Nine months out of the year, Andrew Nelson works about 50 hours a week, driving his 1995 Mazda on either 50- or 100-mile round trips every weekday to his college teaching gigs at Lindenwood University in St. Charles and East Central College in Union.
He gets paid just $22,000 a year combined — without the benefit of a retirement package or health care coverage.
Nelson is one of an estimated 4,000 adjunct faculty working in the St. Louis area. All together, they make up the working class of the academic community. They are the low-wage earners who teach classes when full-time faculty are already overloaded with heavy course loads, and they fill in when teaching departments are short-staffed.
For the past few years, a number of shadow campaigns to unionize adjunct faculty have bubbled up at area colleges in the hopes of giving those workers job security, a voice in campus decision-making and to negotiate for benefits and better pay.
While a number of those campaigns have fizzled out before they could gain traction, college leaders have been reluctant to speak about the issue publicly. Privately, however, they acknowledge that it’s a growing movement nationally.
Colleges and universities around the country have been relying on adjuncts more and more as a way to save money as state funding for higher education continues a steady decline now approaching 25 years.
That trend picked up steam in recent years. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that states spent about $2,300, or 28 percent, less per student in 2013 than in 2008.
What the money crunch means for teachers such as Nelson, who has a master’s degree in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia, is that low-paying adjunct positions are plentiful, while full-time faculty jobs are not.
Nelson gets paid about $2,500 a semester for every three-credit course he teaches. So he picks up as many courses as he can, splitting his time between two universities to make ends meet.
But, he said, it’s not just about money.
“The most important thing is that we have no input into the departments we work in. We have no say on textbooks, either,” he said. “So other people determine what we are going to teach and how we are going to teach it.”
Nelson also said adjuncts miss out on holding office hours to better connect with students, plus paid faculty development days which help instructors become better at their jobs.
A congressional report released in January by the Democratic staff of the House Education and the Workforce Committee suggests that Nelson’s concerns are shared broadly by adjunct professors nationwide. The report found that 98 percent of respondents to an online forum said they were “missing opportunities to better serve their students because of the demands of their schedule.”
The report acknowledges that some who serve as adjunct professors do so to supplement the income from other full-time jobs. But increasingly, the report found, instructors are cobbling together multiple adjunct jobs as colleges rely on them “to do the bulk of the work of educating students.”
“The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself,” the report states.
The report, titled “The Just-in-Time Professor,” draws connections to trends in fast food and retail employment, where workers have little to no means of predicting their work schedules.
That’s been a complaint of Gail Brody, one of six adjunct faculty working alongside two full-time instructors in the architectural program at St. Louis Community College at Meramec in Kirkwood.
Brody has been at the school for 20 years, but, as an adjunct, her schedule is determined by which classes fill up with students and which faculty are available to teach those classes.
She said she generally only finds out whether she will be teaching and what courses she will have just days before each semester starts.
“So you don’t really know if you are going to have that part of your income,” she said. In the meantime, Brody works a retail job that offers her health care coverage.
“The school wouldn’t keep me around for 20 years if I wasn’t a good instructor,” she said. “But you can’t depend on adjunct money. I would be on board with unionizing if it would lead to health care benefits and some consistency.”
‘A SERVANT SUBCLASS’
The Service Employees International Union has been leading the push at several St. Louis-area colleges, and while the organization doesn’t like to state publicly which schools it is looking at, teachers at Lindenwood, St. Louis Community College at Meramec and St. Louis University have said they have been approached.
Nancy Cross, vice president of the SEIU Local 1, said unionizing adjunct faculty has taken on greater significance over the years as full-time faculty positions dry up.
“You have people who spent a lot of time and money to get highly educated with the idea that there was going to be full-time positions available,” she said. “So they leave college with a lot of loans and the full-time positions aren’t there anymore.”
Cross’ point is one that has some traction in Washington. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has been pushing a loan forgiveness program for adjunct faculty.
Durbin’s office reports that from 1991 to 2011, the number of part-time faculty doubled, with many of those workers being adjunct teachers who have an annual income of $25,000 or less, on average.
Durbin argues that adjunct faculty who try to support themselves solely by teaching end up working at multiple schools and carrying a full-time workload but without benefits including paid sick days, vacation and access to health care.
“The vast majority of these educators hold advanced degrees, and as a result, bear the heavy burden of student loan debt,” Durbin said in a statement. “It is only right that we expand their access to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, a benefit already available to many of their full-time colleagues.”
Even though adjunct faculty appear to have some national support, it’s unclear how their attempts to unionize will play with full-time faculty in the area.
St. Louis University mathematics professor Steve Harris said he welcomes unionization for adjuncts. He said their current role is that of “a servant subclass,” and that needs to be fixed.
But Dennis Michaelis, St. Louis Community College’s interim chancellor, said he knows of full-time faculty who are against collective bargaining for adjuncts.
Michaelis wouldn’t elaborate, but the common argument is that as adjuncts get a larger share of the pie, there is a possibility that full-time faculty will see their share shrink.
Bob Thumith, SLCC’s director of human resources, said the SEIU’s aggressive tactics — petitioning faculty outside classrooms and elsewhere on campuses — has turned a lot of people off.
“These types of things are supposed to happen organically,” he said. “A lot of teachers don’t like to be bothered in their classrooms.”
Thumith said a push for unionization at SLCC campuses is dying down, as far as he knows.
Whether unionization for adjuncts takes off in the St. Louis area, Southern Illinois University President Randall Dunn said schools will have to adapt.
Forming a union is the logical “response to the second-class-citizen status adjunct faculty have at many institutions,” Dunn said.
If a push to unionize at one of his campuses was successful, it would simply become a more complex budgeting matter.
“We’d have to find the money from other sources,” he said. “Some administrators look at collective bargaining as this terrible thing. I don’t view it that way. It’s a part of doing business.”