A steady stream of reports from faculty groups warns of the consequences of having too large a share of sections taught by adjuncts. Many of those reports also say that colleges take advantage of part-time instructors, failing to provide them with adequate salaries and benefits -- or with the prospect of full-time employment. Based on these ideas, the major faculty unions and also many disciplinary groups have called for colleges to hire more full-timers and have them teach more courses -- while also providing part-timers both with better compensation and with more respect.
A dispute escalating at Wisconsin's Madison Area Technical College, however, illustrates how difficult it may be to move on the goal of having more courses taught by full-timers while also satisfying part-timers. The college is trying to increase the share of sections taught by full-time professors to 75 percent, in line with an agreement with the union for full-time faculty. The method of doing so is to allow full-timers to teach "overloads" (courses on top of a full load, with additional pay) before courses are assigned to probationary part-timers.
This idea has infuriated the union that represents part-time faculty members, who are going to court over the issue. They say that hundreds of adjuncts could lose courses that they need to teach for their livelihoods. Both union chapters are part of the American Federation of Teachers, but leaders of the two units appear unlikely to be joining in a chorus of "Solidarity Forever" any time soon.
Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington State Part-Time Faculty Association, who has worked on the issue of adjuncts' rights to class sections, said that "one of the most common and corrupt practices" in higher education today "is letting the tenure-stream faculty teach overloads, while refusing to let the part-time faculty teach even up to full time." He said that "this regressive practice prevents adjuncts from ever qualifying for tenure, and robs them of money and benefits."
The split at Madison reflects one of the most challenging issues facing faculty leaders who are worried about an erosion of tenure-track, full-time jobs -- namely how to reverse the erosion without taking away the jobs on which adjuncts rely.
The tensions are not unique to Madison. At the City University of New York, the faculty union this year started taking a tougher line on waivers  that have in the past let some adjuncts exceed caps on the number of courses they can teach. The union sees enforcement of the cap as a way to encourage the university to create more tenure-track lines, but many adjuncts see the caps as limiting their income.
Conflicts like those at Madison "are inevitable," 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. He said that "if we lift the veil of the rhetoric of solidarity, the fundamental dilemma for the academic unions is how to maintain the full-time academic cohort, the tenured cohort," he said. "This is about trying to save the profession, and while everyone is sympathetic to the adjuncts, they are a contributing force -- an unwilling one to be sure -- to the reduction of the full-time cohort."
So, he said, policies that seek to have full-time instructors do more of the teaching make sense if you are trying to preserve a full-time tenured faculty as the norm, and shifts in that direction will not surprisingly reduce the slots available for part-timers. There is a way to make everyone happy, he said, but it's not going to happen in an economic downturn. "The only resolution to this dilemma, to the contradiction of interests, is giving part-timers a predictable path into the full-time cohort," but since that's not happening due to the economy, "we're going to see more" conflicts like the one playing out in Madison, he said.
Getting to 75 Percent
At Madison, the long-agreed goal among the full-time union and the administration has been that 75 percent of sections should be taught by full-time faculty. (The college doesn't have a formal tenure system, but after a probationary period, both full-time and part-time instructors have a variety of job security protections and other rights.) The college has failed to meet that goal for years and isn't close now -- although both tracking the figures and meeting the goal have been made more difficult by enrollment surges amid tight state budgets.
Bettsey L. Barhorst, president of the college, said that she has "great respect and appreciation" for the part-time instructors, and wants them to continue to teach. But she said that the college would be better if it met the 75 percent goal. "Part-timers teach the courses and they do that well," she said. "But full-timers do so much more than teach. They do student advising. They represent their disciplines locally and nationally. They do the work on the curriculum. They recruit students. They do orientation. They mentor the part-timers. They do the work on accreditation," which she said was a huge task given the many specialized accreditations required of the college's technical programs.
When colleges lose a sufficient cohort of full-timers, she said, all the duties outside the classroom end up in the job descriptions of new administrative positions. It is much better for everyone, she said, if more sections are taught by full-timers, and if faculty members take the lead on academic issues.
To meet that goal, the college and the union representing full-time faculty members reached a deal this year. As part of the full-timers' contract, full-time faculty members would be able to teach overload courses for which they are qualified (on top of their regular loads) with prorated salary boosts. Any full-time faculty member could add up to 40 percent of his or her load in this way -- with the right to pick sections before they are offered to probationary part-time faculty. (About two-thirds of the college's 1,200 part-timers are probationary.)
Because it's not known how many full-timers will take advantage of this opportunity, nobody really knows how many adjuncts will lose courses, but the part-time union says its members are already getting bumped, losing not only courses but advantageous times.
Joe Lowndes, who teaches biotechnology and is president of the full-time union, said that the goal of the contract provision is to demonstrate that the college needs more full-time positions, not just the current full-timers working overload schedules. "Our thought was that rather than hiring new part-time faculty, let's see who wants to be doing overloads to cover this expansion [of enrollment] and if that demand stays, they should be made into full-time positions. We are interested in promoting the numbers of full-time positions."
Lowndes said he viewed the full-time union's stance as consistent with the AFT's Faculty and College Excellence  campaign, which calls for 75 percent of undergraduate classes to be taught by full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members and which also calls for such positions to be open to qualified part-time faculty members. He said that higher education needs more full-timers. "Full-time employment is a good thing for stability, for strategic planning," he said. "It has nothing to do with the quality of teaching by part-time staff. Our full-time teachers back the part-timers to the nth degree and we support their rights and their right to become full-timers."
He also said that it was completely appropriate for his union to bargain with the college on overload priorities, given that this is a meaningful economic and policy issue.
Questions About Quality and Fairness
While the college administration and the full-time union are talking about how full-timers promote quality, the part-timers are crying foul. Bob Curry, vice president of the union and a writing instructor at the college, said that if the college wants the benefits of more full-time faculty members, it should create more full-time positions. All the talk about full-timers who have time to serve on committees and guide students assumes that they have time to do so, and those teaching overloads do not.
"An overworked full-timer is not a particularly effective teacher," Curry said. A part-timer may well have more time to work with students, he noted, than someone teaching one or two courses on top of a full load.
Then there is the issue of cost. Curry said that many part-timers earn in the range of $2,500 per course, while many full-timers will earn twice that on their overload courses. "How does that benefit the taxpayer? That's a whopping hit on the instructional budget," he said, predicting that if full-timers teach the overload courses (quite likely given that tight times have many of them wanting more money), fewer sections will be offered.
And then there is the question of fairness. "You've been teaching a course the last two semesters on Monday night. Well, a full-timer wants that, so you lose it," he said.
The part-time union's legal challenge, filed in state court, argues that by setting up priority for course scheduling with the full-time union, the college effectively changed working conditions for the part-timers without negotiating with the part-time union representing the affected workers. As a result of this issue, the part-time union is refusing to move ahead with a new contract, much of which has been negotiated -- and which the college wants finalized.
Curry scoffed at the idea that the full-time union cared about the adjuncts. "There's not any solidarity," he said. "It's pretty much open warfare. The full-time teachers, I think, by and large are pretty sympathetic to us and realize we are being screwed, but the [full-time] union is not. They have bargained away our rights in their contract." Further, he said that the administration and the full-time union have become too close, such that in their negotiations, one side proposes something and the other answers "would you like a hug with that?" (Officials of the national AFT said that there have been discussions with both unions in the hope of a resolution, but declined to comment further.)
Lowndes, president of the full-timers' union, said that the part-timers had wanted for years to have course scheduling priorities in their contract and had never won that right, and that the college wasn't going to give it to them, so that this was not a matter of taking away a right the other union had won. "This is a jurisdictional issue and they are claiming that this work is their work," he said. "They attempted to negotiate this, and the college has never granted them jurisdiction."
Hoeller, the adjunct organizer in Washington State, said that the dispute in Wisconsin shows why adjuncts need their own union chapters, so that they can -- as Madison's is doing -- stand up for their rights. He said that faculty unions generally should back the right of part-timers -- many of whom badly need additional sections to make ends meet -- to get available sections before extra assignments are offered to full-timers.
Letting full-timers have preference, he said, "is Robin Hood in reverse, whereby the tenure-stream faculty steal money from the peasant part-timers."