Rebecca Gibson has taught poetry and creative writing at Tufts University since 1995.
But despite teaching at the university for nearly two decades, she isn't a tenured professor. She's adjunct faculty, which means she makes a fraction of what some professors at Tufts make, no matter how many classes she teaches.
Gibson is part of a growing trend at campuses across the country. In 1970, almost 70 percent of all professors were tenured or on-track to tenure, but now more than 50 percent of professors are adjunct or part-time, according to the American Association of University Professors.
Experts say this is largely because adjunct professors, who are paid by the number of courses they teach and typically receive no benefits, are much cheaper than professors who have tenure.
And yet a recent study shows that in many cases, adjuncts are just as effective, if not better, instructors. In fact, a study at Northwestern University released earlier this year found first-year college students did better academically with adjuncts than with tenured professors.
Gibson likes her job, and so for years, she accepted the fact that she was paid far less than other professors at Tufts.
But this spring she and other adjuncts got an email that they would no longer be eligible for merit raises.
To Gibson, it was one more cost-cutting move by the university, and also a last straw. She and other adjuncts at Tufts tried at first tried to negotiate, but in the end decided to unionize.
Tufts has since joined a growing number of universities, such as Georgetown, American University and Whittier College, which have successfully unionized or are in the process of doing so. The growing number of part-time and non-tenured professors across the nation could have dramatic effects for an industry that is already facing scrutiny for escalating costs, rising tuitions and exploding student loan debt.
Not all about money
For Gibson, the decision to unionize came down to respect.
A study by the American Association of University Professors for 2013 showed that the median pay for adjunct professors is only $2,700 per course, although the pay differs depending on the degree of adjunct as well as whether they teach at a public or private institution. Even if an adjunct professor were able to teach 10 classes a year, which isn’t always possible since many universities put limits on the number of classes an adjunct professor can teach, they would still barely make more than $25,000 a year, with no health insurance or other benefits.
Often, adjunct professors need to teach classes at multiple universities and colleges in order to make a living. Others work side jobs to compensate for the low pay and benefits.
“There is a growing sense of the awareness of how much adjunct faculty are doing on campuses — ours for sure, and many, maybe most, in the United States,” Gibson said. “The amounts we’re paid now compared to what people used to get paid to do these classes are way less. They are taking advantage of the notion of adjunct faculty to save money.”
Marco Ramirez, an adjunct faculty member who teaches urban studies and introduction to public administration at the University of La Verne, a private university in Los Angeles, is like many of his colleagues: he makes very little money, he’s only allowed to teach a few classes a semester and believes that adjunct faculty members deserve to be treated better.
“I know that as an adjunct I shouldn’t expect to make a bunch of money. I shouldn’t expect benefits. But I do think it’s fair to pay people a living wage,” Ramirez said. “I work as a management consultant on the side. What I get paid at La Verne for a semester, I make in a weekend.”
While Ramirez makes more money in his management consultant job, his true passion is teaching. And while he says he doesn’t necessarily teach for the money, his co-workers and friends without side jobs are what inspired him to help campaign to form a union at La Verne.
“There’s fundamentally something wrong that you have people who have degrees, are qualified and have an interest in helping students succeed, but still are struggling. For me it’s all about fairness,” Ramirez said.
Enter the unions
The idea to unionize became a reality at both Tufts and La Verne when representatives from the Service Employees International Union showed up on campus. Before they arrived, the idea of joining a union was foreign to adjunct faculty members.
For Gibson and the others at Tufts, the loss of merit raises made them realize that they were not as much a part of the community as they might have thought.
“It’s a weird thing, because we have been treated pretty well, and certainly well compared to what we’re learning about other places,” Gibson said. “But the relationship is the thing that I’m now seeing as flawed. It’s one where we felt like we had to be quiet, not talk about our situation to anyone, certainly not complain, be grateful and be like subservient children.”
She said attempts to communicate with the administration and fix the problem ended with proposed solutions that failed to address the issues at hand and left the adjunct faculty feeling ignored and, worse, helpless.
“We slowly began to realize that we were isolated — we were disempowered,” Gibson said. “We’d do our thing in the classroom and we’re grateful, which we should be, except always being just grateful and not feeling like a full member of an organization is not good. You just get smaller and smaller.”
While the universities are generally against the idea of unions, they have been respectful of the adjuncts' right to do so, although they have sent out emails and pamphlets to discourage it, according to Gibson. In response to the adjuncts' efforts to unionize, the administration has made an effort to convince them that the move is unnecessary.
“It is important to note that we have very little turnover in our part-time ranks because our benefits and compensation packages are strong and competitive," said Dean of Academic Affairs for Arts and Sciences James Glaser in a quote to Tufts Daily.
Since union representatives arrived at Tufts, adjunct faculty members successfully formed their union and are entering the negotiation phase while adjuncts at La Verne are currently campaigning to unionize.
While by law universities cannot retaliate against teachers wishing to form unions, the administration discouraged the move.
Other unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers, are helping to organize adjuncts at universities across the country to help give a voice to this large demographic of teachers.
“For us, obviously we want to improve the conditions for faculty,” said Craig Smith, director of higher education for AFT. “You have institutions that want to save money and cut labor costs. More and more people are trying to invest in higher-ed but cut the core of that force.”
Politicians have also joined in the fight for better treatment of adjunct faculty. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., announced Nov. 19 that the Committee on Education and the Workforce had formed an eForum for adjunct professors to tell their stories to members of Congress to assess job satisfaction and compensation. Miller, the senior Democrat on the committee, hopes that the results of the eForum will lead to legislation that will protect adjuncts and part-time professors.
However, there are critics that believe the unionization of adjuncts will end up costing universities more money and hurt the academic process for students.
"Where will the extra money come from? My own guess is that the necessary funding will come from yet one more increase in tuition or, for public universities, yet more taxpayer money," wrote Robert Weissberg, emeritus at the University of Illinois-Urbana, in an essay for Minding the Campus.
Weissberg, who currently teaches as an adjunct at NYU, believes that if adjuncts are paid more, universities will be forced to cut funding to scholarships, research grants, specialized librarians and downsize technical support services, among other things.
Some universities, like Tufts, are just entering the negotiating stage now. According to Gibson, adjuncts hope to walk away from the negotiations with good working wages and more transparent relationship with the administration.
Besides better wages and benefits though, many adjuncts just want their voices to matter. For Ramirez and adjunct faculty at La Verne, who are still in the process of campaigning to unionize, it’s the simple desire to be included in the decision-making process and be a part of the school community.
"I guess the one outcome is that they include us in decisions that affect conditions at work," Ramirez said. "We just really want them to understand that, although we are not tenure-track, it doesn't mean we don't care about student success."
Sam Clemence is an intern for the Deseret News, where he works with the opinion section staff and as a reporter for the enterprise team.