The steady growth of professorial jobs off the tenure track has posed a dilemma for faculty unions. Adjuncts have in some ways been ideal candidates for organizing drives because they generally feel that their pay, benefits and job security are all lacking. But to the extent that faculty unions want the tenure track to be the norm, institutionalizing the adjunct career path hasn't always made sense to full-time professors. Unions have responded by increasingly organizing part timers -- with a lot of discussion about how reliance on adjuncts has eroded the clout of all professors.
The American Federation of Teachers is in the coming months planning to start a major state-by-state legislative effort to create more full-time faculty positions -- while also striving to improve the work life of adjuncts and helping more of them win full-time jobs. While the campaign will not be formally announced until next year, efforts have already started in California, Oregon and Washington State. The legislation is expected to vary from state to state, with general principles that bills would require public colleges to:
- Have 75 percent of classes in each department taught by full-time professors (possibly with some exemptions for small departments).
- Provide preference to adjuncts in applying for full-time positions.
- Bring adjunct pay and benefits to "parity" with that of full timers.
Organizers don't necessarily expect to win all their demands, at least not immediately, but want to push so that hearings are held in many states, and a broader public debate takes place on the treatment of adjuncts and the impact on higher education of having fewer and fewer tenure-track professors.
"We don't think the public understands that we lack a strong core of full-time faculty in many departments at many colleges and universities," said Marty Hittelman, president of the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers, who teaches mathematics at Los Angeles Valley College.
Some labor watchers see the AFT's campaign as significant in that it seeks not just to get better pay or benefits, but to reshape the professorial work force.
"This is 'wake up and smell the coffee' time," said Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at the City University of New York's Hunter College. "These issues can't be solved locally or on a piecemeal basis. There has to be a national focus." Boris called the growing use of adjuncts "a profound national crisis in higher education" and said of the new AFT effort, "it's about time."
While there is strong enthusiasm for the efforts in state AFT divisions, the campaign is not without controversy. Some adjuncts fear that if the legislation moves ahead, they may be out of jobs as departments move to hire newly minted Ph.D.'s over those who have been teaching for years.
Adjuncts make up not only a growing share of the academic work force,  but of unions, too. About 60,000 of the 160,000 professionals in higher education represented by the AFT are adjuncts. Their share also appears to be growing. Of the 44 faculty units organized by the AFT in the past five years, 12 are for full-time professors, 10 are a mix of full- and part-time professors, and 22 are for professors with part-time positions.
The American Association of University Professors has also been working to expand rights for adjuncts, recently adopting a new policy  calling for them to receive more due process and information on whether they can expect employment from semester to semester. Many adjuncts praised the AAUP for paying more attention to part timers, but some have questioned whether parts of the policy could result in good adjuncts losing their jobs  -- a tension that may also shape reactions to the AFT's campaign.
Larry Gold, who heads the AFT's higher education division, said that the motivation for developing the campaign was the treatment of adjuncts, not their performance in the classroom. "We are talking about good teachers, and you don't find much difference classroom to classroom" between adjuncts and tenure-track professors. However, adjuncts can't play the same role in developing a college curriculum, building long-term relationships with students and other professors, or -- in many cases -- even having office hours, because they may lack offices or the time to stay on campus.
Gold said that the pay and benefits provided by most colleges to adjuncts is "indefensible," but that focusing on that alone -- without creating more full-time positions -- wouldn't deal with the problems. "The loss of full-time jobs and the mistreatment of adjuncts are truly two sides of the same coin," said Gold.
While the AFT's campaign will have some basic goals, he said that it would be left to individual states to define the kind of legislation they want to put forward. Some states may place more emphasis on some issues than others, either based on the interests of members, the level of political support, or other factors.
One of the trickier issues may be the question of preferential treatment in hiring of part timers for full-time positions. Gold said that the idea is to provide "a leg up," but not to take away the autonomy of departments. Many adjuncts complain that they are passed over in favor of new Ph.D.'s when full-time positions open up, even if the part timers have strong records. Gold said he imagined that the "leg up" would vary by sector. At a more research-oriented institution, he said, an adjunct who has been primarily teaching may have a tough time winning a slot. But Gold noted that at many community colleges and teaching-oriented institutions, adjuncts have in fact been performing the main job duty of professors: teaching. "People who have been performing well shouldn't be overlooked in the search for some star," he said.
Sandra Schroeder, president of the Washington Federation of Teachers and an English professor at Seattle Central Community College, said that the campaign -- if successful -- could create many more full-time slots. Currently, only about 55 percent of classes in her state's community colleges are taught by tenure-track faculty members, so an increase to 75 percent would add a lot of new positions. Schroeder said that, to be effective, money would need to follow the legislation. She also acknowledged that "the first time out," odds did not favor complete passage of the package.
But Schroeder said that the pattern on part-time issues in Washington State has been to get some of what faculty members want, and then build on that. The problem to date, she said, was that the requests have been "focused on one issue." "We've always gone in for a targeted item, and over time we've made progress, but we haven't had the kind of discussion we need" to tackle the broader inequities, she said. If her group moves forward in Washington State, while others are doing so in California and elsewhere, she said, a national conversation may be possible.
In California, community colleges are already theoretically supposed to be reaching targets for employment of tenure-track faculty members, but districts vary widely in whether they make real progress. Hittelman said that the legislation being developed there would put money behind the goals -- and would also create real penalties for districts that don't make progress.
Not all adjuncts are impressed. Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington State Part-Time Faculty Association, said that the AFT plan -- if adopted -- would pave the way for current part timers to lose slots without much chance of gaining the new full-time jobs. "Their No. 1 goal is to hire more full timers -- at the expense of current adjuncts, who may either be left without jobs, or else with lower pay and no job security," Hoeller said.
The AFT's talk about some preference for part timers "could amount to nothing more than a token interview," he said. "In reality, many full-time jobs will be created by taking courses away from current part timers, who will now have to compete for the full-time jobs with other applicants from around the country. Why is the AFT more interested in representing future full timers than in the current part timers they now represent?"
He said that the AFT should have made the hiring of part timers a requirement, and that more of an emphasis should be placed on "truly equal pay" for part-time work. Too many union efforts, he said, focus on pay per hour, not recognizing that if adjuncts aren't paid for preparation time or meeting with students (which they do, even without pay), classroom hour pay is only part of the equation.
Hittelman of the California AFT said it was true that "there are part-time faculty who would lose jobs," but he argued that many others would gain the full-time jobs they have sought for years, especially those who work at community colleges. Hittelman said that he did not want to denigrate in any way the valuable teaching performed by adjuncts, but he said that the academic profession ultimately needs a base of people with tenure and with full connections to a campus -- something that can't happen if larger and larger shares of jobs go to part timers.
"You can't have a profession where people aren't fully employed," he said.
Some adjunct activists strongly back the AFT campaign -- even with some reservations about how everyone might end up if the effort succeeds. Joe Berry, chair of the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, who teaches at the University of Illinois, said that he considered the effort "a first" in the breadth and ambition of helping large numbers of adjuncts while pushing for more full-time positions. And he said it was "a long overdue" first for a major faculty group. (Berry is not an AFT member as he does not work at institutions represented by the union, but he has been active in the AFT previously.)
The problem, he said, is generational. When the adjunct issue first started to capture attention in the 1980s, people saw tenured professors in their 50s and 60s and adjuncts in their 20s and 30s. Those age groups could reverse themselves, he said, because he agrees with Hoeller that it is very difficult for adjuncts who have been working part time at multiple campuses for a decade to be seriously considered for tenure-track positions. The AFT campaign has the potential to be much more helpful for a new Ph.D., who might be able to avoid the adjunct track, than for a long-term adjunct, he said.
Even with that concern, however, he applauded the overall effort. "Most adjuncts want to see the creation of more full-time positions," he said. And those are the jobs they want.