By Maria Benevento
Wednesday, February 25, adjunct faculty members and their supporters across the country participated in the first National Adjunct Walkout Day. Actions ranged from individual walkouts to teach-ins to protests involving hundreds of people (especially in the West). While adjuncts themselves were predictably prominent in these actions, in some cases they were joined by other faculty members and students who had become aware of the challenges that adjuncts face. At several Catholic universities, protestors asked their schools to allow adjuncts to form unions by invoking Catholic social teaching, which asserts the right of workers to organize. Ironically, some of these universities have been trying to use their Catholic identity to do exactly the opposite, claiming exemption from enforcement by the National Labor Relations Board.
Adjuncts were motivated to protest, and to educate others about their situation, because they often suffer from extremely low compensation, no job security, few benefits, and difficult working conditions. A report in Trusteeship Magazine mentioned that unlike tenure-track professors who do the same work, part-time faculty are paid an average of $2,700 per class; nearly half receive no benefits.
Some argue that counting time spent researching, preparing for classes, grading papers, and meeting and communicating with students, adjuncts actually make less than minimum wage. Some resort to applying for food stamps, donating plasma, or working low-paid service jobs to make ends meet, and others make long commutes among part-time positions at more than one university. Having a class they were planning to teach cancelled at the last minute, as sometimes happens, can be a major set-back as it may remove a large portion of an adjunct’s income.
Jenni Schlossman, an Omaha resident and Phi Beta Kappa member who has been an adjunct for twenty years, says that the worst parts of her job are having “very little support” and “no job security whatsoever…I never know if I’ll be called back to teach.” Because of this, she feels unable to protest or question anything since she can so easily not be rehired, and thinks “having a union would be a really good thing.” While she loves teaching, being an adjunct is only viable for her because her husband has a full-time job with benefits.
According to Joseph Fruscione, full-time tenured or tenure-eligible professors who can give students “a remarkable amount of stability, educational continuity, and mentorship opportunities” are now in the minority. In fact, non-tenure-track faculty, who made up only 21.7% of professors in 1969, had increased to 66.5% by 2009. Fruscione is part of a group that has collected thousands of signatures on a petition that asks the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division to investigate “wage theft” from adjuncts who are only paid for their classroom time and not for their hours spent researching, preparing, grading, and meeting with students.
Sheri Bauman, a tenured full professor, also argues that “Underpaying Adjuncts Hurts Full-time Professors and Students Too.” When most professors are adjuncts, full time professors are stretched thin advising too many students, doing all of the committee work, and searching for, hiring, and training new adjuncts when the ones they have leave to pursue more stable employment. Meanwhile, students suffer when their adjunct professors lack opportunities to attend professional conferences, office space or free time to meet with students, and the power to contribute to university decision-making.
While National Adjunct Walkout Day deviated from its title and its original plan, becoming a day of protest and education in many locations rather than an actual walkout, some suggest that this may have been an ideal beginning for a movement focused on improved conditions for adjuncts. According to Ellen Schrecker, professor of history at Yeshiva University who researches academic labor, one of the biggest problems adjuncts face is the lack of awareness about their working conditions. Many students and parents assume that all professors are relatively high-paid and comfortable and are simply unaware of the conditions adjuncts face, and how this might affect students’ education. Upon learning the truth, many students reacted with compassion and concern, both wanting professors they like and admire to be happy and fairly treated, and noting that it is difficult to form relationships with professors who could disappear next semester.
Photo: Seattle University faculty, students, staff stage one of the largest walkouts in thenation as part of National Adjunct Walkout Day Feb. 25; taken by Flickr member SEIU Local 925.
Maria Benevento is a senior at Creighton University majoring in Theology and American Studies. Creighton University is home to the Beta of Nebraska Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.