A college student’s most pressing concerns are usually related to money and schoolwork. Maybe you have one or two professors that you have a good relationship with, but for the most part, professors seem to exist only within the walls of the university. When you take a seat in their class, you listen to them, then you get up and leave. Maybe you curse their name in the library. Maybe you gossip about them in the dining hall. But at the end of the day, if they aren’t writing you letters of recommendation, then you don’t really care.
But to a lot of professors, teaching students is only one aspect of their job. The other, more unfortunate, aspect is struggling to keep teaching. And this is highly relevant to students.
Almost ¾ of professors in the US are contingent faculty, according to Forbes’ Dan Emonds. Contingent faculty includes all non-tenure track faculty, not just adjuncts, who and are hired semester-by-semester rather than being full-time. In general, the number of adjunct faculty members at universities in America is on the rise.
A professor with tenure has a guaranteed job until they reach retirement age, which means that the university has committed to paying them for the next several decades. In contrast, an adjunct professor risks not being hired back by the university every semester. They rely on getting positive feedback on course evaluations, and making sure that their courses remain necessary to the school; if not, they might lose their job. Only 22.6 percent of them get health coverage from their academic employers. Adjunct professors don’t teach for the money – they teach because they love to do it. With more universities hiring adjuncts, there are a lot of people who have PhD’s that are forced to work an extra job on top of teaching just to make ends meet.
A substantial argument can be made that the courses themselves are affected by this. Adjunct professors working at more than one university or teaching more than a full schedule of classes to make up for the deficit in salary can’t devote as much attention to students’ needs or coursework as they should. Their syllabi often suffer for lack of time to prepare and less freedom than full-time professors get to design their courses. This all comes down hard on students, too, who are paying huge amounts of money to take these courses and deserve the professors’ best work. Adjunct professors are hard-working people who want to give students and courses their full attention. They want living wages, job security, and the respect that they, as integral parts of a university, deserve. So they’re turning to unions to help make that happen.
The concept behind a union is simple: workers band together to bargain for better treatment by employers. While one or two people can’t make much of a difference, if all of the employees are organized, they have a lot of strong bargaining tools available to them. Labor unions have faded from the spotlight in the past few decades, but they’re still important parts of society that hold lots of power where they are established.
At Temple in fall of 2015, the adjunct professors joined the pre-existing union, the Temple Association of University Professionals. According to the AFT (American Federation of Teachers, a union that primarily represents teachers, which unionized the adjuncts at Temple), Temple boasts Philly’s largest number of adjuncts. Temple students and faculty marched on the campus, and later participated in the Million Student March on City Hall, where they joined students and adjuncts from Drexel and UPenn to express their demands for tuition-free public college, cancellation of student debt, and a $15 an hour minimum wage for universities.
In February of 2015, the first National Adjunct Walkout Day was held. The protest actually took on various forms – not everyone walked out, but instead, some adjuncts organized rallies or “teach-ins.” Students and tenure-line faculty walked out with the adjuncts at Seattle University, San Francisco Art Institute, and the University of Arizona.
At 5:00 A.M. on October 19th, a picket line formed outside of West Chester University’s campus. Impassioned students and faculty all joined together to stand up for professors’ rights in state schools across Pennsylvania following unfair contract negotiations. Signs at West Chester read: “An investment in education pays the best dividend – Ben Franklin,” “Benefits 4 faculty benefit students,” “This is a school, not a business.” Picket lines are a common form of non-violent protest that are intended to block access to a building or event. They’re formed by unions during strikes in order to prevent workers from entering the place of business. When formed outside universities, they’re intended to stop students and faculty from going to class. In the case of the October strike, only 20 percent of the faculty at 14 public universities across the state continued to work. The union said they were “fighting to preserve the quality of higher education when the state was demanding changes such as more adjunct faculty and requiring professors to teach more classes per semester.” In the end, the strike ended with compromises on both sides, but the union was happy with what they were able to accomplish.
The trend from these examples is that it’s not just adjunct faculty who join these picket lines or marches; it’s the whole community. Tenured professors, contingent faculty, and students all join together to make change happen. Students directly benefit from adjunct professors receiving the treatment they deserve. When a group of people’s rights aren’t being fully recognized, it’s the job of everyone – not just those people – to hold leaders to a higher standard. This is, generally speaking, the only way we can all march forward as a society, or a country, or a university. Now especially is the time to stand up for what you believe in and take tangible action at your school to ensure that everyone is being treated fairly.