by P.D. Lesko
I recently read this great opinion piece by Julien Berman published in the Harvard Crimson. Titled “Adjuncts: The Faculty Underclass,” I expected it to be the same old tired arguments in favor of breathing, clean water and, yes, the need to treat adjunct faculty better. Much to my surprise, I got to the end of the piece and muttered, “What a great idea!” Berman, a college sophomore, writes, “Here are some immediate and practical solutions that universities across the country can implement to improve adjunct well-being and thus the quality of education received by undergraduates. First, institutions should index the adjunct pay per course to local living conditions.”
Yes, yes, yes. What a simple and elegant solution. Kind of. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) Adjunct faculty at NYU have, for years, used the high cost of living in New York as a reason to push for much higher per course pay. The NYU adjuncts’ latest contract, while not perfect, was a huge improvement where per course pay is concerned.
For non-tenured faculty who teach in cities such as Boston, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Chicago, the cost-of-living solution to piddling pay should be a must have for every part-time faculty union bargaining team. Never a fan of the push for $10,000 per course (it’s still three-course per year pay that is around the poverty line for an individual poverty), adjunct faculty in those cities need to be paid $25,000 per course, plus benefits.
So what happens when adjuncts at college’s in cities where the cost of living is low have their pay tied to local cost of living? Julien Berman either didn’t think of that. Perhaps, on the other hand, he’s a budding capitalist. In his piece he wrote: “From an economic standpoint, this move makes sense: Tenured professors are expensive investments under long-term contracts, whereas adjuncts are cheap hires that can be laid off more easily.” Either way, tying per course pay to the cost of living in a small city or town, would be a disaster for those non-tenured faculty. In those cases, adjunct pay would, instead, be better improved by being tied to what full-time faculty are paid.
Another of Berman’s suggestions is something I have been criticizing loudly for decades. He writes: “Second, adjunct pay raises should match full-time faculty pay raises, at least on a percentage basis.” No. No. And no. In fact, until adjuncts at a college or university reach pay parity (read more about that here), unions that represent adjuncts need to push for big pay raises, like 60, 70, 80, 100 percent. What Julien suggests is called the “equal percentage raise.” Slippery union leaders push this to make it appear as though they are treating all members equally and fairly.
Equal percentage raises for adjunct faculty union members are back of the bus union representation at its worst. Why? If a union negotiates a five percent raise for all faculty, who benefits the most, materially? The people who earn the largest salaries, of course, the full-time faculty.
The preceptors (non-tenured faculty) at Harvard launched their official campaign to form a union in Feb. 2023. In a press release, “Harvard Academic Workers-United Automobile Workers stated that it seeks to bargain a contract for the University’s non-tenure-track faculty, which includes lecturers, preceptors, postdoctoral fellows, instructors, researchers, teaching assistants, and adjunct faculty. Non-tenure-track faculty may only hold teaching appointments up to eight years,” according to reporting in the Harvard Crimson.
Union organizers have said they don’t expect Harvard administrators to voluntarily recognize the union. Any way you slice it, though, Cambridge/Boston is one of the most expensive areas in which to live. The average non-tenured faculty member at the university earns around $50,000. Average monthly rents in the area top $2,700. Full-time faculty at Harvard earn, on average, $182,992 per year.
Berman writes: “The adjunct problem has grown as universities have started to increasingly hire part-time labor. From an economic standpoint, this move makes sense: Tenured professors are expensive investments under long-term contracts, whereas adjuncts are cheap hires that can be laid off more easily. However, when university professors are paid so little that they are forced to sleep in their cars and apply for food stamps, it might be time for a change.”