Some People in Higher Ed Are Delighted Adjuncts are Losing Their Jobs

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by P. D. Lesko

For many years, I have made myself unpopular among higher education union leaders for pointing out unions blatantly unequal representation of their adjunct faculty members. When a union that represents full-time and part-time faculty bargains a contract that allows full-time faculty members to take away courses assigned to their part-time faculty union members and call it “overload,” that’s unequal representation. When a union that represents full-time and part-time faculty bargains a contract that allows 80-90 percent of the money allocated by a college for faculty compensation to go to the full-time faculty union members, and then brags about negotiating “equal percentage raises,” that’s unequal representation. The truth is that many administrators, higher education union leaders and full-time faculty are delighted to see adjunct faculty losing their jobs.

Thanks to decades of unequal union representation, adjunct faculty have for too long been in the crosshairs of both their employers and their own local, state-wide and national union leadership. The higher education unions have funded studies and then pumped out position papers that purport that their own adjunct faculty members undermine higher education and student success. Why? I believe the concerted attacks on adjunct faculty by their own labor unions and local union leaders boil down to money and power.

Let’s say a union collects 1.5% of a faculty member’s pay in the form of dues. Union leaders would rather have 1.5% of a full-timer’s salary than 1.5% of the exponentially smaller paychecks bargained for the union’s part-time faculty members. Full-time faculty jealously guard their own power, privileges and perks. As the number of adjunct faculty has exploded, full-time faculty have relentlessly attacked their colleges’ hiring of adjuncts and, at times, adjuncts themselves. Full-time faculty have routinely excluded adjuncts from Faculty Senates. Full-timers in Faculty Senates have awarded adjuncts fractions of votes or, given them one or two seats—when the adjuncts are the faculty majority. Fewer adjuncts may mean full-time faculty have to teach more courses, but it also means a rebalancing of the ratio of part-time to full-time faculty that leans more in favor of the full-timers.

In 2007, the American Federation of Teachers declared war on adjunct faculty nationwide (including the union’s own members) with a program called FACE (Faculty and College Excellence). FACE focused on wheedling more money for full-time faculty appointments out of state and federal governments to stem the growth of adjunct faculty hiring. That program almost completely tried to increase the number of full-time faculty in higher education. The bait and switch to get adjunct buy-in was this: when a college got rid of adjuncts and funded new tenure-line positions, the adjunct faculty at that college would have the inside track when applying for the jobs. Guess how that worked out. Between the time FACE was launched (2007) and 2020, the number of college faculty off the tenure-track rose over 20 percent.

My long-time friend Keith Hoeller has been speaking out against and writing about unequal representation by faculty unions for over a decade. In 2014, Keith published his book Equality for Contingent Faculty, a collection of essays about the plight of adjunct faculty. Keith was targeted by his own faculty union, and attacked by national higher education union leaders. Hoeller helped form the New Faculty Majority, but resigned from its board when it became clear that the organization had been co-opted by national education faculty unionists disinterested in focusing on issues related to unequal representation. The entity, led by President Maria Maisto, has been reduced from a six-figure budget (funded in part by the national education unions) and a national portfolio, to a small non-profit whose last social media post on Twitter was a Retweet on April 24, 2020. The group’s Facebook page is more active.

Prior to the pandemic, there were approximately 1.6 million faculty employed off the tenure-track in higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that over the past several months, colleges and universities have shed 10 percent of their employees, or around 460,000 jobs. CUNY axed 3,000 of its 12,000 adjunct faculty. Let that soak in for a moment. CUNY, where the faculty union has collected millions of dollars in union dues from its thousands of adjunct faculty members over the past decade, never bargained real job security for the majority of the union’s members—the adjunct faculty. This same Greek tragedy is being played out at colleges around the country with long-standing faculty unions.

At Rutgers, where the part-time faculty have been represented by a joint AAUP-AFT union since 1988, members are protesting the layoff of adjuncts. The members should be throwing their own union leaders out of office for negotiating a contract in 2018—and contracts for decades—that didn’t protect members’ jobs. In 2018 when the Rutgers part-timer’s union negotiated a new contract, union members called for pay equity, affordable healthcare and job security. The union failed to achieve any of those goals. The long-time Rutgers part-time faculty union president and executive committee member who led the Rutgers union right into its current dilemma was, herself, stripped of classes recently.

Any faculty union that bargains for pay equity is throwing its own members under the bus. I wrote this essay in 2009 explaining the difference between pay parity and pay equity. Similarly, any union that protests a contractually bargained right of its college employer to layoff adjuncts, is putting on a shameful dog and pony show.

Higher education is shedding jobs, yes, but how do those job losses stack up to other sectors? In comparison, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in March and April the retail/trade sectors lost 2.4 million jobs. Of those, 1.9 million of the jobs lost have since been recovered, for a net loss of 500,000 jobs. It has also been reported that across the U.S., enrollment in undergraduate programs is down 4.4 percent, overall, while graduate school enrollments are up 2.9 percent. Overall college enrollment has declined 3.3 percent year over year, including a 16 percent drop in freshmen enrollment. Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center said, “The latest data update shows community colleges and freshmen continuing to show the steepest drops in enrollment, while the declines among undergraduates generally have deepened.”

The College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which is tracking the pandemic response at schools around the country, found nearly a quarter of the 1,442 public and private institutions it surveyed have announced layoffs since the start of the pandemic. About 459 schools have also disclosed furloughs. College administrators are foisting the bulk of the budget cuts onto the people who are paid the least.

A Washington Post analysis of federal labor data revealed that office and administrative staff employed by colleges have suffered the largest and most consistent job losses, people who earn around $40,000 a year. If there is any measure of how much higher education has turned into a corporatized clown show, it’s that to close budget gaps, administrators are laying off faculty, cutting course offerings and throwing whole departments overboard. In other words, administrators are destroying the very content, the very reason that students enroll in higher education. Yes, personnel amount to a large portion of a college’s budget, but the enormous pay disparities between and among college personnel, including faculty, are the problem.

Adjunct faculty, treated by higher ed. administrators, faculty unions and full-time faculty as disposable—even as adjuncts account for the majority of faculty in the U.S.—have to learn from this crisis. First, if adjunct faculty in unified locals make up the majority of the members within the faculty union, they must take over their local leadership and lead their unions, or leave them, and form new unions. If unionized adjuncts in part-time faculty unions have leaders who haven’t negotiated equal pay for equal work and job security, those union leaders must be thrown out. Newly-formed part-time faculty unions must pull no punches when it comes to fighting to divert money from full-time faculty compensation to achieve equal pay for equal work, and job security. Finally, and most importantly, adjuncts who have lost their teaching jobs, should give serious consideration to using their job losses as opportunities to pivot into different job sectors.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Administrators, full-time faculty and faculty unions are never going to stop targeting, disparaging and exploiting temporary faculty. It’s up to non-tenured faculty to take stock of their enormous skills, amazing talents and excellent experience and then work to change the outcomes of their own careers.

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