Do Adjunct Quotas Work?

Massachusetts faculty union fights to enforce a contract cap on part-time faculty, while other adjunct advocates see little value in such efforts.

April 1, 2015

As adjuncts and their tenure-track allies struggle to create more full-time positions, some of them have leverage: contracts or state laws that govern the percentage of courses that must be taught by full-time faculty members. But attempts to enforce limits on colleges’ employment of part-time adjuncts prove difficult, as an ongoing legal battle in Massachusetts illustrates. In fact, state officials have been trying a series of legal maneuvers to get around an agency's decision that could force the hiring of full-time faculty.

But attempts to legislate caps on part-time faculty employment in that state and elsewhere show that the idea is controversial -- even among adjuncts.

“The issue usually becomes money -- ‘We can’t afford it, it’s too expensive,’” said Christopher J. O’Donnell, president of the Massachusetts State College Association, which represents full- and part-time faculty at nine Massachusetts public colleges, excluding the University of Massachusetts campuses. “Some institutions are trying to get into compliance, but the rationale has been money and managerial prerogatives. They want to hire whoever they want, part time and not full time, even though they negotiated it in the collective bargaining agreement.”

The union, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, has been fighting on and off for years to enforce a part of its collective bargaining agreement dating back to 1987: that no more than 15 percent of courses offered in departments with six or more full-time faculty members be taught by part-timers. The original idea was to preserve full-time faculty spots at the state’s four-year colleges as part-time faculty employment in other states began to surge. (The provision is 20 percent at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, due to its high number of specialty art courses.)

Over time, however, more and more departments failed to meet that standard; last year some 60 units were out of compliance, according to information gathered by the union. At Bridgewater State University, one of the worst offenders, for example, adjuncts taught more than 15 percent of courses in 16 large departments in 2014-15. Some 50 percent of classes in the English department were taught by part-time faculty, along with 40 percent in math and computer science. In philosophy, it was 63 percent of classes. Bridgewater officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The faculty association has formally addressed the issue several times since 2002, when just 14 departments were out of compliance systemwide, but the problem continued to grow. In 2006, Janelle Ashley, who was then chair of the State College Council of Presidents, rendered a decision in response to a faculty association grievance, in which she blamed the growth of part-time faculty employment in part on declining state funding for higher education. She ordered that each college immediately reduce its “improper” reliance on part-time faculty as much as possible and follow its contractual mandate no later than 2009.

But the number of colleges out of compliance soon swelled to 31, prompting an investigation by the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations. The department last year issued a cease and desist order that the state Board of Higher Education must immediately comply with the so-called 15 percent rule. The education board appealed, pointing to declining support from the state -- funding is at 2001 levels, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education -- and the need for institutional flexibility.

Last month, the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board affirmed the earlier labor relations judgment, reiterating the compliance order. The employment relations board concluded that the 15 percent rule does not “unlawfully compromise the [state colleges’] core decision making over educational policy,” noting that the contract provision does not prevent colleges from hiring part-time faculty to replace full-time faculty taking leaves of absence or accepting course load reductions to perform other duties.

The employment relations board also said in its decision that the 15 percent cap doesn’t prevent a department from offering a particular course, in that a college may do so by: “increasing its complement of full-time faculty, including temporary full-time faculty; shifting full-time faculty members from compliant to noncompliant departments within their areas of competence; altering course offerings; combining low-enrollment courses; increasing student enrollment caps for courses; using historic data to plan courses more carefully; and controlling matriculation.”

An appeals court rejected the education board’s request for a stay of that order on technical grounds; the case is now back with the employment relations board. Katy Abel, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, said the state colleges declined comment due to the ongoing nature of the case.

But O’Connell thinks the union will prevail. “Hiring large numbers of part-time faculty with no benefits and no pensions, whom they refuse to pay prorated salaries, is not in Massachusetts’s best interest -- it’s not what higher education in this state is about,” he said, noting that the union has tried unsuccessfully to negotiate prorated salaries and benefits for part-time faculty.

For the past several years, there’s also been support for capping part-time faculty employment in the state legislature. This year’s bill proposes in part that public institutions adhere to their contractual commitments to the degree that 75 percent of classes collegewide are taught by tenure-line faculty by 2021.

State Representative Paul Mark, the bill’s sponsor, said via email that he thought there’s “been an increase in awareness of the important issue of part-time faculty” in recent months, and that there are a “large number of legislators who support providing the highest-quality public higher education possible in Massachusetts.” That makes “it more likely that this bill will be passed into law sooner rather than later,” he said.

Still, it’s written into the bill that the 75-25 standard will be met provided that the higher education board and the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees “shall request, as part of their annual budget request, the appropriate funding to meet the requirements.” Although state funding for higher education is likely to increase in this year, it’s entirely unclear whether the bump will be enough for state colleges to support many more tenure-track faculty lines.

Funding is one of the major reasons that a 75-25 law that’s governed California community colleges since 1988 is largely ineffective. John Martin, an adjunct instructor of history at Shasta and Butte Colleges and head of the California Part-Time Faculty Association, a nonunion group for adjunct instructors across the state’s vast community college system, said statewide averages hover at about 50 percent part-time and full-time faculty.

“Even though it’s mandated, it’s still contingent on the budget -- if it’s not funded, they can’t enforce it,” Martin said, adding that reverence for the law varies among the 71 college districts, which maintain a great deal of authority in how they allocate funds. “We all know money is a big issue here [and] community colleges are always the stepchild of any budget.”

Beyond issues of funding and enforcement, quotas also are controversial among adjuncts. While some part-timers support them, others say quotas merely cement a two-track faculty system they see as broken beyond repair.

Betsy Smith, who retired this semester from longtime part-time work as an English as a second language instructor at Cape Cod Community College in Massachusetts (which is not part of the state college system, but whose faculty union is affiliated with the same parent organization), said the 15 percent rule and the 75-25 standard “create a permanent underclass of faculty.”

Instead, Smith said, “What we need to do is abolish contingency -- we need to allow for part-time work, and all work should be fully fractional.” That means that a teacher -- any teacher -- shouldering 40 percent of a full course load should be paid 40 percent of a full salary and benefits, and be expected to perform 40 percent of additional duties, such as service, she said. Anything else perpetuates “an exploitative system, even if we’re reducing it. It’s just not the way to go.”

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said she thought it was important for the Massachusetts union to challenge the state college system’s efforts to “circumvent” the collective bargaining agreement. At the same time, she said, it’s also up to the union to decide whether the 15 percent cap “furthers an overall objective of creating more full-time positions to which current part-time faculty members would have primary, guaranteed access.” Similar to Smith’s argument, which is popular among adjunct activists, Maisto said the union also might ask whether the 15 percent cap addresses “the need for part-timers to have fully prorated compensation.”

O’Donnell, the head of the Massachusetts union, said that he would have “no problem” with part-time faculty members being paid prorated salaries with benefits. Reiterating that such a proposal had gone nowhere in contract negotiations with the system, he said he thought the 15 percent rule was at least doing some good.

“The alternative is to have no language, and 100 percent part-time faculty with no health benefits, which is how this country looks like it’s going,” O’Donnell said. He noted that at least one college was responding seriously to the compliance issue by working with the union to replace retiring full-time faculty members with existing part-time faculty members, as opposed to outside hires.

Martin, of the California Part-Time Faculty Association, said he didn’t strongly oppose the 75-25 standard in his state, but that it does little to help adjuncts.

“My issue is that it doesn’t really do anything for us -- we’re still fighting for equality, for parity, for due process, for seniority,” he said. “Let’s say in a perfect world there is 75 percent full-time faculty. What about the other 25 percent? Are they still going to get treated like Walmart or McDonald’s employees?”


Back to Top