why you should support unionizing adjuncts

I’m settling in at my office (aka Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf) for what I anticipate to be about 6 hours of grading final exams. My goal for the day is to complete the grades for 1 of the 5 classes that I’ve been teaching this fall. Before I start that, however, I need to get something off my mind. I need to write about this because sometimes seeing the macro helps me feel grounded when I get bogged down in the micro. Thus, what follows is a macro level snapshot of a 30-year old adjunct with a PhD at the end of 2013.


From where I sit there are 3 possible futures for me, and these futures are entirely contingent on the trajectory of the academy as a whole.


Future 1: the 2 tier system (aka things continue as they are)

In future #1, universities continue to hire full-time professors, but at level that is dramatically under the number of faculty required to staff the courses needed for their growing student populations. As a result of their not hiring enough full-time people, 2 things will continue to happen: 1) the only people who will get full-time jobs are people who graduated at the top of their class from the top graduate programs (rock on if that's you!) but everyone else—literally thousands and thousands of people—will be forced to remain as adjuncts throughout their entire careers. I don’t have exact numbers here, but my experience of repeatedly getting rejection emails citing that 500 applications were received for 1 position would suggest that a *very* high percentage of people who graduate with PhDs (and lots of student debt) will never get full time jobs. Let me personalize that for you. I have had to face the fact that I will never get a full time job. Although I hold out hope that isn't the case, I have had to accept it as likely. I’m a good teacher, a good scholar, and I can contribute a lot to the world, but I will live at the poverty line my whole life. I will never buy a house or have kids. I will never be capable of contributing to economic growth, and I may find myself needing assistance from the government. I will certainly not be able to pay back my student loans. In summary, if things continue as they are, I and a whole generation of highly educated people will always be a second class citizens in the academy and will constantly drain, instead of contribute to, the economy at large. That is the bottom line. And in this future, everyone loses. I lose. Students lose. Universities lose. Society as a whole loses. No one wants this. Even though “budgetary limitations within the university” keep pushing us toward this future, let’s try to avoid it, ok?


Future 2: being a professor is (EXCLUSIVELY) a full time profession

In future #2, universities realize that students are best served by professor who can afford to live like real adults. Students are best served when professors stick around the university for many years, have offices, are accessible to students because they are on one campus everyday and aren’t driving between 3 campuses that are hours apart. Students learn best when their professors have enough to eat, can take sick days when necessary, aren’t teaching twice as many courses as if humanly possible, and can afford to go to professional conferences. These aren’t new concepts. Everyone knows that full-time professors can offer more to their students, and better students make better citizens, and better citizens make better societies, and better societies make a better world. The idea of an adjunct was only meant to be a bandaid. Adjuncts were hired to temporally staff extra courses that were added when student populations increased quickly. I think we can all agree that no one ever intended adjunct-ing to be a career. So, in future #2, we would come to realize that the adjunct bandaid is not doing anyone any good, and we would do away with the concept entirely. Every professorship in the world would be fairly paid & full-time, and every school would hire full-time positions for the number of students that it enrolled. However, that requires an unlimited supply of money, and I realize that is not the world we live in (thanks capitalism), so it sort of seems like pursuing this future is moot. If 70% of courses in the US are already taught by non-tenure track people (and they are), it is already too late for this model. The full-time model is no longer viable, and universities already know that. We just all need to take a deep breath and say it out loud. Together now, “The full-time model is a thing of the past.” That ship has sailed. Sad, but true.


Future 3: percentages

I think there is some hope though. I would like to take the ideas of Future #2 but include a more realistic perspective on monetary constraints. In future #3, we abolish the distinction between full-time and part-time faculty. We join together simply as faculty. We teach. We love our students. We pursue research. We attend conferences. We guide generation after generation of students toward informed and engaged citizenship. We are professors, all of us. In this future, we are all paid equitably based on our responsibilities. We determine what the responsibilities of a 40-hour per week professor should be— 3 classes per semester, some advising, some committee work, some research requirements, etc. And we decide what the salary and benefits for a 40-hour per week professor should be— job security, $50,000 per year, health insurance, retirement plan, conference money, research money, money for a computer, office space, etc. Then, we are each hired at a percentage of that. Some at 100%, some at 50%, some at 25%, whatever. And we are responsible for and receive the salary and benefits at our percentage of hire. No 2 tiers. No massive disparity in responsibilities or pay, only percentages. That way, one school may only need 50% of a person, another school 25%, and a third school 25%…. and someone could humanly work at those three universities and be able to live as an adult who is respected for the contributions that she or he is making. Technology can help with the commuting issues, and this way, the time and expertise of lower percentage professors are valued at the same level that 100% professors are. Lower percentage professors would no longer be second class citizens, and would no longer be drains on the economy as a whole. In this future, universities must realize that faculty time is valuable and the percentage of time spent at a particular campus does not change the value of that time. In this future, professors win because they are paid and treated fairly; students win because they have professors who can survive with a reasonable workload. Universities win because they can hire the needed faculty with more precision, thus helping to eliminate the huge lag time between student population growth and adding full-time lines. Plus, society as a whole wins because universities graduate students with higher quality educations and don’t force their employees to need government assistance to survive. This is a win-win-win-win. I think we should be aiming for this future, or something like this at least.


Seeing these three possible futures, it seems like we need to get ourselves together and make a plan. We need to be really sure that we are avoiding future #1 with everything we can muster. And we need to be working to identify and salvage as many aspects of future #2 as we can in a world limited by money. I believe we need to be working to pursue future #3. But how do we do that?!?!?!


One answer (and perhaps the only serious answer that I’ve actually heard about) is that adjuncts can unionize. Unions have problems, and they aren’t perfect, but I think it is a place to start. I’m told that full-time professors (at least at private universities?) are prohibited from forming unions, which is crappy in my opinion because I think we are all need to be working on this issue together…. but even if we can’t all be in a the same union, I think all professors can and should work together on this. Current full-time people have as much as stake as current part-time people….and all future professors have a lot at stake too (current grad students, I’m looking at you). Administrators also need to be involved in this conversation, so that we can all work together to make budgets and goals align. Actually, I think that everyone everywhere has a stake in this conversation…. I believer that you, dear reader— whatever position you hold in the academy or in society— should support unionizing adjuncts.


We all want to see higher education be as successful as possible because we all want a world full of informed and engaged global citizens. We have big problems to face in the future, and we need people to be as educated as possible when we try to tackle those problems. So, yes, we are all in this together—adjuncts, full-timers, administrators, students, and the general public. Together. All. Of. Us. So, my hope is that we can unite to ensure a future with excellent higher education, and therefore a society of informed citizens.


Pursuing that, I think we should all support unionization. Importantly, unionizing is the most immediate and direct route to avoiding future #1, which I believe we should be everyone’s top priority. Without unionization, future #1 is all we can hope for, and none of us should accept that. Furthermore, I think unionizing may actually help us pursue future #3, which would be awesome for all of us.


It is obvious to me that we are at a crossroads in the academy. We are at a moment full of potential, when individual universities have a great opportunity to guide the academy as whole toward one of these futures. I currently teach at the University of La Verne, and some really exciting things are happening there. Adjuncts have filed for unionization, and we are awaiting a date to vote. I am committed to voting for the union, and I’m excited to see La Verne lead the way in pursuing a future that treats professors and students fairly, thus ensuring that the academy will be as successful as possible in the future. More specifically, I’m excited to see the administration at La Verne support its adjuncts and collaborate with them as we all participate in determining the future of the academy. I’m excited to see La Verne become a model of proactive engagement, working hard to build a successful future for the academy…. a model that other universities can look to and follow.


“Watch this space….”


In the mean time, what do you see the future of higher education looking like? What is the best case scenario, and how can we work toward that? What future should we work to avoid?