as well questions of how faculty unions affect college issues that relate to the student experience.

Based on the premises that students benefit from having more tenure-track and tenured faculty members, and from more spending on academic support categories (everything from advising centers to study abroad centers), the researchers said they wanted to see if there are patterns that could relate to unionization.

The scholars -- Marc Stein and David Stuit -- are “agnostic” on faculty unions (in Stein’s words), study at a university without them, and have no ties either to academic unions or those who oppose them.

Their study arrives at a time that the national unions have all started campaigns to try to both improve adjunct pay and benefits and also to reverse the decline in the percentage of tenure-track jobs. The issue is a sensitive one, however. While many adjuncts who aspire to tenure-track jobs applaud the push, others suspect that any gains won’t help them, and resist policies based on the assumption that students benefit from not having adjunct instructors. The research cited by Stein and Stuit to back their assumption doesn’t fault the quality of teaching or commitment of adjuncts, but does point to many reasons that students benefit from a full-time faculty in that these professors are more likely to have offices on campus, time that they can be in those offices, and to provide the continuity that comes with knowing one can work with the same professor from semester to semester.

To make their comparisons, Stein and Stuit used data from the National Center for Education Statistics from 1989 to 1999, focusing on 500 public four-year colleges and universities. They then used a series of controls -- enrollments, enrollment levels in science and technology courses, Carnegie classifications and location -- all to insure that groups of institutions were being compared to like institutions.

Their findings: “Faculty unions are associated with fewer contingent faculty. Generally a student that enrolls in a non-unionized institution will be 10 percent more likely to have a contingent faculty instructor than one who selects a unionized school.” Added up over the course of an undergraduate degree, a student at a non-unionized college is likely to have a semester’s more courses taught by contingent faculty members.

On academic support services, taking similar steps to compare like institutions, the study found that campuses with faculty unions spend about 10 percent less than do non-unionized institutions. In both cases, the scholars speculate that the trends could be the result of faculty bargaining efforts. Many unions have made a priority of preserving or expanding tenure-track slots. While faculty unions are not known to advocate cuts in academic support programs (indeed many faculty unions represent the professionals who work in academic support), the authors suggest that faculty wage and benefit demands may limit what colleges can spend elsewhere.

In an interview, Stein said that the study did not analyze whether there were different results at institutions depending on whether faculty unions covered both tenure-track and adjunct positions. (At some unionized campuses, a single unit represents both; at others there are different units; and at still others, only one category of professors is unionized.)

Union leaders said that while they hadn’t done similar studies, the results rang true -- at least with regard to adjunct positions. Union officials said it was important to note that advocating for more full-time, tenure-track positions was not inconsistent with pushing for better pay and benefits for adjuncts. Many have said, in fact, that because part of the motivation to shift tenure-track slots to adjunct slots is to save money, when colleges are pushed to pay adjuncts more money, part of that motivation is lessened.

Craig P. Smith of the American Federation of Teachers -- which has both tenure-track and adjunct members -- said he hadn’t yet seen the Vanderbilt study. “But we have consistently asserted that creating better faculty jobs both through pro-rata compensation for contingent faculty and more full-time tenure-track faculty lines will result in a better environment for teaching and learning at our colleges and universities. We believe that unions who have the power of collective action through negotiations and political action have proven to be the leaders in working toward these goals, despite resistance from some college administrators.” And he said that such changes benefit students. “As the old saying goes, 'faculty members' working conditions are students' learning conditions,'” he said.

Valerie Wilk, higher education coordinator for the National Education Association, said that the findings reflected the way many faculty union have negotiated caps or ratios for the use of non-tenured or tenure-track positions.

Keith Hoeller, chair of the Adjunct Faculty Committee of the Washington State Conference of the American Association of University Professors and a member of the national AAUP's Committee on Contingent Faculty and the Profession, also hadn't seen the report but was intrigued by it. He said the report could provide evidence for his view that "the national faculty unions favor more full timers as the solution to adjuncts' problems."

Whatever the correlation between unionization and the use of contingent faculty members, Hoeller said it was important to question the authors' assumption that students are hurt by having adjunct professors. "If adjuncts were treated equally, the differences [in the student experience] would disappear," he said. So in looking at the study, he cautioned against using it to justify policies that may favor full timers over part timers.

On the study's other finding -- that unionized campuses spend less on academic support services -- Wilk questioned the link. She noted that faculty unions represent many people in those departments. Further, she said that all kinds of college expenditures might be responsible for a smaller slice of the budget piece going to academic support. She noted, for example, that if a college spends more on administrators or heating or non-instructional technical staff, such spending could have an impact.


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