Tenuous-track positions

Overworked, underpaid and insecure: adjunct and part-time US faculty are fighting to convince their institutions - and tenured colleagues - that they deserve better. Jon Marcus reports

March 5, 2009

As an adjunct instructor in English at a small higher education institution in the American North West, Jessica Bryan lived with the usual indignities of being a part-time faculty member.

Unlike her senior tenured counterparts at North Idaho College, she had no job security, no benefits and none of the safeguards of academic due process. And even while teaching three classes a semester and two summer courses, and supplementing that income as a tutor in the institution's writing centre, she earned, at best, $15,000 (£10,600) a year.

Yet Bryan continued working as an adjunct, part of the swelling ranks of contingent faculty appointed for one term at a time without the typical faculty privileges, and often resented by their full-time, tenured and tenure-track colleagues, who were watching their own proportion of the professoriate decline.

Even as a part-time instructor, Bryan prided herself on knowing all her students' names by the end of the first week of class. She returned assignments promptly with feedback and made herself available for extra office hours.

"Like many adjuncts across the US, I did at least the same amount of work as senior tenured faculty members. I believe, because of my commitment to and love for the classroom, I did more. I entered the classroom with enthusiasm and dedication, and all my professional evaluations attest to that. My belief was that my commitment to the students, coupled with my hard work and personal concern to see my students succeed, would be rewarded, although perhaps not financially," Bryan says.

But in the autumn of 2007, on the last day of term, the college sent Bryan an email telling her that she would not be reappointed for the following semester. It gave no reason for the move, and shortly thereafter hired another adjunct to replace her. In a written statement, the institution says that Bryan's contract was to teach a specific course for a specific semester, and that it could not make binding commitments to part-time instructors because of the need to maintain flexibility.

Now the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which routinely investigates complaints about workplace mistreatment of senior faculty, has forcefully intervened in Bryan's case.

It's a precedent-setting turning point in a growing backlash against the working conditions of the long-suffering adjunct, which has included a nascent union organising effort, proposed changes in labour laws, and even a successful one-day strike.

"For many people, working as a contingent faculty member instead of being on the tenure track represents downward mobility in their lives," says Joe Berry, who teaches labour and employment relations part time at the University of Illinois and who has led union organising campaigns by fellow adjuncts.

"Some people respond to that by being resentful, others leave, and others have come to the conclusion that we've joined the working class. We are highly skilled professional contingent workers and we'd better start behaving like it - or we're just imitating doormats and they will walk all over us."

Adjuncts in higher education, estimated to number some 600,000 across the US, are paid the equivalent of 64 per cent less per hour than their full-time colleagues, receive no health insurance or other benefits, may lose their appointments with little notice if enrolments shift or budgets fall, and are typically not entitled to jobless compensation because they are considered temporary. To earn a living, many teach large numbers of courses at different schools simultaneously.

"We don't even have to be explicitly dismissed," Berry says. "All they have to do is fail to reappoint us. They don't even have to look you in the eye and say 'go away'."

The AAUP contended that Bryan, who was nominated as North Idaho College's part-time instructor of the year the very year she was dismissed, was being punished for a highly publicised comment made in class that appeared to be critical of political conservatives. It also argued that she had been dismissed in the hope that her removal would encourage her husband, a tenured instructor who had been accused of sending harassing emails to a college employee, to leave too.

"I felt overwhelmingly betrayed and blindsided," says Bryan. "I felt exploited and frustrated ... but there was no avenue for me to implement change."

That's partly because, until now, adjunct faculty have been slow to organise to fight for better working conditions. Much of the problem is logistical; some teach at night or, because they have no offices, are not on campus other than during their class times. Dependent on being reappointed every semester, they fear being blackballed by administrators. They have also received almost no support from the principal traditional faculty unions in the US.

But this is beginning to change. Independent organising efforts by adjuncts have taken root in Boston and Chicago, with early successes at winning higher pay and other concessions.

Non-academic unions including those representing automobile workers and government employees, seeing an opportunity to increase their memberships, have started organising adjuncts. "There are more of us than there are steelworkers," Berry observes. And traditional faculty unions, in response, have begun to intervene on adjuncts' behalf.

"It took a lot of the older tenured members a while to realise what an ongoing and serious issue this is," says Gwendolyn Bradley, a senior programme officer at the AAUP who specialises in adjunct staff issues. "There was a sense that this situation was temporary, but it's become clear that there's a huge trend of employment away from the tenure track."

Indeed, today 48 per cent of US university faculty - up from 30 per cent 30 years ago - are considered part time, even though some teach the equivalent of a full-time course load. While in the 1960s nearly 97 per cent of full-time faculty appointees were on the track to tenure, now barely 30 per cent are. And as the recession erodes university budgets and government funding, conditions for these contingent faculty are expected to worsen, and activism for better conditions to increase.

"The professoriate as a profession is being threatened by practices that are turning them into contract labour," Bradley argues. "Ultimately, the concerns of senior and contingent faculty are very similar, or at least compatible. It's better for everyone if there are more full-time tenured faculty, but it's also true that the two groups can be divided - and administrations often take advantage of that. It's not in the two groups' interests to be pitted against each other."

As awareness of a common cause is growing, more efforts are being made by unions and the AAUP to stem the growth in part-time faculty positions - or at least prevent a further decline in the percentage of faculty who are on the tenure track - while also improving conditions for contingent faculty.

As with so many things, it was in California that this movement started. Two competing unions vied to represent faculty in the massive California State University system, which has 23 campuses and 23,500 faculty, more than half of them part time.

One of the unions, United Professors of California, represented both full-time and contingent faculty; the other, the California Faculty Association (CFA), only full-time academics. In a close vote by employees, in 1982 the CFA won the right to bargain with the university, but the state's Public Employee Relations Board ordered it to negotiate for pay, benefits and other issues affecting contingent faculty, too.

After a grudging start, the CFA successfully fought on behalf of the California State University system's adjunct faculty for salary increases, health benefits, paid maternity and paternity leave, and three-year instead of one-term appointments, if suitable work is available. (Adjuncts are entitled to those benefits after teaching one semester or two quarters at a level considered 40 per cent of full time.) Today, such faculty make up 51 per cent of the members of the union, which categorises them as the more dignified-sounding "lecturers".

"We had a long battle to make sure contingent faculty were properly represented," says Elizabeth Hoffman, a lecturer at California State University, Long Beach and the union's associate vice-president for lecturers.

"But in the end, as we became successful, it built a stronger union than if there were two separate unions" - one for part-time and the other for full-time faculty. "The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts," Hoffman says.

Elsewhere, adjunct faculty also have been organising independently. A loose confederation called the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, or Cocal, has succeeded in bringing together part-timers in Boston and Chicago, where they often work at several different universities, using the same principle as construction workers' unions: organising on a regional basis rather than worksite by worksite or campus by campus.

The AAUP's Joe Berry says there is a pool of adjuncts that teaches at many universities just to make ends meet. "I see the same people at Roosevelt (University in Chicago) that I do at the University of Illinois, and then later at the adult-education programmes."

Adjuncts at Roosevelt and Columbia College Chicago have successfully unionised. So have their counterparts at Boston's Suffolk University and Emerson College. All these higher education institutions are private, where it is more difficult to organise than at public universities.

The adjunct faculty at Suffolk, who outnumber the tenured and tenure-track faculty, voted by more than two to one in 2005 to make the local chapter of the AAUP their representative to negotiate over issues such as pay, benefits and job security. They won an 8 per cent increase in their base pay.

At Emerson, which had been notorious for low pay and poor working conditions and where 60 per cent of the faculty were part-timers, the adjuncts formed a new AAUP chapter in 2001 and negotiated a five-year contract that resulted in significantly higher salaries. At the University of Massachusetts Boston, part-time faculty members also organised a union and won full health benefits.

As a result, Hoffman says, adjuncts have come to feel significantly more invested in their jobs. Before the California State University institutions relented, she says, "There were certainly issues of low pay, essentially no job security - you never knew when you were coming back - and there were great difficulties getting health benefits if you could get them at all. But overriding all that was the feeling that you were marginalised in the profession."

But last year, adjuncts in those institutions joined the Alliance for the California State Universities, a partnership with students and businesses to support the cash-strapped public universities.

"The way (adjuncts) are being treated now makes them better faculty members in general," Hoffman says. "It's not just a few people whining about their jobs. It really is about a profession that influences the future of the country by educating young people."

This movement has not escaped the notice of universities, which, after all, have increasingly relied on adjuncts because they are cheaper and more flexible than full-time faculty. Several institutions have responded with anti-union campaigns, including New York University, George Washington University and the University of Vermont. When Emerson adjuncts voted for a union, the university fiercely contested the results.

"They are increasingly behaving like other employers," Berry says. "It used to be very uncommon in higher education for employers to wage full-out anti-union campaigns, complete with intimidation tactics that are common in the private sector."

Hoffman observes, "It's just as much about power as money. It's really a power game."

Fear also works against adjunct faculty union organisers, Berry says. "It's fear of firing, fear of discrimination if you don't get fired, fear of not being seriously considered for the next full-time tenure-track job, or even the next non-full-time tenure-track appointment. To get people active publicly and to get them to commit to join an organising committee and sign a leaflet and be a job steward, that takes a lot of courage."

There are also significant logistical problems, principally tracking down the adjuncts' contact information. At Emerson, organisers collected mailing lists department by department, but because the lists had been compiled in the previous semester - and because contingent faculty are so contingent - they were largely inaccurate. One quarter of the adjuncts who taught during one semester were no longer teaching in the next.

Yet in only two of several dozen organising drives in nearly 40 years have adjunct or contingent faculty at a US higher education institution voted down proposals to join a union - although even in that election, held at George Washington in 2005, the vote was close.

"You can't find another workforce in the US that has voted union with that percentage," Berry says.

The actions against Bryan violate the AAUP's new policies governing the treatment of contingent faculty, which state that adjuncts should be told a month ahead of time when they are not being reappointed. At its annual meeting in June, the association's full membership may consider putting North Idaho College on its list of censured higher education institutions.

The fact that the union even has rules about contingent faculty, never mind that it has taken on the Bryan case, marks "a metamorphosis", says Hoffman.

"It's reached a critical mass where it is starting to get a lot of attention from tenure-track faculty and from people who really care about the profession and about issues in higher education," she claims.

New Cocal chapters are now active in Oregon and Washington State, and another has just been formed in New York. Part-timers at the University of Michigan staged a successful one-day strike for job security and higher pay in April 2004. And adjuncts are organising at universities in Minnesota, Maryland, Connecticut and Washington DC.

"We've had people come to talk to us from Canada, from New York," says Hoffman. "The message we always give them is, you've got to organise."

Especially considering what's likely to come next. "There are going to be mass layoffs, except they don't call them layoffs, they just quietly don't reappoint people," Bradley says. "There are going to be lots of people who are just out of work."

Institutions in states such as California will not be spared. "It's heartbreaking," Hoffman says. "But because we have such a strong contract (in the California State University system), a lot of the discretionary power that the administration had to get rid of the highest-paid lecturers is gone. So while they're never entirely protected, there's more of a sense of stability for part-time faculty."


Although officially a professional organisation at the national level, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has more than 60 chapters on individual campuses that in effect serve as unions. Collectively, these chapters represent 65,000 faculty members.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, both national unions whose membership consists mainly of primary and secondary-school teachers, also represent some university faculty.

Recently, the United Auto Workers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have begun to organise university employees, including graduate students and part-time, or adjunct, faculty.

In all, unions represent about 250,000 full-time academics in higher education, or 44 per cent nationwide, along with an increasing number of adjuncts, on some 1,100 campuses.

Almost 90 per cent of the academics represented by unions are at public universities. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the faculty at private universities are managerial employees and thus are not necessarily entitled to collective bargaining. However, about 70 private universities have agreed to recognise faculty unions, including some that represent adjuncts, and the number is growing.


The University and College Union estimates that there are 75,000 hourly paid staff working in UK higher education.

Recognition is often a problem, the union says, unless institutions use agency staff or claim that staff are self-employed.

Part-time posts on the same terms and conditions as full-time staff are not a problem, and the UCU says it is happy for institutions to offer such work on that basis.

Rates of pay vary, with some as low as £25 per teaching hour. In general, hourly paid staff earn less than full-time teaching and research staff. Most institutions do not link the hourly rate of pay to the national pay spine.

Many part-time staff receive no holiday pay, sick pay or access to occupational pension schemes, and many work on a succession of fixed-term contracts or zero-hours contracts, whereby staff are given a contract but are not guaranteed how many hours they will teach.

Such workers are often referred to as "teaching-only" staff, and they are not paid to undertake self-directed research.

Researchers are more likely to be employed full time, but they are usually on fixed-term contracts. Although their pay is usually linked to the national pay spine, career progression can be a problem, the UCU says, because of the way research is funded through the competitive grant system.

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments


Featured jobs

Lecturer in Economics

Royal Holloway, University Of London

Lecturer - Criminal Justice and Criminology

University Of The West Of Scotland

Lecturer in Aerospace Structures

Cranfield University

Accreditation and Planning Manager

University Of Greenwich