Adjunct faculty rise up for Campus Equity Week

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Trick-or-treaters were not the only ones haunting public spaces on Oct. 31: It was also a day of action for adjunct faculty, who wore masks, performed skits and displayed artwork to demonstrate their significant contributions to university life and insist on equity and fairness for them on campus.

The day was the peak of Campus Equity Week, a week set aside biennially to highlight the low pay, insufficient benefits, and lack of job security and respect for faculty who work off the tenure track. Whether they are part-time or full-time adjuncts, contingents, lecturers or assistants, these faculty members teach more than half the classes at our colleges and universities. While they do the best they can, their lack of resources makes it hard to provide the high-quality education our public institutions should be offering its students.

Decorations at Fredonia

Union locals across the country staged events to bring attention to the issue, some funded with small grants from the AFT. In Fredonia, N.Y., United University Professions members hosted mask-making sessions and hung witch hat-shaped posters urging readers to "Unmask economic inequity" facing adjunct faculty. In Albany, N.Y., members hosted an art show and reading to showcase contingent faculty work. In Los Angeles County, they created a walk of truth, with samples of #adjunct life: "My car is my office," "El Camino [Community College] doesn't pay me to see you outside of class," "Tomorrow I'll be working in another city." In New Jersey, members made a video outlining the reasons adjunct faculty need representation: "There are 3,000 of us, and we teach most of the students here at Rutgers," says Teresa Politano, president of the Rutgers Part-Time Lecturers chapter of Rutgers AAUP-AFT. "You're always rushing from one job to another job," says member David Chapman, who added that since he began teaching at Rutgers in 1999, "At no time have I had office space."

Other locals held performances, exhibits, teach-ins and other events providing information and giveaways, including buttons and stickers with a scarlet "A" branding professors as "adjuncts," like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.

All the day's activity underscored the facts: About 75 percent of faculty in colleges and universities in the United States are working off the tenure track, according to the national Campus Equity Week campaign. The average adjunct pay per three-credit course is about $2,700, or about $21,000 per year for full-time work. Twenty-five percent of part-time instructors make so little they receive government assistance, and many have no access to benefits like health insurance, retirement contributions, sick leave or even office space.

Student with maskAdjunct faculty frequently juggle several positions on different campuses and take outside jobs like waiting tables to make ends meet. Because they often have no office space, they balance student meetings and class prep in coffee shops and on the road between jobs. And with no multiyear contracts and late notice of teaching assignments, they are often scrambling for positions just days before classes start.

Stories about adjunct faculty who are homeless, cannot afford lifesaving healthcare or cannot find work despite their advanced degrees bring home the gravity of the situation.

Twitter illustrates the accumulation of insults and challenges adjuncts often endure, with tweets like these:

  • "Just been told that the library changed their policy and now adjuncts don't get to check out books as long as full-time profs."
  • "This semester I am at 3 institutions, have 6 classes, and drive 200 miles a week."
  • "In the morning I signed a contract for the fall. In the afternoon I received an email saying that the salary will be 13% less."
  • "My Fall schedule went from 7 classes to 6, to 5, back up to 7, and still maybe 6... all at 4 different institutions. #adjunctlife"
  • "Five days till the semester starts and I still don't have access to email or Blackboard. #adjunctlife"
  • " 'Prof, what are you teaching next semester?' *crickets* The fun of being subject to the Magic 8 ball of class non-assignments."

Unions can help. A report from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce shows that adjunct faculty with union representation were paid 25 percent more than those without a union, were nearly twice as likely to be paid for course cancellations, and fared better regarding paid office hours and job security.

Adjunct faculty contribute mightily to university and academic communities, and are often listed among students' favorite professors. Despite challenging conditions, they continue to not only produce great teaching but also participate in symposia, publish books, create and exhibit art, and publish research to advance scholarship in their fields. And they participate in the unions that help advance their cause.

For more examples of Campus Equity Week action, see the hashtag #2017CEW on social media.

[Virginia Myers]