BOSTON » Gillian Mason was passionate about literature in college, so she made a career of it, earning a Ph.D. in American studies from Boston University. She had part-time teaching jobs on different campuses, but after 10 years as an adjunct she realized that she would never find a tenure-track job, or even one that paid a living wage.
"I was teaching five classes at three different campuses. I was quickly going broke, and my student debt was still growing," she said.
So Mason left teaching and became a higher-education organizer, part of a movement catching on across U.S. campuses where adjunct faculty members, the working poor of academia, are turning to collective action.
Only a quarter of the academic work force is tenured, or on track for tenure, down from more than a third in 1995. The majority hold contingent jobs — mostly part-time adjuncts but also graduate assistants and full-time lecturers. And the Service Employees International Union, with members in health care, maintenance and public service, is moving hard and fast to add the adjuncts to their roster, organizing at private colleges in several urban areas.
In Washington, it has unionized American University, Georgetown, George Washington and Montgomery College. In the Los Angeles area, adjuncts at Whittier College and the University of La Verne just filed with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election. In Boston, Tufts University’s part-time faculty voted to join the service employees union in September, and an October vote at Bentley University failed by two votes. Campaigns are underway at Northeastern and Lesley.
"The SEIU strategy has the momentum right now," said Adrianna Kezar, director of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. "And we know that unionizing leads to pay increases and at least the beginnings of benefits."
A survey published last year by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that unionized adjuncts earned 25 percent more per course than those who were not unionized.
At the service employees union’s recent Adjunct Action symposium in Boston, organizers talked of how a citywide union might help to raise pay, improve working conditions and address the health benefits problem: Under the Affordable Care Act, employers with more than 50 employees will be required to provide health insurance to those who work at least 30 hours a week — and in a recent survey of human resources officers by Inside Higher Ed, nearly half said their colleges or universities limited adjuncts’ hours so they would not be eligible for health benefits. When the union’s organizers asked those at the adjunct symposium what they would most like to change, health insurance was right up there with pay and working conditions.
Some universities are pushing back against the union’s efforts. Northeastern, which has 1,400 part-time, nontenured faculty members, has retained one of the nation’s most aggressive anti-union law firms, Jackson Lewis.
Northeastern’s president, Joseph E. Aoun, declined to be interviewed. The university’s provost, Stephen W. Director, in a letter discussing the union organizing campaign, said that faculty members and the administration had "fostered an extremely collaborative relationship built upon mutual respect and trust."
"We encourage all of our faculty members to work directly with the university on any issues or concerns they may have," the letter stated. "We are concerned about the impact that ceding your rights to do so to an outside organization, which is unfamiliar with our culture, will have on our community."
On most campuses, the professors said, they felt little support from students. Douglas Kierdorf, a history adjunct at Bentley who is teaching one course this semester, said he had worn his red Adjunct Action button throughout the organizing campaign, hoping students would ask about it so he could tell them he earned $5,000 for the course, while nearly a dozen administrators earn more than $250,000 a year. But the students were uniformly incurious, he said.
Adjuncts have also wondered how to rally support from parents, who might not have considered how faculty working conditions affect students’ learning conditions, or that their huge tuition bills were paying for instructors who commute among several universities, have no offices and may earn so little that they qualify for food stamps.
Several studies with different methodologies have examined adjuncts’ impact on student success, with most finding negative effects.
But in September, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a study finding that freshmen at Northwestern University who took their first courses in a discipline from nontenured faculty learned more than those who took the introductory courses from tenured professors. At Northwestern, an elite university, however, nontenured faculty members generally work full time, with full benefits and multiyear contracts.
While the study did not deal with part-time adjuncts hired semester to semester, David N. Figlio, the lead author, said in an interview that it had provided evidence that what mattered for students was full-time teaching status, not tenure.
"The rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think," the study said.
But a preliminary national study, presented recently at a higher education conference, found that the percentage of part-time faculty members at community colleges had no impact on student success.
Organizers from the service employees union, analyzing local living costs and adjunct pay, said at the Boston symposium that while teaching 12 courses a year was "an extraordinary coarse load," the average adjunct would have to teach 17 to 24 classes a year just to afford a two-bedroom apartment and utilities – then a further two to four classes to cover groceries. Saving for retirement and going out for meals was out of the question.
The meager reach of adjuncts’ pay was no surprise to William and Barbara Shimer, who are adjunct professors at Northeastern. In all, they are teaching 11 classes this semester — he has five at Northeastern and two at Wentworth, she has four at Northeastern — paying $2,100 to $6,500 each, depending on where and for how many credits.
William Shimer was once asked on a Friday to teach a new course starting the following Monday, and told to come early that day to pick up the textbook. Barbara Shimer once had a class canceled shortly before the first class. Like most part-time instructors, they have neither job security nor health benefits. But what pulled William Shimer into the union campaign was the lack of an office.
"We used the trunk of our car as our office, rushing back between classes to dump one set of books and materials and get what we needed for the next class," he said. "Then one day, our office got towed. I decided right then to get involved with the union."
Barbara Shimer said that, although the symposium made the adjuncts’ plight seem intractable, it also gave her hope that a national movement to improve the situation was gathering steam.
Last month, Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, set up an online forum for adjuncts to share stories about their working conditions.
The problems of adjuncts were spotlighted in September in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed article by a United Steelworkers lawyer that described the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old adjunct at Duquesne University, where the steelworkers have been organizing.
Vojtko, who taught French at Duquesne for 25 years, never earned more than $25,000, even when she taught eight courses a year, a load that eventually dwindled to one a semester. Vojtko, who had cancer, was dismissed last spring, with neither pension nor severance, and died in August. The lawyer said Vojtko had received a letter from Adult Protective Services, saying that she had been referred as someone who needed help caring for herself. When he called to explain, the lawyer wrote, a surprised caseworker asked, "She was a professor?"
The story became a rallying point for adjuncts nationwide.
"It resonated for a lot of people, as a symbol of how they could end up themselves," said Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national organization for adjuncts.