Unions can fix the crisis facing adjunct professors

From Al Jazeera America:

Higher education is facing a crisis that is shortchanging students: the exploitation of adjunct labor.

Colleges and universities across the U.S. have come to rely on adjunct instructors to teach introductory surveys and basic courses such as college writing and English as a foreign language. Adjunct professors are often underpaid and overburdened — leading some instructors to go on food stamps, live without health care or even become homeless. It may seem difficult to imagine a once venerated teaching profession being so devalued. Yet research shows that overreliance on adjunct labor is not only hurting the faculty but also undermining the university’s primary mission of educating students.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution that can safeguard high educational standards and reverse the ill treatment of adjuncts: unions. Unionizing is a straightforward path to preserving the quality of higher educational and ending the exploitation of adjuncts.

On campuses in Boston, Chicago, Connecticut and Los Angeles, efforts are underway to organize unions for adjuncts and graduate student assistants, who labor under many of the same unsustainable working conditions. Adjunct professors are also joining with students and parents to create a national advocacy group called the New Faculty Majority.

“If I were looking for a good job that lets me build some security for my family, I’d join a union,” President Barack Obama said on Labor Day to a union audience in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker has proposedbudget cuts to higher education and urged professors to “work harder.” Unions are typically associated more with factory workers than with college professors, but universities and colleges are workplaces too. Unionization will limit the exploitation of adjuncts without requiring new legislation or onerous regulation by merely mandating universities to respect their employees’ rights.

The broken job of adjuncting

Parents spend life savings to send their kids to college so that the next generation can be educated and get a decent shot at the American dream. But increasingly, students are not getting the kind of attention that faculty members with office hours and secure job status are able to give. Instead, the bulk of teaching is being shifted onto contingent workers who, despite their desire to teach subjects they love, must scramble to provide even the basics for their students, including comments on papers and letters of recommendation.

Once upon a time, adjuncts — professors who are hired to teach courses on short-term contracts — were hired as a backup for the tenured faculty. Since they do not have ongoing research commitments, adjuncts were available to teach the courses that tenured professors could not. But this backup system became a way for deans to cut corners. Today adjuncts are the go-to labor force in higher education, constituting 76.4 percent of U.S. faculties. 

Read the full op-ed here.