In the last six months, three national unions representing college faculty members have begun or planned major efforts on behalf of those off the tenure track. Washington State has been a focus of attention and the results suggest that sustained efforts can yield some results for adjuncts -- but not miracles.
With the budget measures in the legislative session now wrapped up, lawmakers provided $11.25 million to improve part-time salaries over the next biennium, more money than the Legislature has ever previously appropriated. The funds will go to community colleges, where non-tenure-track positions are most numerous. Even in a year when faculty salaries generally are doing well, the extra funds will narrow the gap between what part-timers and full-timers earn (on a pro rata basis). When the funds are phased in, part-timers will earn the equivalent of 61 percent of what full-timers earn (adjusted for time), up from 58 percent.
In addition, funds were provided for step increases in a way that more than a third of the funds will go to part-timers, compared to about 10 percent in previous years.
In pushing for more support for part-timers at community colleges, faculty groups were able to cite considerable data that exist in roughly comparable formats. With the goal of making similar progress at four-year institutions -- where data haven't been comparable -- another part of the budget bill will require four-year institutions to report on how they calculate the number of adjunct slots they have, and generally nudge the universities in the direction of having comparable data.
And in addition to the budget legislation that was enacted, bills were introduced to carry out the Faculty and College Excellence Campaign  -- known by its acronym FACE -- that is being led by the American Federation of Teachers. That effort has twin goals of improving pay and benefits for part-timers while also shifting more positions from off to on to tenure track. While there were hearings on the FACE legislation, it did not move forward -- although its sponsors have said that they viewed the shift in types of positions as a long-term goal, not one for any one legislative session.
There has been some tension in Washington State -- and elsewhere -- over how much of an emphasis faculty groups should place on improving the working conditions of those off the tenure track as opposed to trying to get more slots on the tenure track.
Keith Hoeller, who leads the new part-time organization of the Washington State division of the American Association of University Professors, said that this year's outcome was ideal as it led to concrete improvements in the compensation of adjuncts. Hoeller has been critical of FACE and similar efforts, saying that if they work and result in the creation of more full-time, tenure track positions, some adjuncts will end up losing their jobs.
But Sandra Schroeder, president of the Washington Federation of Teachers and an English professor at Seattle Central Community College, said it was appropriate to push on both tracks. She said that legislators were interested in data presented by the FACE campaign showing that grade inflation is more of a problem at institutions with large shares of adjuncts and that graduation rates are low. She said this isn't about the quality of teaching, which she said is high, but because many part-timers worry about student evaluations, which can determine how much work they have from semester to semester.
"There is an undermining of quality that has nothing to do with the quality of the individual doing the teaching," she said.
Doug Jensen, president of the state's AAUP chapter, is a full-time, tenured professor of legal studies at Pierce College, who started his career as an adjunct. He argues that the best way to create more full-time positions is to raise salaries for part-timers. "The higher the pay for adjuncts, the less incentive there is to use them instead of full-time tenured faculty," he said.
How high will adjunct pay need to go to make a difference? "It will have to get a good deal higher -- I just don't know how high. But we made progress this year."