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Human Resources

College adjuncts demand to be heard

Unionization of part-time faculty forces schools to offer new benefits to part-time instructors
University Business, December 2016
Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.
Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

Over the last three years, adjuncts at 46 colleges joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Among the latest are those at Duke, University of Southern California, Northeastern and Hillsborough Community College.

Problems involving adjunct salaries and benefits have been festering for years. Compare tenured professors who command six figures to adjuncts who average $2,700 nationwide for a 14- to 16- week class. Besides low pay, adjuncts have no long-term contracts, no benefits, no say in curriculum development—not even an office to hang their coat.

The SEIU, attempting to equalize compensation among all faculty with similar responsibilities, has set an “aspirational goal” for adjunct wages and benefits: $15,000 per course. While no labor contract may come close to offering this amount anytime soon, unionization is spreading fast, forcing re-evaluation of how to pay and treat part-time faculty.

Fighting back

The New Faculty Majority (NFM) and the New Faculty Majority Foundation were established in 2009 by Maria Maisto, a former adjunct faculty member at Cuyahoga Community College. The Ohio-based organization’s mission is to transform the current adjunct hiring system.

Maisto says unionization has been partly fueled by social media, which has helped adjuncts galvanize into a more unified and coherent movement against outdated policies and practices.

Unemployment benefits are a good example. Maisto says adjuncts are denied unemployment benefits between teaching assignments. NFM has been collaborating with unions to encourage the Department of Labor to update this antiquated rule.

Likewise, NFM is asking the U.S. Department of Education to collect and disclose information about the working conditions on campus for faculty, including adjuncts, so students and their parents have an accurate picture of a school’s culture and workplace environment.

“Adjuncts are essentially temporary workers doing some of the most important work at the college or university with almost no rights but many responsibilities,” says Maisto.

Loss or gain

There’s no doubt unionization can dent a school’s budget. But some administrators perceive it as a long-term investment rather than a disruptive, short-term cost.

Consider Lesley University in Massachusetts, which employs about 400 adjuncts each semester and reached a new labor agreement in July 2015. The nine-month negotiation produced big changes, says Lisa Ijiri, associate provost. Compensation will increase an average of 10 percent per year over the following three years.

Some adjuncts can now sign a two-year contract, which ensures more job security. They may also receive benefits such as tuition reimbursement and retirement plan participation.

Lesley also provides valuable in-kind benefits. Adjuncts can now share office space, attend department or faculty meetings and serve on various committees. “This is part of our ongoing commitment of being a quality employer,” Ijiri says. “It’s also an opportunity for HR and administrators to look at what things they want to be in place in a central way as common practices to benefit student learning.”

Familiar territory

In March, Duke adjuncts voted for representation by the SEIU.

“The university and local union have just started negotiations so we’re early in this process,” says Kyle Cavanaugh, VP for administration, adding that schools new to collective bargaining must understand related processes and protocols to avoid being accused of observing unfair labor practices. It’s too soon to assess whether unionization will spread to other employee populations across campus, he says.

But considering the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that graduate students working as teaching or research assistants at private universities are now considered employees who can join unions, it is likely something to expect.

As the national movement for unionization continues to grow across college campuses, there’s an important lesson here. Unions typically spring up where inequities are either perceived or actually occur. Considering your school’s core mission is education, and adjuncts play a key role in delivering student learning, do you really need to wait for unionization to do the right thing?

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

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