Better Contracts for Full-Time Adjuncts

Most union pacts have little detail on the growing contingent of non-tenure-track professors, but that is starting to change.
March 31, 2008

Many people used to use "part timer" as a synonym for "adjunct." Increasingly, the two words can't be assumed to be interchangeable, as one of the fastest growing job categories in higher education is the full-time instructor off the tenure track. With that in mind, faculty unions are talking more about the need to include specific provisions in contracts to help this subset of the professorial work force.

Most contracts say relatively little about the circumstances of employment for full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, largely lumping them with others off the tenure track, said speakers Saturday at a joint conference of the higher education divisions of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

On the issue of benefits, many full-time adjuncts fare relatively well, said Christine Maitland, an organizational specialist with the NEA's Pacific Regional Office. Maitland said that many colleges and universities tie benefits to a simple test of how many hours someone works, so full-time contingent faculty members tend to be eligible for participation in health insurance and other benefits. On salaries, the successes that unions have had generally have tied the percentage increase in full timers' salaries to the percentage increase going to those on the tenure track. While this has assured some raises, Maitland noted that the gap in the base pay means that inequities only grow.

Gary Rhoades, director of the University of Arizona Center for the Study of Higher Education, said that the area where full-time faculty members have specific needs, largely ignored in contracts, is conditions of employment. That would include how hiring, contract renewal, evaluations and terminations are handled. The "arbitrariness" of the way many of these questions are handled is a major motivating factor in non-tenure-track professors' unionizeing efforts, Rhoades said. For full timers, many of whom work long term at their colleges and universities, these sorts of policies create particular vulnerabilities.

While Rhoades characterized the overall contract picture as inadequate in this area, he pointed to a series of contract provisions that he said are the sort that unions should push for and that colleges and universities should adopt. (Rhoades and Maitland completed a study of such contract provisions for inclusion in the NEA's Almanac of Higher Education.)

Among provisions he cited:

  • California State University's new contract with lecturers, which creates a specific path for full timers to gain three-year contracts.
  • Connecticut State University's contract, which states that full-time, non-tenure track instructors will be evaluated by procedures developed by the Faculty Senate and in ways that involve faculty members, not just administrators.
  • Jacksonville (Florida) Community College's provisions that administrators evaluating full-time instructors must consider student evaluations and peer evaluations, not just their own impressions.
  • Northampton (Pennsylvania) Community College's provisions that require academic departments to be consulted in all hiring of full-time faculty members, even off the tenure track.
  • Many provisions that require "just cause" for termination.

Rhoades read from one contract at a college he declined to identify that specified that renewals of full-time appointments off the tenure track were "an option of the university, at its sole discretion." While spelling out that right may seem particularly upsetting, he said that when there is no language at all in the contract (which is common), it can have the same impact.

Ultimately, he said, the contract efforts are about bringing full-time adjuncts "into academic governance" where professors are doing the evaluating and decision-making. Ultimately, academic freedom depends on peer evaluation, Rhoades said, so these changes are about creating an environment where the full-time professoriate can teach with the full protections of academic freedom, not just about advancing their economic status.

Kirsten Herold, chief negotiator of the Lecturers' Employee Organization of the University of Michigan, an AFT affiliate, said that many of her union's full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members have been teaching for a decade or more, much of the time with minimal job security. The union won contract provisions that allow for three-year contracts after four years of work. She said that the key to the union's success has been appealing to university administrators who had come up through departments that treated full-time adjuncts well. Many departments realize that it is to their advantage to do so, she said, noting that the needs for many of these positions are quite stable, allowing institutions to offer longer term contracts.

"The need to teach composition and languages is always there," she said.


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