The Tall Task of Unifying Part-Time Professors

As National Adjunct Walkout Day approaches, activists are wondering how to galvanize a collection of workers who drift from campus to campus.

Fred Thornhill/Reuters

Robert Yoshioka has chartered a bus to carry 60 part-time faculty from the campus of Butte College, in Oroville, California, to the state capitol on February 25th, but he’s not sure how many protestors will be there to march when the bus arrives.

Yoshioka, a representative of the California Part-Time Faculty Association, is one of many who are agitating for better wages and greater job security for adjunct, part-time, and contingent faculty, who often don’t know whether they’ll be hired back until a few weeks before the semester starts. But as he and his fellow activists prepare for a National Adjunct Walkout Day on February 25th—the first nationwide protest of its kind—he is running into a problem: It’s hard to organize a loose collection workers who are hired and fired at will. “The problem is that part-timers as a group…it’s a revolving door,” he said.

For the upcoming day of action, at least one school, Seattle University, has organized a traditional walkout that over 100 faculty have pledged to participate in. But, by and large, “Walkout Day” may prove to be a misnomer; under some state laws governing unions and strikes, adjunct professors can’t actually walk out of classrooms without risking their jobs—so many campuses are organizing alternative activities instead. A community college in Kentucky is planning a teach-in, and some schools in the City University of New York and State University of New York systems are planning other non-walkout events. There is also talk of “grade-ins,” in which adjuncts gather to work in public places to raise awareness about their lack of office space.

At this point, it is hard to gauge how many will turn out for events like these—some organizers are tight-lipped about their intentions because they don’t want to be thwarted in advance. But if Campus Safety magazine’s recent article “13 Steps Your Campus Should Take to Prepare for National Adjunct Faculty Walkout Day” is any indication, there is some concern about the disruptiveness of the protests.

According to Yoshioka, an insistence on anonymity by many of the Walkout Day organizers—who protect their identities for fear of losing their jobs—further frustrates their ability to plan meaningful action. Yoshioka has been working to convince faculty that remaining anonymous is harmful to the cause, but it’s a tough sell. “Paranoia runs rampant,” he said.

National Adjunct Walkout Day was conceived by a professor at San Jose State University who chooses to remain anonymous. She galvanizes support for it from behind a social-media veil, and she’s not the only one who hesitates to attach her name to the movement. For example, two out of three of the filmmakers behind “Freeway Fliers,” a documentary currently in production about the plight of adjunct professors, are also anonymous. On the film’s website, vague bios of “Professor X” and “Professor Y” are accompanied by generic black outlines instead of headshots.

Adjunct professors' troubling working conditions—some qualify for food stamps, and most don't get health-insurance benefits—have led some to label them “the hypereducated poor." In response to their treatment, adjunct professors on a growing number of campuses have voted to unionize.

Colman McCarthy, an adjunct professor and former Washington Post columnist wrote an op-ed last year laying out the financial prospects of part-time professors, who, he wrote, “slog like migrant workers from campus to campus.” McCarthy estimated that teaching eight courses per year—four in the fall and four in the spring—at a median wage would earn an adjunct $21,600. “Across the hall,” he wrote, “a tenured professor could make $100,000 for teaching half as many courses to half as many students.”

Robert Yoshioka would like to see tenure phased out entirely to make way for a more egalitarian system. “They should be on renewable long-term contracts like everyone else in every other industry,” he said. “And they should be evaluated accordingly.”

The percentage of academics who work part-time has grown in recent decades. A 2009 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that 75.5 percent of instructors at institutions granting two- or four-year degrees held contingent jobs and/or were not on the track to tenure. According to a recent article in Elle, the reverse was true 20 or 30 years ago, when 75 percent of professors held tenured or tenure-track positions. In the past, adjunct professorship could be thought of as the way dues were paid before attaining tenure, but these days many adjuncts who have worked for years or even decades cannot realistically expect to attain full-time professorship.

Health-care benefits have also become a flashpoint among adjuncts since Obamacare was enacted. Many universities are struggling to maintain the status quo under the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers must offer health insurance to anyone working 30 hours or more per week—a requirement that some universities have responded to by reducing adjunct faculty hours. Miranda Merklein, a former adjunct professor and now a part-time employee of the nonprofit New Faculty Majority, says she saw this happen firsthand. “One of my schools, in line with predatory colleges across the country, cut our teaching hours to deny adjuncts—the bulk of their teaching force—health insurance under the Affordable Care Act,” she said.

Alan Trevithick, a professor at three colleges and an activist, explains that “adjunctification” is a money-saving phenomenon that began in Romance-language departments about 40 years ago before it spread into nearly all subject areas.  This is partly due to funding, he said. “In many state systems,” he said, “there has been a decline over that time in terms of state [financial] support.”

He also attributes the change to the fact that universities have been dedicating smaller and smaller percentages of their budgets to paying faculty, even as tuitions rise at an alarming rate. “Ballooning administrative and capital costs, seldom related to the core mission of higher ed, far outpace instructional costs,” he said.

According to Trevithick, universities got used to paying for cheap labor and putting their money elsewhere. High-profile spending has turned into a higher-education arms race, with universities pouring money into buildings, technology, academic star power, and administrative costs. Trevithick stressed that he believes this is the most relevant point of all—that universities aren’t paying fair wages to adjuncts because they don’t want to, not because they can’t.

Even if wages are naturally driven down when the adjunct-professor labor market becomes flooded with Ph.D.s, Trevithick insists that adjuncts should be compensated more fairly in comparison to their tenured counterparts. “It’s a question of equal pay for equal work,” he said.

Ultimately, the movement isn't solely about defending the rights of adjuncts. Merklein and Trevithick both articulated that taking action is also important because it defends students' right to a quality education; if adjuncts don’t have access to office space where they can meet with students or sufficient time to prepare for courses, they can’t serve students as well as they’d like to.

A few decades ago, California passed Assembly Bill 1725, which stipulated that full-time professors must teach 75 percent of the credit-hours in California community colleges. However, according to the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, the state has “completely failed to move the system forward towards the 75% goal,” and “the system-wide average has in fact declined.” All this makes California an especially interesting case, particularly because the march on Sacramento seems to be the biggest Walkout Day action planned so far. Of course, it remains to be seen just how many people will be there alongside Robert Yoshioka.