Education coalition assails wide use of temporary faculty

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Higher education is growing increasingly segmented, with elite colleges reserved for the very wealthy and higher education for the 99 percent becoming more standardized, impersonal, low quality or completely out-of-reach. This was a central theme as the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education convened its fifth national gathering this weekend here, bringing together over 80 activists from across the country who are passionate about reversing disturbing trends in higher education today, such as the drastic cuts in state and local support for higher education, the staggering increases in tuition and fees that are levied to replace those funds, and corporatized on-line learning platforms that further reduce faculty control of higher education.

The Campaign is a loose coalition of advocates from organizations like the California Faculty Association, the New Faculty Majority, the AAUP, the National Educational Association, and the American Federation of Teachers. It has published working papers and an “on the issues” blog that aim to improve affordability of and access to higher education and to challenge corporate efforts to reshape education in its own interests. This meeting was hosted by the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

One theme that was especially central to the meeting was the trend toward use of temporary faculty, also called “contingent” or “adjunct” faculty. Universities traditionally hired permanent faculty members on tenure tracks, with a few adjunct faculty, usually people with full-time jobs who were just hired to teach one specialty course. In recent years, universities have drastically reduced tenure track faculty and have come to depend heavily on adjunct faculty, who in turn depend on their college wages for a living. Sometimes known as “road scholars” because of their arduous commuting from one college to another, adjuncts face low wages, no job security, and few benefits, according to Maria Maisto, president of the New Faulty Majority. They are paid on a per-course basis, receive no overtime pay, and are especially vulnerable to gender, age, and race discrimination.

Conference participants reported that adjuncts are summarily dismissed without recourse at the whim of administrators, and in some jurisdictions, including Ohio, adjuncts are forbidden by state law from joining the collective bargaining units on their campuses. In some “MOOCs” (for “massive open on-line courses”), universities are offering tenured faculty’s on-line course content, but using low-paid adjuncts to be the actual teachers.

The New Faculty Majority, a national coalition of adjunct faculty, and its newly founded local counterpart, the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association (OPTFA), formed a panel at the Campaign meeting. One co-chair of OPTFA, Doug Wilder, said that adjunct faculty need to be visible to their fellow faculty members and to their students.  To that end, OPTFA designed a button that identifies the “Adjunct” with a scarlet “A.” He said that it was tantamount to academic fraud the way students are led to believe that all their teachers labor under similar working conditions.

OPTFA co-chair April Freely teaches at the University of Akron, where 70 percent of courses are now taught by adjuncts. Many of her students there are first generation college students who are struggling and vulnerable. She is happy to spend the time with them that they need to succeed, and said she was sorry to realize that because of the way adjunct faculty are paid, the more time she spends with her students, the less she is reimbursed for her time. This kind of structure is exactly the opposite of how higher education should be organized.

Judy Olson, an adjunct faculty member on a California campus, said that when she was a student at California State Fullerton in the late 1970s, tuition was a mere $100 per semester. Along with the astronomical costs to students, colleges have reduced the size of the tenured faculty and relied more on adjuncts. In some cases, colleges have eliminated whole programs, dismissing tenured faculty, and then hired them back on as adjuncts without job security or decent wages. Students, Olson said, have a right to be educated by a full faculty, who all participate in teaching, research and shared governance of their universities.

A full-time adjunct professor at the State University of New York (SUNY), Anne Wiegard, told the audience that as the ranks of adjunct faculty grow, the job security of all faculty is jeopardized. “All faculty are contingent,” she said, to some degree. On some SUNY campuses, tenure track faculty recognize their common cause with adjuncts and have worked in partnership to provide quality education to students.  In one case, a union that includes both tenure track and adjunct faculty voted to weigh in on the issue of how the Internal Revenue Service measures adjuncts’ work hours for purposes of eligibility for health insurance from their employers.

One of the most compelling sound-bites of the conference was offered by someone from the New Faculty Majority and echoed throughout the meeting: “Even if you aren’t a union, act like you are.”

The CFHE will meet next in New York City in January, 2014.

Photo: At AAUP’s 2012 Summer Institute, participants discuss divides in the professoriate in the “Turmoil and Divide in Academia as Opporunity” workshop. The workshop looks at how we can bridge the divide between tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty in order to present a unified faculty voice. (Michael Ferguson/AAUP) 


Anita Waters
Anita Waters

Anita Waters is Professor Emerita of sociology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and an organizer for the CPUSA in Ohio.