15K Per Course?

It's widely acknowledged that adjunct instructors are underpaid, but just how much do they deserve? A new union proposal shocks some, but others say it's appropriate.

February 9, 2015

Most observers agree that adjunct instructors deserve better pay, but what about $15,000 per course? The Service Employees International Union shocked even some adjunct activists last week when it announced that figure as a centerpiece of its new faculty advocacy campaign. But while union leaders admit the number is bold, those involved in the campaign say adjuncts might as well aim big, since they have little to lose. They also say they hope the $15,000 figure will force a national conversation about just how colleges spend their money, if not on middle-class salaries for instructors.

“Clearly this is an aspirational goal, but it’s a realistic goal, as well,” said Tiffany Kraft, an adjunct instructor of English at four different institutions in the Portland, Ore., area, where she earns $2,700 to $3,400 per course -- about average, nationwide. “What I think needs to happen is a re-evaluation of how money is transmitted through universities -- there needs to be transparency there... Yes, that $15,000 number is bold, but it’ll get people to wake up and start doing the math, about how many students are in a class and faculty pay, and [what percentage] of tuition dollars actually gets spent on instruction.”

Kraft is not part of an SEIU union but has been active in the advocacy arm of the union’s Adjunct Action campaign to organize adjuncts on campuses nationally. She helped SEIU announce its new, national Faculty Forward campaign last week on a conference call with adjuncts and labor organizers. Distinct from Adjunct Action, which has focused mostly on organizing adjuncts across metro areas nationwide, with much success, Faculty Forward is what SEIU is calling a more “grassroots” awareness campaign about faculty working conditions and pay. Faculty Forward is also more inclusive than Adjunct Action, in that all faculty members -- part-time and full-time, non-tenure track and tenure line -- are encouraged to participate. That’s perhaps unsurprising, given that SEIU has begun organizing tenure-line faculty on at least one campus, the University of Minnesota.

Faculty Forward has three mains goals so far: demand $15,000 per course, including benefits; target “bad actors” in for-profit higher education, including those with poor student debt records; and make quality higher education affordable and accessible for all students. The effort’s still getting off the ground, but SEIU says it’s planning awareness events on campuses this spring.

SEIU says the $15,000 target won’t be used as bargaining efforts at this point. At the same time, the union says it’s not all that unrealistic, given that many Tufts University adjuncts -- the first group of adjuncts to win a contract as part of Adjunct Action -- got a significant raise under the agreement: by September 2016, all part-time Tufts faculty members will make at least $7,300 per course, and those with eight or more years of service will make at least $8,760. That doesn’t include benefits for all adjuncts, and non-classroom time, such as that spent meeting with students, also will be compensated.

Still, it’s a big leap from $7,300 to $15,000, and Tufts is a relatively wealthy institution that likely can afford to pay its instructors more than, say, a public, regional institution or small, struggling private one, where even tenure-line instructors sometimes start at a salary equivalent to three courses under the SEIU target. According to the American Association of University Professors' most recent salary survey, average pay for assistant professors is about $62,500 to $76,900, depending on institution type. For associate professors, it's $75,220 to $91,200. Under the SEIU target, instructors teaching three courses each in the spring and fall would make $90,000 annually.

Asked if the goal might garner criticism from full-time or tenure-line faculty, Gary Rhoades, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, said no.

“I think there will be some full-time faculty that look at this number, if they’re in a small college, maybe in a rural place, who think, ‘That’s more than I make,’ but this is the kind of tide that can raise all boats,” said Rhoades, who is not formally affiliated with the campaign but spoke during the conference call last week at SEIU’s request, to put the Faculty Forward goals into context. “Adjuncts catch the worst of it, but there are tenure-track faculty who are getting paid pretty rotten wages, too. This could be part of a larger conversation about all faculty.”

Noting a recent, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to introduce a single salary scale for all faculty members at community colleges in Colorado and an increased interest among administrators at different colleges to give non-tenure-track faculty members a bigger role in shared governance, Rhoades said the traditional faculty role is being re-evaluated already. So better pay needs to be defined as a goal, he said. “This really forces a conversation about where we put our money, if not in the core mission of higher education.” 

Even though SEIU says the target won't be part of contract negotiations just yet, Rhoades said the Faculty Forward campaign will go farther if it is at least part of Adjunct Action's organizing efforts "on the ground." Asked if the $15,000 figure could be off-putting to administrations who might otherwise be willing to work with SEIU or faculty advocates on campus, Rhoades said administrators don’t exactly hold the “moral high ground,” since administrative costs have risen greatly in recent years while faculty pay has stayed mostly flat or decreased, considering inflation. (Although it’s true that administrative costs have greatly outpaced instructional costs in recent years, there’s some debate as to why that is; some blame senior administrative salaries but others say new regulations and increased student services have expanded the middle-level administrative budget.)

Adrianna Kezar, professor and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, said she wasn’t aware of the new SEIU campaign but called its platform “interesting.” Kezar studies the impact of faculty working conditions on student learning and works with both faculty and administrative groups on those issues.

"I think they are trying to draw attention to the pay disparity and obviously put out a high target to make more than incremental changes, as has been the very slow process in recent years,” she said. "While not realistic on its face, I think it may help to push up the level of pay changes. Most campuses -- if they are adjusting pay -- are doing so very incrementally.” Beyond pay, Kezar added, “I think their focus on student learning, reprioritizing budgets and having the enterprise re-examine common assumptions about value and support for instruction is a great focus for the campaign.” 

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy campaign, said via e-mail that she thought the target number was less important than the “boldness of the proposal and the underlying principles which it is trying to emphasize: equal pay for equal work, the inappropriateness of poverty-level wages for work that is so important, the connection between faculty working conditions and student learning conditions.”  

Kraft asked, “What do we have to lose? We’ve been scared into complicity for so long, but I didn’t go through 14 years of higher education to be treated like shit... It’s time, and things need to be shaken up. We are the base -- we are 75 percent [of the faculty, by some estimates]. It’s an ugly secret, and it’s got to get out. There’s got to be an ideological shift and we’ve got to get some of this power back.”


Back to Top