Part-time faculty organizing for respect and rights

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by Mary Ellen Flannery

After nearly a decade spent teaching and inspiring the students of East-West University in Chicago, Curtis Keyes, Jr., recently was warned away from his campus gates by a security guard.

“You don’t know me?” Keyes asked, in disbelief.

Keyes, president of the newly certified, NEA-affiliated union of contingent instructors at East-West, was fired last month for the third time in nine years. But don’t imagine this attack by hostile administrators is going to stop him—not for even one minute— from moving forward with the very first collectively bargained contract at East-West.

“I hope our battle can serve as a model for other unions,” offered Keyes at a recent symposium hosted by the New Faculty Majority (NFM), an association of non-tenure track faculty members. “You need to stand up. In doing so, you will find protection,” he promised.

A growing number of contingent (or adjunct) faculty members are working on campuses of higher education in this country, as many administrators seek a low-cost, easy-to-fire, pliable teaching force. Between 1999 and 2007, their numbers grew by 41 percent, about four times the rate of full-time, tenure-track faculty, according to federal statistics. In 2007, full-time and tenure-track faculty accounted for just 27 percent of the total faculty.


Most are paid appalling wages: At the blog, The Homeless Adjunct, adjunct professor and filmmaker Deborah Leigh Scott describes colleagues living in cars and homeless shelters. In 2003, four-year institutions paid contingent faculty about $12,000 a year on average, according to information provided by the NFM. In two-year institutions, which employ greater numbers of part-time faculty, salaries averaged closer to $9,000 annually.

While they starve, their students suffer as well. How can a student get extra help if their teacher doesn’t have an office? At East-West, two-thirds of instructors leave at the end of the semester, making it almost impossible for their students, who are almost all Black or Latino and poor, to forge the kind of mentoring relationships that make a difference in graduation rates.

Gary Rhoades

“If we’re to succeed as a nation, we will only succeed to the extent that we address and redress the working conditions of contingent faculty,” said Gary Rhoades, professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, and director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education. Increasing numbers of contingent faculty, Rhoades pointed out, are teaching specifically in institutions with large numbers of poor, minority and immigrant students.

For its part, NEA strongly believes that part-time faculty members should be treated as professionals, and no different than full-time, tenured or permanent faculty. When it’s clear that adjunct positions are anything but temporary, they should be converted to full-time, tenure-track jobs. And, most importantly, NEA supports the rights of contingent faculty to bargain collectively.

Increasingly, despite the odds, that’s happening. At East-West, where Keyes, a member of NEA’s Emerging Leaders Academy, is leading the way, contingent faculty will bargain their first contract this spring with help from the Illinois Education Association. Keyes is determined to create the kind of working conditions for faculty that support student learning, he said.

Meanwhile, at Klamath Community College in Oregon, part-time faculty bargained their first contract this past fall, which includes provisions for equitable layoffs, a grievance process, and even the guarantee of email addresses for adjunct faculty. (Can you imagine trying to keep in contact with students without email?) “We tried very hard to keep in mind how we could serve students better,” said Mary Lou Wogan, a math professor and member of the NEA/OEA-assisted bargaining team.

Adrianna Kezar

“We just need more unionization,” said Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, at the NFM symposium last week. Kezar also noted that not all of these improvements actually cost any money. “The respect, the inclusion in governance, the professional development that already is being offered…” can easily be offered to contingent faculty for free.

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Reader Comments

  1. I go to [name unpublished] Community College, which is a pretty cool place until you find out how they treat their part-time faculty. What they claim on their website and what I see every day are two very different things.

    Adjunct faculty haven’t had cost-of-living increases in four years, and faculty in general seem to receive little respect from administration.

    A vote last year noted that 92% of full-time faculty (part-time and adjunct faculty were not counted) thought that the administration should at least talk to the faculty members; the mere existence of the vote at all is indicative of a problem.

    Another vote last year was a confidence vote in the administration; while I don’t recall the exact result, the conclusion was very definitely “No Confidence.”

    I haven’t seen any evidence of improvements since then, either. When I get my AS, I won’t be sad to never pay that place another dime, because I don’t know where my tuition goes, but as far as I can tell, the instructors don’t seem to getting much of it.

  2. I’ve taught as adjunct faculty for over 15 years in various 2-year colleges in my area. I’ve never had health insurance (I can’t get my own due to pre-existing conditions), paid sick days or paid vacation time, or a retirement plan. My students actually think I make 6 figures a year and get summers off. They think all college instructors are rich. I set them straight on the reality that, in our 2-year college district (one of the largest in the nation), 96% of the instructors are adjunct and 4% are full-time. When I tell them what adjunct faculty make per year, teaching all year round, their jaws drop. I actively discourage my students from going into teaching at any level in this country.

  3. I am an adjunct in my tenth year at a college that is part of the New York State University system. I am treated with great respect, have an excellent relationship with my colleagues and department chair, and I love my students. I do have an office, as all adjuncts do on our campus, but I share a very small office and computer with two other adjuncts. My pay is abyssmal and hasn’t gone up much in the past 10 years. Fortunately for me, I am a retired classroom teacher with social security, so I don’t depend on this job to pay the bills. Nevertheless, when I figure in the cost of gas to drive to a campus 30 miles away and I add up the time I spend in preparation for each of the classes I teach, it is appalling how little I am getting. My campus union has done very little. nor has the state professors’ union, to help raise the pay of part-time faculty. And now, due to huge budget cuts by the state, many of those full-time professors who retire are replaced by two or three adjuncts making slave wages. I feel very sorry for the younger part-timers as they are really poor. I am 70 years old, so it isn’t likely that i will teach long enough to see anything change.

    1. Have you tried getting involved in your union? You say the union has done very little. Is the union trying to help win you a pay increase or more job security? I’m in the leadership of a union at Columbia College Chicago, and we have been working for two years to reach a new agreement on a contract with the college. What we get from the college negotiators is bad faith bargaining, regressive bargaining, intimidation of members and interference in union activities. We’ve filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. One of the problems for us is the lack of involvement by the other union members. Our college knows that many adjuncts are just simply out of touch and can’t be bothered. I understand that people are very busy trying to earn a living, but if we want to show strength, we have to get involved!

      1. Get involved? The faculty forum at the college in which I am employed wants little to do with 75%+ of the faculty because we are part-timers. They do ensure we’re hog-tied in our obligations as faculty with virtually none of the same rights as a full-timer. While 25% of the faculty has a voice, it is totally incorrect that part-timers do now, or ever will, pay to play the same game as our so-called peers. We pay dues and typically lose something every contract so as to better enable the full-timer’s demands.

  4. Without good instructors in the classroom, nothing is learned. The pay for doing such an important service for society is a travasty. This country had better do some soul searching about how teachers are treated and paid. Most of these people care greatly about their students and do extra unpaid work to help students. Pay must increase to keep our good teachers and attract new teachers with these attributes. Reality is, like George Carlin said,”Corporate America doesn’t want a well educated population that would realize how badly their getting sc***** in our corporate owned America. 1% control everything, especially after the “Citizens United” ruling by the conservative Supreme Court. They, along with both the other two branches make up the best government money can buy and they don’t give a damn about education, they just talk about it. I taught high school for 30 years.

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