A new push for higher ed adjunct unionization

Book looks at impact of a majority contingent faculty

Once meant to supplement full-time and tenured faculty, adjunct faculty were often viewed as “the others.” But times and economics have changed and this contingent force has become the majority of faculty in American higher education.

One result of this shift is a new push to unionize adjunct professors for better pay, benefits and working conditions.

In Professors in the Gig Economy (Johns Hopkins, 2018), Kim Tolley, a professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur University, brings together experts on education, labor history, economics, religious studies and law, all of whom have been involved with unionization at public and private colleges and universities.

Their essays and case studies provide a valuable background to understanding why colleges and universities have come to rely so heavily on contingent faculty, and how unionization efforts have shaped the teaching and learning that happens on campus.

The book talks about the adjunct experience from many angles. Was there anything that stood out or surprised you?

I guess the surprise to me, now that I’m thinking about it, is a couple of years ago when I heard Adrianna Kezar, one of the contributors to this book, give a talk. She was talking about new research on the correlation between an institution’s number of adjunct faculty and its lower rates of retention and academic success for students.

That was the surprising piece for me.

Adrianna Kezar is not really involved in unionization at all. She works with boards. Often those are boards that have concerns about these issues, but they’re not union boards by any means, so I wanted to have her voice in there too so that we could lay out the whole issue—historical development, economic impact and the social impact.

This area was interesting to include for me because I teach at a small, private Catholic university that has come to rely more and more heavily on part-time faculty. We were at 80 percent part-time faculty just a couple of years ago, and we were dealing with all of those issues—retention had fallen, academic achievement was down.

The administration was struggling to find ways to encourage a large workforce composed only of part-timers to come to professional development sessions, to have a kind of coherent vision of what the delivery of an excellent education would be.

That was difficult.

It’s not the fault of the part-time faculty, it’s just what happens when institutions have come to rely on a contingent, non-full-time workforce, without really thinking about what the implications might be for their students.

It’s said that faculty are the lifeblood and character of an institution. What is the effect of having a majority of faculty who don’t even feel they are part of the school?

Let me first say that I think being efficient as a business is important. There’s no denying that. If you’re running a college or a university, it is on some level a business and you have to look at your bottom line.

But you also have to remember that the product you’re there to deliver to your customers, who are your students, is an education that keeps them wanting to stay enrolled. It has to be an education where there are personal connections to those around them. This is perhaps a philosophical position, but I’m going to argue it’s more than that too.

Faculty get thank-you letters and notes from students asking for letters of recommendation years and decades after they’ve had those students. I’ve been teaching for more than 30 years. I still write letters of recommendation for students I had 20 years ago when they’re searching for new jobs. Those relationships never really end.

But that doesn’t happen when 80 percent of your faculty is part-time and hasn’t been teaching very long at the institution.

Institutions say they save money by eliminating tenured positions and relying on part-time faculty. But what’s the trade-off? Your research shows that students are not satisfied and faculty certainly aren’t satisfied.

At the root of all that is what we’re seeing in the increased levels of unionization that have happened in the last five or 10 years. I think there’s a limit to how long an institution can ignore its faculty before even the part-timers begin to rise up and say, “This is appalling. I’m not working for this low level of pay and these conditions.”

I don’t know what the trade off is. If you’re an administrator and suddenly you have a budget shortfall, the quickest, easiest way to save money is to cut the instruction portion of the budget. Somehow, I guess that’s just become easier to do.

My feeling is that if everyone had a sense of what the issues are on a broader level, beyond unionization, maybe people in administration and on boards would start asking questions and rethink what they’re doing. Basically you want an institution where students will be retained.

And, particularly if students are taking out loans, you’d want them to be able to finish in four years and then get a job that will support them so they can pay down their debt. That’s the goal—for them to be able to support themselves.

One of the tables in the book is an overview of faculty collective bargaining agreements from 35 schools. Is that a representative sample of the larger picture?

I would say it’s a convenient sample. Kristin Edwards, who worked with me on that chapter, had access to all the Service Employees International Union bargaining agreements that had been negotiated since 2013. She had access to that because Notre Dame de Namur University is represented by SEIU, and they shared that with everyone on the bargaining team.

Building off the information we had from the SEIU bargaining contracts, I then searched for all the recent contracts I could access online, essentially just through a Google search. It’s really hard to access a complete collection of contracts unless you have the agreement of the union that you’re researching.

Although I didn’t find masses of them, I managed to find enough to get up to 35.

Most of the agreements address things you’d expect—salary, benefits, job security and so on—but few address a major contingent faculty complaint: They have no say in curriculum design or how their courses are assigned. There’s no shared governance.

Right. The American Association of University Professors says on its website that if you unionize, that would be strengthened. Well, you can’t really strengthen anything unless you have an agreement with the employer as a result of collective bargaining. That obviously hasn’t been attained in a lot of these agreements.

I’m not sure why universities aren’t willing to provide the opportunity for more part-time faculty to have input. We were able to get that at Notre Dame de Namur University because we knew it was really important to us going in.

I guess the takeaway is if you want to have that as a guaranteed right, you’re going to need to negotiate for it. It could be just that when push came to shove during a negotiation process, shared governance was less of a priority than some other things. I don’t know, but we think it’s really important.

Not to get political, but we have a presidential administration that’s decidedly anti-union. Do you see that as a threat to the progress that has been made?

I don’t think this is going to slow down. It’s kind of surprising that the states that don’t have a lot of protections for unions are the states that have had all these teacher strikes—and we’re talking about K12 teacher strikes—in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Colorado.

I think things have come to a point where there is such pressure, that I’m not sure that the nature of the administration will change anything about what’s going on. With that pressure, I would hope that every board would start talking about this too.

You know, boards do have a fiduciary responsibility to the institution, but they also need to think about the overall impact of their cost-saving mechanisms. I think if unionization proceeds apace, they will have to start talking about it, because it may not have come to their own institution but  it’s likely that it will.

Tim Goral is senior editor.


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