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Hear the call? Temps of the academic world, unite!

Rochester Business Journal
July 26, 2013

I've traveled some to a number of different places, asked whatever questions seemed appropriate at the time and never encountered a single adjunct salesperson, adjunct maintenance person or adjunct bus driver.

"Adjunct" is a word primarily reserved for a certain university faculty status, the temps of the world of academia.

It is a classification that has become increasingly common in recent decades. As the largest unit of the SUNY system, the University at Buffalo has a faculty of 1,039, of which 606 are known as adjunct.

That means 58 percent of the faculty consists of part-time workers who generally have no contracts, no job security and no health insurance or other benefits and are paid by the class, earning far less than permanent faculty members. Often they are assigned classes at the last minute, with little time to prepare.

Now the status and treatment of adjuncts is getting considerable attention in two disparate arenas: college and university administrations and labor organizing.

With decades of decline in U.S. manufacturing and the resulting drop in union membership, a number of unions have been successfully sniffing around for potential members in venues once considered either off-limits, strange or repugnant. University campuses are high on the prospecting list.

When tuition bills are rendered each semester, many of those who pay the bills assume the situation on campus has remained as it was a generation or two ago, when tenured professors taught the largest part of the class schedule.

Wrong.

At 58 percent, UB is just a convenient example. Figures released by the Service Employees International Union show that 50 percent of faculty members in all institutions of higher learning in this country are part-time. That is a startling statistic, up from 34 percent in 1987 and 22 percent in 1970.

At the same time, there has emerged the growing perception that full-time professors are teaching fewer classes each semester.

Adjuncts have helped to balance the budgets at institutions like UB, where there have been serious funding reductions. The tuition paid for a course is exactly the same whether it is taught by a full-time professor or an adjunct.

Anne McLeer, director of research and strategic planning for the SEIU, observed in an interview broadcast on National Public Radio, "The institutions of higher education have kind of become dependent on this cost-cutting scheme that has just sort of expanded."

Adjuncts provide a benefit in addition to saving the administration money. Many bring valuable real-world experience to the classroom.

However, most are unhappy with their status; unions have always been especially attracted to dissatisfied groups. Many adjuncts work for years in uncertain roles for low wages with no job security.

The SEIU is one of the leaders among unions that have embarked on an aggressive campaign to organize adjuncts. There has been no announced effort at UB, but the university is a potential target.

The union has focused on the Boston area and recently sponsored a symposium attended by adjuncts from 20 colleges.

Soon after that meeting, 150 adjuncts from Bentley University filed for an election. Elsewhere, 600 adjuncts at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., voted last month to join the SEIU.

In Buffalo, the chairman of the UB Faculty Senate, Ezra Zubrow, told me he believes some adjuncts earn as little as $2,000 per course and are on food stamps.

On the UB faculty for more than 30 years, Zubrow is a professor of anthropology and former officer of the United University Professionals, which represents faculty and professional staff at UB.

"There have been massive budget cuts at UB in recent years," he said. "What is the best response, to eliminate jobs or actually close certain departments, or to continue operating as before, making use of adjuncts?

"There are specialized situations where the use of adjuncts at competitive wages is an appropriate policy, but universities in general should be working toward a goal where 90 percent of the faculty should be engaged full-time in teaching and research."

In the interest of transparency, it is important for me to disclose an aberration that occurred years ago in my own work life: I was an adjunct for a semester, hastily recruited to teach a course in news and feature writing.

It was an enlightening experience for which I received $1,200. The college got its money's worth, but that assignment ended my career in higher education.

I stuck to my day job.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

7/26/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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