Call to Arms for Adjuncts ... From an Administrator

At national meeting of higher ed HR leaders, one gives jeremiad about the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty and urges colleges to act now to protect "abused" class of workers.
October 14, 2008

It's not unheard of, at faculty gatherings, to hear colleges' treatment of adjuncts compared to the way Wal-Mart treats its workers. On Monday, such a comparison was made at a most unlikely place: the annual meeting of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

"Wal-Mart is a more honest employer of part-time employees than are most colleges and universities," said A.G. Monaco, senior human resources official at the University of Akron, and yet academics are "the ones screaming about how bad Wal-Mart is." Academics "have to stop lying" about the way non-tenure-track professors are treated, he said.

CUPA meetings are not normally places where colleges' employment practices are called immoral, foolish and doomed to failure, but Monaco did all of that and more -- to nods of agreement from a room packed with HR officials from around the United States who came to hear his presentation, almost all of whom raised their hands when asked by this reporter whether they found Monaco's presentation on target. And he noted several times that in his work as an administrator and as a consultant who has helped many colleges negotiate contracts with faculty unions, he has contributed to the injustice, and may well do so again.

"If you pay me," he quipped, "I'll come over and brutalize these people for you." Comments like that seemed his way of acknowledging complicity in the system, not literally advocating more of the same.

He argued that for a range of reasons, it's not just adjuncts who should be demanding change, but colleges themselves that must insist on it. Monaco said that it is no longer morally possible for colleges to defend the status quo. But appealing to the more practical instincts of some in the audience, he also said that if colleges don't improve their treatment of non-tenure-track faculty, they will be ripe for unionization. And he said colleges and adjuncts both gain if the latter can have their working lives improved without unions. (Several in the audience said later that this argument would be an effective one back on campus, although the incoming general secretary of the American Association of University Professors said Monaco was attempting to blame unions for situations that are not their responsibility.)

Monaco's main theme was that colleges have created a situation that is doomed to create management problems and unfavorable scrutiny. He said that he hears from many of his colleagues in HR that "that's on the academic side and they never let us do anything anyway," but he argued that it has become "an obligation" for thoughtful managers to get involved.

Why doesn't the adjunct system work managerially? "We've created a two-tier instructional staff" without telling the students or the public, he said. "You know that if you have two people do the same jobs and one is paid three times the other, one is going to get ticked off," he said.

But the ones who are suffering from "gross disparities in salaries and benefits," he said, are the ones who are doing an increasing share of the teaching. Monaco acknowledged that at research universities, there is a genuine need for faculty members to have extended non-teaching time to perform their responsibilities to advance scholarship. But he said that, up to master's institutions, adjuncts and tenure-track faculty members have become largely indistinguishable in quality or classroom duties, but one group has much better pay and benefits. At most institutions outside the research elites, he said, the professors teaching less to do research "aren't curing cancer."

He said that this is creating a disaster for higher education. Colleges justify the higher pay and tenure for some by saying that these professors are the very best. But if these are the best, Monaco said, why are colleges letting others do most of the teaching of undergraduates? Further, he said, it is more difficult to defend tenure or a permanent faculty when those with job security "teach Milton to 5 people," while those off the tenure track who teach freshman comp must have packed classes of 28, and teach from a syllabus they played no role in creating.

Higher education has created "a highly educated working poor," he said. He described a woman he had just interviewed for a study of adjuncts. She is teaching eight courses a semester at colleges in southern Illinois, for an average of $2,000 per course. If she continues at this pace, without benefits, she can support herself, he said, but what does this say about higher education?

Beyond the questions the system raises about fairness and quality of teaching, he said there is also legal exposure. Monaco noted that colleges -- champions of diversity -- have created not only a two-tier system, but one in which adjuncts (who are likely to be female) are likely to work longer hours for smaller paychecks than another group, tenured faculty members, who are likely to be male.

So what is to be done?

Monaco outlined a series of steps he thinks colleges should take:

  • Be honest about job prospects with those who are hired. Monaco said that the track record of colleges hiring their part timers for full-time positions, and non-tenure-track for tenure track positions, is so poor that colleges should explicitly tell candidates they are unlikely to change their job status. Many new adjuncts, he said, believe that "if they work real hard and take these crummy jobs, we’re going to hire them for full-time jobs." Since it's not true, it's time to say so.
  • Be honest about job prospects with graduate students. Monaco said he has been stunned to see brochures for master's programs in the humanities that suggest jobs are available -- at community colleges and as instructors at four-year institutions -- that do not indicate that these are not tenure track and may never have health insurance or job security. He said that institutions should think harder about admitting more students to programs that can't lead to the kinds of jobs students want.
  • Prevent tenured faculty members from abusing adjuncts. Monaco cited as an example the practice of many colleges with nine-month contracts. During the nine months of the regular academic year, tenured faculty members don't want to teach freshman, composition, or basic courses, and require adjuncts to take all of those sections. But during summer, when it means extra income, these faculty members will "bump" adjuncts. Why shouldn't colleges stop that? Monaco asked.
  • Create grievance procedures for adjuncts, or -- if procedures exist but are unknown -- publicize them.
  • Create a system of multiple-year contracts for all full-timers off the tenure track who have completed some probationary period. Monaco said that colleges claim that they need flexibility, but that most colleges "don't notice" major enrollment shifts for a few years anyway. Monaco said that the lack of job security -- according to surveys he has done -- is as much an issue as is pay for many adjuncts, and colleges can deal with this concern through extended contracts.
  • Offer benefits to adjuncts, especially those who are full-timers.
  • Give some seniority protection to part-time adjuncts so that "the person teaching for 20 years can get the 10 a.m. section instead of the 8 a.m. section." Further, he said part-timers need protection from the widespread policy of departments letting department secretaries effectively hire and assign slots.
  • Attack "the tyranny of tenure" by forcing tenured faculty members at non-research universities to teach more. Although Monaco admitted that this may "never happen," he encouraged colleges to take steps that would reduce the gaps in work life between tenured professors and adjuncts. Further, he said that colleges should try to align teaching assignments to enrollment demands, which would mean more support for non-tenure track faculty as opposed to tenured professors.
  • Question the "bullying" by accreditors and the AAUP that judges colleges by their percentages of adjunct professors, rather than how those adjuncts are treated.
  • Be decent to adjuncts. Monaco said it was time for all adjuncts to have desks and to "invite them to the president's Christmas party."
  • Establish clear procedures -- and make them public -- for how the college will respond to downturns in enrollment, so that adjuncts have basic information to know whether it is likely they will need to hunt for a new job.
  • Create procedures to encourage departments to give fair consideration to adjuncts up for tenure-track jobs. Monaco described a situation where a department was gladly hiring the same part timer, semester after semester, to teach five sections. When a tenure track position opened up (at this teaching-oriented institution), the department rebuffed the adjunct's application. "He was good enough to teach five sections, but not four sections," (a full time load for those on the tenure track) he said.
  • Question the system. Monaco said he has vowed to start speaking out on these issues, and urged others to do the same.

Monaco, who as a university administrator and consultant has faced off against many faculty unions, said that they are largely selling out adjuncts while "claiming to represent them." In negotiations, he said, "the first thing they want is a limit on adjunct hours," not improved conditions for those working off the tenure track. Unions, he said, "are conflicted" because they are controlled by tenure track faculty members and don't want to address issues related to the ways tenured professors "dump work" on adjuncts.

He said that faculty unions -- and especially the AAUP -- can't be helping adjuncts when "they are trying to do away with their jobs." Further, he said that the AAUP's "unyielding defense of tenure" has created the situation where colleges feel they must rely on adjuncts to cover the courses students want. (The AAUP is the faculty union at the University of Akron, where Monaco works, but Ohio law limits collective bargaining to full-time faculty members, so part timers are not part of the union. Monaco noted, though, that this was not something that the AAUP or the university controlled.)

Monaco concluded by predicting that higher education -- especially public higher education -- would face "major disruptions" within five or six years if it doesn't come up with some way to change the way adjuncts are treated, and to minimize some of the inequities. He stressed that many of his solutions -- such as creating more full-time, non-tenure track positions and increasing their pay and benefits -- wouldn't eliminate the gaps between those on and off the tenure track. But they pull the system back from what he suggested is an approaching brink.

Not surprisingly, AAUP leaders -- who were not present but were contacted for a reaction -- agreed with Monaco that adjuncts deserve better, but questioned his critique of the full-time faculty and professors' unions.

Gary Rhoades, a long-time scholar of faculty unions and labor conditions and the incoming general secretary of the AAUP, questioned why an HR leader responsible for labor negotiations would be picking now to take on the cause of adjuncts. "It's a very common practice of management that is concerned about unionization to try to prevent unionization by providing some advantages to the category of employee about to unionize," he said.

If Monaco or other college administrators are concerned about adjuncts, as they should be, Rhoades said that nothing was preventing them from adopting many parts of Monaco's agenda that would improve job security and other rights for those off the tenure track. "I think that the HR folks have long had within their capacity these kinds of rights," he said. "It's a bit absurd to be bashing unions."

At the same time, Rhoades said he was "pleased" that Monaco "has come around to a position more in keeping with that of the AAUP that the treatment of adjuncts by institutions of higher learning in this country is disgraceful and should be improved. And I look forward to helping his prophecy of more adjuncts joining unions come true."

Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP and a long-time critic of the way higher education treats those off the tenure track, said that Monaco was incorrect to say that the tenure system hurts adjuncts. "Adjuncts would be worse off if tenure didn't exist or if there were still fewer tenured faculty because the minimal benefits and job security adjuncts get are dependent on a comparison with tenured faculty job security," he said. (A longer version of Nelson's views on the subject appears in an essay in the new issue of the AAUP's magazine, Academe.)

At the same time, Nelson said that it may be necessary for the AAUP and others to examine practices to make sure that they do not exclude adjuncts. He said he will be arguing in next month's Academe that the AAUP's dues structure "has made it impossible for us to organize stand-alone adjunct or graduate employee unions" and urging a change in that system. While "HR advocacy could be a real help as a moral force," Nelson said, "collective bargaining in which adjuncts have at least a semi-independent voice is the only real hope for them."

Steve Street, an adjunct activist who teaches at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, also wasn't at the session Monday, but was intrigued by it. He said he has never heard a senior administrator speak out on behalf of adjuncts in that way, although "for 20 years I've heard administrators and tenured faculty wringing their hands about the plight of part-time faculty while they went ahead with actions -- votes for continued funding of new full-time lines over adjunct raises -- that have reinforced the status quo and indeed widened the gap between the two tiers of faculty."

So Street said he was "glad to hear of such strong language for our cause by someone who might be in a position to change conditions for contingents." At the same time, he said he could understand "why those with a vested interest in tenure might be alarmed: if they think that a reinforcement of the contingent tier of academic labor would weaken the tenure tier." Street said that there might be cause for skepticism. The "sudden espousal of the cause of contingent-faculty rights after 30 years of exploitation might just be a new face on the same old divide-and-conquer strategy that's worked so well for them for those three decades." But he also said it could be real progress if Monaco's comments and the positive reaction they received at CUPA reflected the idea of "an administration that can truly implement faculty equity across the two tiers."


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