Why Adjunct Professors Are Unionizing

From Minneapolis StarTribune:

I grew up a beneficiary of the American dream. My grandfather in India worked two jobs, and despite the family’s poverty, got my father through medical school. My parents, both doctors, came to the United States with three children and $8 in their pockets. They completed their medical training, found jobs and saved well. As a result, they gave us each a college education and a lesson: study hard, work hard and you can do better for the next generation — the American dream.

Even though I am a highly educated professor at a prestigious university who receives excellent evaluations, and even though I’ve published two critically acclaimed books (which matters in the publish-or-perish culture), I am finding that dream increasingly distant. I worry constantly about how to meet the ever-increasing cost of college for my own children.

Why? Because I’m an adjunct professor. And I’m not alone.

Adjunct professors teach around half of Hamline University’s courses now. We are hired one semester at a time, with no promise of future classes, and zero job security. While tuition has increased at Hamline by 50 percent since 2006, adjuncts have not gotten a raise, not even a cost-of-living increase, in that time. Which means that things have been getting worse for us. Most of us receive $4,000-$5,000 per class with no benefits, and many adjuncts struggle to make a living, much less save.

That is why we came together to form a union. Since organizing, I’ve met an adjunct who teaches at four universities to try to support his family, another who stopped getting classes abruptly after 26 years of dedicated teaching, and one who works despite the fact that she is ill and — because she receives no benefits — can barely afford to eat.

I have not been certain how to advise my students who are burdened by student loans and want to follow me into teaching. Do I tell them that I’ve known adjuncts whose classes were canceled two days before the start of the term, thus tanking their income for the semester? Do I advise them that adjuncts nationally have no job stability, that many of us don’t receive our contracts until just days before our classes start? Or that we use our cars for office space?

Most of all, do I tell them what I secretly wonder: Is the American dream still sustainable? The answer I hear when I’m being honest with myself: I don’t think it is, unless we make changes. Because things have been getting worse. For adjuncts, for students and for higher education as a whole.

Read the full op-ed here.