Adjunct Faculty are Unionizing

October 26, 2014 at 8:58 am 15 comments

I wonder if this is the start of a trend that will change higher education.  The job of being faculty is becoming harder, especially in CS as enrollments rise without a rise in faculty numbers. Adjunct faculty are particularly put upon in universities, and unionizing is one way for them to push back.

Part-time faculty members at downtown Pittsburgh’s Point Park University have voted to join the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers AFA-USW.The group filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board NLRB in April to hold a mail ballot election. A total of 314 part-time Point Park instructors were eligible to vote, and the ballots were counted this morning at the NLRB’s downtown offices.

via Point Park Adjunct Faculty Votes to Join AFA-USW Union | United Steelworkers.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 26, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    University of California lecturers have been unionized for decades. It has helped them (they’re not as badly treated as adjuncts elsewhere), but they are still not treated exceptionally well. And the union really only helps the full-time continuing lecturers who have been there 6 years or more, at the expense of the part-time lecturers and those who have been there less than 6 years, who pay union dues, but whose interests are not well represented.

    There are some stupid things in the contract (or in the anti-labor University interpretation of the contract), like no merit reviews for lecturers before 6 years (so no raises for excellent lecturers, even if the department sees that the lecturer is underpaid for their quality of teaching), and lecturers having to get all new letters of recommendation if they change to a different lecturer pool (and every department has a different pool).

  • 2. dennisfrailey  |  October 26, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    I think this will simply accelerate the move toward more automation of the teaching process. Universities are already under intense cost pressure. I’ve been a part time adjunct professor at major universities for almost 40 years. I share many of the gripes, but it seems to me the more fundamental problem is that education costs continue to outpace inflation (in part because education is labor intensive and everyone who works expects their salary to outpace inflation). What I’d like to see are more rewards for faculty (adjunct or full time) who figure out ways to deliver education in a more cost effective manner. Instead, universities rely on obsolete measures such as “face time”, which only encourage high-cost methods of teaching.

    By the way, every university I’ve taught at has had the dilemma that when they try to devise unbiased methods of evaluating faculty, adjuncts often rate higher than full time faculty, although they are paid less. They cannot afford to adjust salaries fairly because their hands are tied by the tenure system, so they end up devising schemes that give credit for characteristics that only full time faculty are likely to possess.

    • 3. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 26, 2014 at 8:12 pm

      Actually, the cost of providing education at the public universities has been remarkably constant—the price has been going up as the subsidy has disappeared, but the cost has not changed much. What has changed is that the cost has shifted from primarily instructional salaries to other costs (administration salaries and debt service, for example).

      Private universities are a different story, as their prices have gone up and instructional costs gone down without any state subsidy drop—their administration and other costs have really soared.

      • 4. dennisfrailey  |  October 27, 2014 at 2:53 pm

        Are you saying that instructional costs have gone down? I can believe it but I’d like to see some data to support that and to explain why. To my knowledge, faculty salaries have been roughly on a par with inflation (but perhaps they have gone down), so perhaps any decrease in instructional cost relates to the increased use of adjuncts and other non-tenure-track faculty and/or perhaps to larger class sizes. Regardless of the reason, simple extrapolation says this cannot continue forever.

        The higher proportion of administrative costs is readily explained. Administration costs go up primarily because of additional legislation and customer expectations. For example, there’s cost related to the requirements for supporting the disabled. (I’m not trying to pick on the disabled here, just to point out one of the many legislative mandates over the past 50 years that tend to increase cost.) Customers are also more demanding. When the customer expects to have exercise facilities, that translates into higher costs. And so on and so forth. Instructional costs have indeed gone down as a percent of the total, but the expectations have risen all around. Compare what today’s entering student sees with what you saw when you were in college. When I was in college things were definitely a lot more spartan.

        One way or another something has to “give” or few will be able to afford a college education. And I’d rather see the current faculty participating in the solution than having private industry or the government telling us what to do.

        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  October 27, 2014 at 3:08 pm

          Here at Georgia Tech, we’ve not had faculty raises since January 2008, so salaries have certainly not kept pace with inflation.

          The argument that something has to change or “few will be able to afford a college education” is one that that I’ve often heard repeated, especially with regards to MOOCs — but I’m not really seeing much evidence in support of it. College enrollments are high. Wait lists are long. Most people don’t owe much when they graduate college, but since there are so many people going to college now, the total amount of debt is large (see NPR Planet Money analysis). Most people who owe student debt owe less than $13K — it’s a small percentage that owe exorbitant amounts (see Atlantic story).

          • 6. dennisfrailey  |  October 29, 2014 at 1:38 pm

            Regarding the question of whether education costs have actually risen, there are data out there to support the case. I’ve examined US bureau of labor statistics data going back 100 years to 1913 (in preparation for a talk I gave earlier in the year). There’s a clear message: costs of labor intensive goods and services, notably medicine, government and education, have outstripped inflation steadily over that time. (By contrast, costs of manufactured goods, clothing and unprepared food have dropped dramatically, resulting in net costs going down for the average family.) (Prepared food and dining out have hugged inflation for the most part.) In 1913, the cost of education for the average family was so low (around 0.2% of the average family budget) that the government didn’t track it. It reached 0.7% in 1967 and they started to track it. By 1993 it was about 1.1% and today it’s about 2.5% of the average family budget. This is the average family, including many who have no education costs. And today’s average family has a lot fewer children than the family of 1913. The clear message is that sooner or later something has to change or people will not be able to afford the kind of education they want. The rise is slow but steady and over time it makes a huge difference. Interestingly enough, medical care costs, while still ahead of inflation, have risen more slowly than education costs in the past 10 years, apparently due to increased automation and improved techniques. Thus education is currently near the top of the heap in cost growth overall.

            We can argue over what is causing the growth (“bloated administration” is a common whipping boy) but the underlying fact is that our current methods of education are labor intensive and thus subject to the inevitable cost pressure associated with all labor intensive goods and services. In my view, MOOCs are not the answer in their current form, but non-traditional methods of delivering content are surely part of the eventual solution and there are other ways to make education more productive. We in the education field, especially those in the education research field, would be well advised to address this because if we don’t, private industry will do so and we’ll lose control and authority over the education system.

        • 7. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 27, 2014 at 11:05 pm

          Yes, I’m saying that cost of higher education at public universities has been remarkably stable in constant dollars, fluctuating only about ±10% total in $/student over 25 years. See

          The rise in price for public colleges is almost entirely due to reduced subsidy, not to increasing cost.

          What cost savings there have been from hiring more adjunct faculty and fewer tenure track faculty has been eaten up by administrative bloat and debt service.

          • 8. dennisfrailey  |  October 29, 2014 at 1:46 pm

            Yes, the cost of this specific sector has been stable, but what about other costs incurred by students such as housing? Furthermore, speak to most faculty at these institutions and they will complain bitterly about lack of raises and other detrimental aspects of this situation. (I visit many university campuses each year and I get the same, clear message from all of them.) The pressure is building to do something about the situation, and it cannot continue forever.

  • 9. Bonnie  |  October 27, 2014 at 9:06 am

    The problem is that when working with students who come from non-traditional backgrounds, who may be first in their family to attend college, or who come from poor high schools, what works seems to be very labor intensive. I was just reading today’s report in the Chronicle of Higher Ed on increasing black male participation in STEM majors. They report on schools with success retaining black men. These schools all have incredibly labor intensive programs in place. One school was quoted as having someone flag incoming students who were going to require “almost daily support” in order to succeed.

    Attempts at my school to cut down on costs with online courses have not worked well for most students, who struggle without regular face time. And of course the experience with MOOCs shows that they only work well for the most prepared students.

    But if we don’t do these things, STEM will remain the province of upper middle class white kids.

    • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  October 27, 2014 at 10:09 am

      Strongly agreed, Bonnie. I have a blog post coming out in a couple days, in response to the NPR Planet Money piece, where I make a similar argument. We look likely to drive out women and under-represented minorities. Again.

    • 11. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 27, 2014 at 11:42 am

      Bonnie, I think your demographics are out of date. Asian males are at least as common as white males in STEM fields in the US at both undergrad and grad levels, and biology is majority female. The point about class is well-taken, though, as that is indeed a distinguishing feature for many of our students, across all STEM disciplines, and on-line courses are likely to increase the class discrimination, not decrease it as the promoters of online education fondly hope.

    • 12. dennisfrailey  |  October 27, 2014 at 2:56 pm

      I fully concur that this is a problem, but are you expecting colleges to bear the cost of fixing what amounts to a societal problem? Society has to figure out how to pay for remedial work.

  • 13. Guy Haas  |  October 27, 2014 at 10:20 am

    I’m in Pittsburgh these days… here’s a link to an article, a very sad local story… Death of an adjunct

  • 14. Jake Seliger  |  October 30, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Adjunct faculty are particularly put upon in universities

    If so, I wonder why they don’t do the obvious and quit.

    Hirschman’s analysis in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty offers one suite of possible answers.

  • 15. dennisfrailey  |  October 30, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    Why don’t adjuncts quit? A lot depends on the specifics. I represent the part time adjuncts who have a “day job” that pays the bills. Teaching one course a semester in addition to my full time job is manageable and, although not financially rewarding, is rewarding in other ways that make it worth my while. I don’t have to attend (many) committee meetings, don’t get pressured to bring in research money or to produce publications, and can simply enjoy teaching and have some of the other benefits of being a faculty member (not medical or retirement benefits, but things like reduced rate entry to campus functions). On the other hand, there’s another class of adjuncts – those who are full time and whose day job is adjunct teaching. They seem to be the ones unionizing and, indeed, seem to be the ones being most exploited by the universities. They typically do adjunct teaching because they don’t have a doctorate, cannot get hired in a tenure-track position, are living in a place where they cannot get a better job because of a family situation, or have some other circumstances that preclude them from getting a higher paying job – and they happen to like teaching. They are also usually good at it because they can be fired at will. It’s a career choice that can be influenced by many factors. Universities, being labor intensive institutions, tend to exploit cheap labor wherever they can find it – graduate assistants, adjunct faculty and students all work for less than the “going rate” and if the universities had to pay the going rate, education costs would surely rise significantly.


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