Last Saturday, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500 held its Third Annual Forum on Part Time Faculty Unions, expressing the needs and concerns of contingent academic labor in the higher education teaching profession. Keynote speaker Debra Leigh Scott shared her story of working as a lifetime adjunct professor, without any job security, employment benefits, or even a living wage with which to support her family. She and others who went to school for PhDs to gain the credentials for a teaching career in academia were shocked and dismayed at their inability to secure tenure-track positions, despite having trained their whole adult lives for this type of career.
While the tuition rate for students in the United States increased by 50% between 2000 and 2005 and has been skyrocketing ever since, the percentage of adjunct professors in institutions of higher education has been rising steadily, saving colleges and universities the cost of paying more tenured and tenure-track faculty. Now 89% of all faculty in the United States are adjuncts, with little to no benefits or job security. While some adjunct professors are working part-time or by choice, many are piecing together full-time work loads (often teaching eight courses a semester) at different institutions which may be geographically dispersed, at less than half the pay of a full-time tenured professor teaching just one course at a university.
The SEIU forum seeks to raise awareness and fight the inequities imposed on adjunct professors by organizing and informing both adjuncts and tenured professors alike. The Full-Time Faculty for Unions (FTFU) was in attendance, showing support for the movement toward collective bargaining rights for adjunct faculty. In particular, this group seeks to gain the support of tenured faculty for the equal rights and treatment of their part-time colleagues. The issue of fair treatment and inclusion of adjuncts was a big theme at the forum, and struck a chord with AWIS’ mission. But while women have long had the legal protections necessary to squash overt discrimination in favor of more subtle discrimination, adjuncts seem to still be facing the type of treatment women experienced in the 1960’s and 70’s. One speaker likened the existence of an adjunct professor in an institution of higher education to that of the untouchable caste in India. She cited a conversation had between one of her students and his academic advisor, who promptly assured him that unlike her class, his other lecture class would be taught by a “real professor”. Another organization in attendance, the New Faculty Majority (NFM), gave out tee-shirts with a scarlet letter “A” for Adjunct on the front.
In many ways, the equality that adjuncts seek is not so different from the demands of the women’s movement. They want equal pay for equal work, inclusion and fair treatment in the workplace, and equal opportunities for advancement in their academic careers. Indeed, there is even some overlap of women scientists and engineers and adjuncts. In 2001, AWIS reported over 50% of women with doctorates in science and engineering were in non-tenure track positions. Among men with science and engineering, however, the numbers are just as bad; 55% of men with doctorates in science and engineering were non-tenure track. These numbers have likely gone up in subsequent years.
The relevance of all this to the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) is our shared goal of institutional transformation. When student tuitions and administrative salaries are at an all-time high, the number of non-tenure track professors is growing and their economic situation is worsening with the economic decline of the United States. One participant asked the question: When educators cannot even afford to send their own children to college, what does it say about the state of education in our country?