Class Warfare: Adjunct Professors
I’ve experienced this prejudice against adjunct-as-wage-earner myself. A couple of years ago, I met with a BU department chair to plan my schedule for the spring semester. I was already teaching writing at both the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Management, but I wanted to break into yet another department to make more money, and was willing to take whatever undesirable class-meeting times it would take to get my foot in the door. We got to the details. You can only give me one class that meets three times a week? No problem. You want me to teach in the morning? I’m happy to take that 9 a.m. class, arrange a complex morning childcare network, and start my commute at 7:30 a.m. Then I mentioned I needed to work around my schedule in another BU department.
“Oh, you’re one of those adjuncts,” she said.
Yes, I’m one of those adjuncts, the kind who needs the money, but not by choice. Not at all. I’d chosen this career to become a full-time professor. But here I am, a permanent part-timer, and I need to feed my kids, pay my mortgage, and save for retirement. So I just smiled.
I taught that one course, but in the fall, the full-timers took all of the sections. In the spring, I was offered the same class, and again, the timing didn’t work with my crazy quilt of a schedule. I decided to risk asking for a better time slot, and sent the department head an email. I never heard back from her, my name got pulled from the schedule, and I started hustling for more classes elsewhere.
It probably goes without saying that benefits are a rarity in the adjunct world. I’m fortunate that I have access to health insurance at Bentley, albeit with no employer contribution. Many, such as Betsy Smith, do not. Smith, who has a Ph.D. and makes $3,300 per class at Cape Cod Community College, where she’s taught since 2000, has become an activist for part-time faculty at community colleges. “We have no health insurance,” Smith says. “We have a pension which is not a pension. They take money out of our paycheck every two weeks and give it to a bank to manage. The bank charges us fees. Neither the college nor the commonwealth contributes a penny.”
By the end of the 2013 spring semester, the desire to organize had caught on at Bentley in spite of the administration’s resistance. As the SEIU’s organizing efforts began heating up, emails from the provost’s office about the vote grew increasingly condescending. A missive sent to adjuncts said simply: “We hope that you will vote NO.”
The university seemed to think that the case against unionization was self-evident, arguing that adjuncts already had representation on the faculty senate. It was a laughable premise, given their treatment of the group’s delegate, Joan Atlas. According to Barbara Nash, another organizing committee member who’s been an adjunct since 2000, Atlas wasn’t exactly a welcome member of the senate. Nash says that when Atlas got up to read a statement at a meeting last year, “People could not have been more disrespectful. They couldn’t wait to get her out of there.”
Atlas, for her part, says that her role with SEIU has led the university to question whether she can continue representing adjuncts at all. “They are actually looking into whether I can be on the faculty senate, legally,” she told me. Her position left them perplexed. “Am I a union organizer or a faculty senator?”
When the SEIU rep had asked how I could live on my pay, I felt demoralized. Now that the administration was weighing in, I found myself growing increasingly unsettled about working for a school that fought so hard against my interests and wanted me to do the same.
On September 21, I got my official-looking union ballot. I checked yes, stuck it right back in my mailbox, and raised the red flag. When it came down to it, it was an easy decision. I couldn’t possibly vote no. In October, the results came in: The Bentley adjuncts voted not to unionize by 100–98. The Tufts vote had passed by 69 percent in September, so the results were unexpected and led to a round of handwringing at other campuses in the city.
Nash, Atlas, and the other organizers considered forming a union of their own, without the SEIU, and emailed the university’s provost and VP of academic affairs, Michael Page, asking for a meeting. Page contacted the university’s general counsel, who made the unfortunate mistake of hitting reply-all in her response, so her email was sent to the entire organizing committee. “These guys just do not quit,” she had written.
This spring, the Bentley organizing group revived the unionizing effort. With the SEIU taking more of a back-seat role, they plan to file for a revote next fall. On April 9, I attended a unionization forum at Bentley alongside my fellow adjuncts, full-timers, students, and administrators. The meeting got a little contentious.
“Adjunct pay is set at market rates,” said Daniel Everett, the dean of Arts and Sciences. “There are too many people seeking too few jobs. There’s no solution to the problem except the U.S. economy.” He continued, “If people are saying they can’t make a living as an adjunct, I’m curious as to why they stay in the profession.” To symbolize his struggle, one adjunct who teaches in the history department held up his food-stamp card.
The most revealing words for me were spoken by a student who asked questions throughout the evening. At one point, he said to Everett, “I’m surprised to hear you talk about two levels of professors, and that you’re calling adjuncts contingent.” Later, he added, “I Googled contingent on my phone just now. The words given are: chance, accidental, unpredictable, random, haphazard, dispensable.”
“Exactly,” Everett replied.
“That term surprises me,” the student countered. “These are people.”