Contracts Up Close

Academic labor conference panel discussion focuses on contract provisions for adjuncts that go beyond better pay. Data suggest larger gains for part-timers in bargaining units that are separate from full-time faculty.

April 21, 2015

NEW YORK -- You plan on and off all summer for a course you’ve been hired to teach in the fall, setting a syllabus, creating assignments and rereading texts. The work is all unpaid, of course, but the payoff will come when classes start off smoothly and that first check hits your account a few weeks later. Except that it doesn’t, because your course got canceled at the last minute due to low enrollment, or because you -- a part-time faculty member -- got bumped so that a full-time faculty member (likely on the tenure track) could round out his or her course load.

Like relatively low pay and little institutional support, 11th-hour course cancellations are at the top of many adjunct instructors’ employment reform agendas. But how can adjuncts combat what many administrators say is a necessary mechanism for adapting to fluctuations in enrollment? Preliminary data presented here Monday at the annual conference of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at the City University of New York suggest that collective bargaining agreements can be an effective -- if underutilized and still underdeveloped -- means of addressing the issue of course cancellations. That's particularly true when adjuncts are organized in units separate from full-time and tenure-line faculty at four-year institutions, and combined units at community colleges, according to the data.

Gary Rhoades, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, said he analyzed the national, multi-union contract database maintained by the National Education Association, called the Higher Education Contract Analysis System. The database contains union contracts negotiated by the American Federation of Teachers, the NEA and the American Association of University Professors, as well as independent locals.

The database does not contain recently negotiated contracts by the Service Employees International Union, however; to compensate for that, Rhoades did a separate analysis of recent contracts negotiated by SEIU: with American University, Georgetown University, George Washington University and Montgomery County Community College in the Washington region, along with Tufts University.

Rhoades said he was interested in looking at course cancellation contract measures because such provisions “encapsulate several of issues surrounding the working conditions of adjunct faculty” and are a “good case test of the pay and due process rights -- and limited nature thereof -- of adjunct faculty, the relationship between these faculty and full-time faculty and the issue of educational quality and the larger public interest.”

He also said it was illuminating to compare provisions in part-time-only contracts to combined full-time and part-time faculty contracts, as such comparisons can reveal different priorities and make for internal debate within the local. Elsewhere in his paper, Rhoades said that 147,000 part-time faculty members were in collective bargaining units in 2012, a dramatic rise from just about a decade earlier.

Rhoades also sought to compare outcomes for faculty at two-year versus four-year institutions, since part-time faculty members at four-year institutions already are widely recognized to have better contract protections for intellectual property in online courses and shared governance provisions.

Among four-year colleges, 15 contracts provided some pay for part-time faculty members whose classes were canceled. Of those contracts, 10 were in part-time-only units and 5 were in combined units. Because there are far fewer part-time units in the database, he said, 10 part-time contracts is remarkably large number. For similar but opposite reasons, five is smaller than it seems, he said.

But just how late is late notice and what kind of pay is being offered, according to the contracts? Rhoades said the details vary across institutions but generally, “compensation is quite limited, the timing that is required for providing notice of cancellation is quite late and the rationales provided for canceling classes are quite broad.”

At the University of Vermont, for example, adjuncts in the part-time-only bargaining unit (which, like the full-time faculty unit, is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors) whose courses are canceled receive a fee of 5 percent of total course pay, Rhoades said. He cautioned that while 5 percent may sound like a “considerable amount,” it’s just $150 using national per-course pay average. At Rutgers University, for part-time lecturers whose courses are canceled within seven days of the start of a class, the faculty member gets one-sixteenth of his or her salary for the semester. (The Rutgers part-time faculty unit also is affiliated with AFT and AAUP.)

Two contracts provide a flat amount. At Roosevelt University, where adjuncts are affiliated with the NEA, any adjunct who has accepted a course that is subsequently called off gets $250 -- a little more than the fractional fees, Rhoades said, but still not very much. At Connecticut State University, it’s $300 if the cancellation is within seven days before the start of the class; that unit is combined, part-time and full-time faculty, and affiliated with AAUP.

Timing seems to vary even more widely than pay; at California State University, for example, adjuncts have to teach three class meetings before they’re owed the full pay for a course that gets called off after that point (or an alternate work assignment). Before that, they’re paid only for the hours worked.

Rhoades said that kind of language is important because it speaks to another major concern among adjunct faculty members: that their pay doesn’t take into account hours spent outside of class, grading, preparing and meeting with students. At Central Washington University, if a course is canceled within 10 working days after the quarter begins, and the university doesn’t offer the instructor a replacement course to teach, he or she will be paid just for the portion of the quarter worked, Rhoades said. Both those examples come from combined units; the California State union is affiliated with AAUP, NEA and SEIU, and Central Washington is affiliated with NEA and AFT.

Rhoades also looked at some of the rationales behind course cancellations included in union contracts. Language such as Saginaw Valley State University’s (NEA) -- that full-time faculty whose classes are canceled because of low enrollment “shall at their option displace part-time faculty teaching classes for which the full-time faculty is qualified” -- is “hardly a recipe for building solidarity,” he said. Why?  Because it “privileges a strata of faculty -- full-time -- who already enjoy considerably more due process and pay than part-time colleagues, and provides for displacement of adjunct faculty if full-time faculty need to fill out their loads.”

Among community colleges, 46 contracts provided some pay for part-time faculty whose classes were called off. Of those, 14 were in part-time-only units and 32 were in combined units. The provision patterns were similar to those in university-level contracts, but in some cases were worse. Several contracts -- combined and part-time -- said that faculty members would be paid for one hour of a canceled class. Flathead Valley Community College in Montana pays adjuncts just $30 for a course canceled up to a week before classes start (part-time only, NEA).

One of the most generous provisions is at Seattle Community College (combined, AFT). Adjuncts there get 8 percent of course pay when the course is canceled up to week ahead of classes starting. After that, it’s 8 percent plus the percentage of the course that’s been taught. In another relatively generous contract, Onondaga Community College (AFT, combined) adjuncts get no pay when a class is canceled up to the start of the course -- but they get up to 30 percent of the course pay thereafter, depending on when the course is canceled.

In a particularly interesting clause that mentions bumping, or displacement by a full-time faculty member, Sussex County Community College’s contract with its part-time faculty (part-time only, AFT) says that if it has issued a letter of intent to employ and the bargaining unit member’s assigned class is canceled due to underenrollment or displacement by a full-time faculty member, “the affected bargaining unit member shall receive prorated compensation for actual classroom contract hours rendered.”

In all, 25 percent of 240 applicable faculty contracts have cancellation provisions. Some 20 percent of combined units have them and 42 of 57 part-time-only contracts have them. Among four-year colleges, two-thirds of the class cancellation provisions were in part-time-only units. But among community colleges, some 69 percent of the provisions were in the combined units.

Rhoades found that SEIU’s contracts -- though the sample size was small, at five -- contained the strongest language regarding these provisions. Consider George Washington’s contract, for example: if a faculty member’s appointment to teach a course is “canceled, denied or revoked for any reason after the faculty member is notified of reappointment, and fewer than 21 calendar days before the first day of classes of the semester or other applicable course start date… the faculty member will receive a course reduction fee of 20 percent of the salary that the faculty member would have received.”

Rhoades noted that most of these new SEIU contracts have similarly detailed “access to service” and support clauses.

In addition to such language in future contract negotiations, Rhoades argued for trying to insert clauses that would “reassign rather than displace” adjuncts whose courses have been canceled. Ideas include “nonteaching” work aimed at enhancing student success, he said. To do so would not only be a “bread and roses” approach to adjunct faculty members’ concerns, but also investment in education.

Responding to Rhoades’s paper, fellow panelist Valerie Martin Conley, a chair and professor of counseling and higher education at Ohio University, said she believed in “bread and roses” for adjuncts but also “efficiency.” She said higher education probably needed a substitute term, to avoid the industrial connotations of that word. But to keep college affordable, she said, colleges need to work simultaneously on creating efficiencies while also focusing on the “humanity” of faculty and the educational needs of students.

Susan Schurman, fellow panelist and distinguished professor and dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers in New Brunswick, said that as an administrator, she was of two somewhat contradictory perspectives regarding adjunct unions. Wearing her "management hat," she said, there would simply be “no way” for Rutgers to compete for top tenure-line research faculty if it did not rely on adjunct employment to help it fill the revenue gap left from declining state appropriations.

But as a scholar of labor relations, Schurman said she thought the adjunct unionization movement was part of a bigger trend of contract workers reacting against the decline of standard employment. She said she wasn’t naturally a fan of competition among unions, but that, in the case of adjuncts, it seemed to be making for some fruitful results.

Rhoades also suggested that SEIU might be seeing such success because the larger, more traditional education unions -- along with tenure-line faculty -- hadn’t paid sufficient attention to adjuncts’ concerns over time.

Some commenters during the discussion period following the presentation seemed to agree with that perspective. But Lynette Nyaggah, president of the NEA-affiliated Community College Association, said there are many instances in which tenure-line faculty members have stepped up to lead. And not just in advocacy, but in contract negotiations, too, she said, naming three affiliated colleges where adjunct instructors have received bigger raises than tenure-line faculty members during contract negotiations.

In contrast to some of Rhoades’s findings, Nyaggah said she thought “wall-to-wall” bargaining units, in which all faculty members are covered by the same contract, were better than separate units. More unity among faculty results in better negotiation outcomes, including for adjunct faculty, she said. But traditional unions sometimes don't do enough to "trumpet" their own successes.

At the same time, Nyaggah said, “There is more room for full-time faculty to lead in [the association], and we’re encouraging all faculty to work together and recognize each other’s value.”


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