Adjunct Alternative or Union Busting?

A community college's solution for reliance on adjuncts? Posts with job security for a year, a 7-7 course load, and no chance at tenure. Faculty unions split on the idea.
February 28, 2011

Like many other community colleges, Ocean County College, in New Jersey, has a tenure-track faculty and a growing cohort of adjuncts. Under a new program, it is creating what it views as a middle ground, in which some of those off the tenure track aren't hired just course by course. They can be hired into 12-month positions as "lecturers," in which they are assured a full schedule for a year. They are also told explicitly that their jobs can't be converted to the tenure track.

The college’s administration argues that these positions give them more staffing flexibility, and the local adjunct union applauds the move, saying that it offers the union's members the opportunity to receive more pay and benefits like health insurance, which those hired by the course don't receive. The local full-time faculty union, however, counters that the positions amount to “exploitation” and sees the administration’s push to hire more full-time, non-tenured faculty as “union busting.”

Jon Larson, college president, said he does not appreciate that kind of branding, especially in light of current events. “Union busting is what’s going on in Wisconsin,” he said. “It’s laughable to say this is union busting.”

When the college created these positions last year, Larson explained, the goal was efficiency. “What we were trying to accomplish has everything to do with productivity in higher education,” he said. “We have to find ways to be of better service to our students. This introduces the productivity advantage to full-time teaching that we lacked. Our full-time employees have such an abbreviated work year. Colleges have had to fill in around the edges with part-time people.”

This new hiring category, Larson hopes, may wean his institution off adjuncts who are hired course by course, who currently outnumber full-time, tenured faculty nearly four to one.

In Defense of Flexibility

According to a recent job description, a “college lecturer” (the new position) is required to teach seven courses each in both the fall and spring semesters and two courses among the several summer sessions. Individuals hired to these 12-month positions must also hold seven office hours per week in both the fall and spring semesters and three office hours per week during the summer. By comparison, full-time, tenure-track faculty members teach only 10 months a year -- five courses in both the fall and spring semesters. They are only required to have five office hours per week.

Larson noted that new 12-month "college lecturers" receive compensation and benefits, including health care coverage, comparable to most full-time, tenure-track faculty who teach 10 months a year. He noted that starting pay is more than $55,000 a year. To compare, adjuncts currently make $2,100 per three-credit course at the college.

Richard Strada, college vice president for instruction, said the course load and compensation for these 12-month instructors was based on a survey the college did of its full-time, tenured faculty members. He noted that many tenured faculty members at the college teach more than five courses a semester, or choose to teach a few courses during the summer, and receive commensurate overtime pay. The average starting salary for a full-time, tenured faculty member at the college is in the low $40,000s, Strada said, noting overload pay adds an average of $15,000 to that total. This roughly equates to what the new lecturers will be paid. Also, like those of 10-month tenure-track positions, the salaries of 12-month "lecturers" increase the longer they are employed at the college.

Last fall, the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission denied a request from the full-time faculty union to stop the college from hiring in this category. Since then, the college has only hired two individuals as “college lecturers,” though it plans to hire more in the near future.

“It seems the only people unhappy about this are the people who had a cushy deal,” said Larson, referring to the tenure-track faculty members. “We understand they’re antsy and concerned about it, but this is a genuine effort to address a problem higher education has. And it does so in a way we think does no harm.”

Unions Split Over New Positions

Patricia Demko, chemistry professor and president of the Faculty Association of Ocean County College, a New Jersey Education Association-affiliated union that represents the tenure-track professors, strongly disagrees. The union believes that these “college lecturers” should be in its bargaining unit -- which to date the college will not accept. The college argues that the tenure-track unit is defined differently and that the lecturers can organize on their own.

“This 12-month position is union busting because, let’s face it, they will be all the new faculty hires,” Demko warned. “There will be no more 10-month, tenured faculty in a few short years. There will be no more continuity and consistency in the faculty. That’ll get lost when you have a revolving door. It’ll just be all professors going from one year to another.”

Demko also has concerns about quality and whether a “college lecturer” who teaches seven courses in the typical semester will have the time to be an effective instructor and mentor. For example, she noted that, with this “onerous workload,” it might be hard for a professor to keep up with his or her discipline and the best teaching methods. “If one is to actually teach and be effective, it’s a lot of work,” Demko explained. “There’s a lot of prep that goes into putting a class lecture together or a class activity…. As far as the disadvantages are concerned, I think the end result will be that [courses taught by college lecturers] will be so watered down that they won’t even be college courses.”

Adjuncts at Ocean County College, however, take issue with Demko’s characterization, and back the college’s plan to hire more individuals in this new track. Michael Zahler, an adjunct sociology instructor and president of the Ocean County College Adjunct Association, an independent union, said he would try to get as many of his adjunct colleagues hired as full-time college lecturers as possible.

“The adjunct union supports the administration in this,” Zahler explained. “The pay is better; they get medical benefits; and, frankly, they like the idea of it being non-tenure-track. I believe teachers and instructors should have to stay sharp and hungry to do a good job in the classroom and to get their contract renewed. I’ve always been against [tenure].”

The adjunct union, like the full-time union, is currently in contract negotiations with the college. Zahler said he believes his union’s support of the college on these “college lecturers” could pay dividends for other adjuncts.

“We couldn’t stop this 12-month thing, even if we wanted to,” Zahler said. “The point is, now, I have to go in with this. I do believe because we’ve acquiesced to this, it could make things easier for us in contract negotiations.”

Negotiations between the full-time faculty union and the college, however, have not been going smoothly. Currently, the parties are in mediation. One of the points of contention between the two is the college’s insistence on creating a 12-month position like the “college lecturer” on a tenure track. This would be a new slot, in addition to the 10-month norm.

“We think there’s a place for 12-month tenure-track positions,” Strada said. “We’re looking for a mix, not to abolish any part of that mix. We want 10- and 12-month faculty, both tenured and non-tenured. We don’t want to be absolutist about anything. This is not an attempt to get rid of or to undermine tenure. At the same time, though, we need to have some flexibility.”

Demko said the union is not necessarily opposed to the idea of 12-month tenure-track positions but stressed that the college has not put forth a detailed enough proposal for the union to take a stance.

“We have concerns about workload and its impact upon quality of education, and those are terms and conditions of employment that need to be negotiated through the bargaining unit,” Demko said. “What we need to do is discuss the pros and cons and details of that, but they don’t want to talk details.”

A Model for Others?

Ocean County College officials and union representatives, no matter their view of these new 12-month positions, agree that they will eventually become commonplace in higher education, particularly at community colleges.

Some adjunct leaders outside of Ocean County, however, see this as problematic for the future of higher education. William Lipkin, treasurer of the New Faculty Majority, a national association representing adjuncts, and president of the New Jersey branch of the American Federation of Teachers, called the creation and use of these positions “exploitation.” He admitted he had not seen a model similar to the one being promoted at Ocean County College.

“If I were an adjunct there, I would jump at this opportunity,” Lipkin said. “If you had the opportunity to make 10 to 20 percent more, then why not? Still, as an advocate for equal rights in higher education, I would say that this is exploitation and that it has to be stopped. I could see if this catches on, all colleges will jump on this.”


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