Colleges' Use of Adjuncts Comes Under Pressure

From Wall Street Journal:

For decades, the nation’s colleges and universities have tried to hold down costs by shifting from reliance on tenured professors to an army of cheaper adjunct instructors. Now that business model is starting to crack, as adjuncts increasingly are winning battles to unionize and schools, in response, have begun to offer long-term contracts and better pay to more of the instructors.

The move comes amid growing frustration from students and parents paying tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition for an education taught mostly by itinerant faculty, sometimes nicknamed “road scholars” because of all the time they spend driving between schools to teach.

Since late November, adjuncts have won unionization votes at eight colleges, from Boston University to Dominican University of California. Last week, full-time, nontenure-track faculty at Tufts University’s College of Arts & Sciences voted to unionize.

Those union victories come after more than 15,000 part-time teachers at 40 schools joined unions in the 2012-13 academic year, bringing the total number of unionized, part-time teachers to about 172,000, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York. The National Labor Relations Board in December issued a ruling opening the door for more union action at private religious schools, and a national adjunct walkout day is scheduled for Feb. 25.


In response, more university presidents are negotiating pay raises and long-term contracts for full-time work to stave off union inroads. All of this adds pressure to costs, which administrators warn could translate into higher tuition.

“I go to meetings and there’s a lot more discussion about it than there was even two years ago,” said Dan King, chief executive of the American Association of University Administrators. “Now, it’s a very sober conversation…because as adjuncts organize, personnel costs are going to go up, and we are going to have to deal with that.”

The higher costs compound the state funding cuts many public colleges face, while schools of all types have been spending on new dorms, labs, gyms, administrators and other things as competition for students grows.

Helping to build momentum for the adjuncts’ cause is a recent shift in posture by tenured faculty. Many tenured professors had long spurned their part-time peers, afraid adjuncts were being used to undermine the tenure system. But lately they have become more supportive of the adjuncts’ plight, seeing their growing numbers as irreversible and fretting over the implications for students of being taught by transient teachers.

Students taught primarily by part-timers—who often don’t have private offices, regular office hours or adequate time to prepare for class—have lower retention and graduation rates than those with full-time teachers, according to Adrianna Kezar, co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.

“Universities are being shamed,” said Walter Benn Michaels, a tenured professor and union activist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “People are paying good money to send their kids to [these schools], and they expect a faculty with a certain level of expertise.”

Read the full story here.