September 30, 2016

Adjuncts are committed to Webster—Webster should commit to adjuncts

A letter to the editor from Adjunct Philosophy Professor Dave Hilditch, Ph.D.

You may have heard or read about the initiative underway to unionize Webster adjunct faculty. Perhaps you even signed a petition in support of that initiative. A number of Webster adjuncts are now working with organizers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to garner support for holding a vote on establishing a union. An adjuncts’ union would benefit students, faculty, and the university. Here’s why:

The bulk of teaching at Webster is done by adjuncts. We make up over 70 percent of all faculty, and contribute quality teaching. We help maintain the viability and continuity of academic departments and programs. However, virtually all adjuncts are hired on a semester-by-semester basis and lack job security. We rarely know if we will be teaching next semester and frequently receive late notice when courses are cancelled. We do not receive benefits such as health insurance, and have little to no office space in which to meet our students privately. Our courses are sometimes cancelled on short notice, which is a hardship for us as well as a detriment to the students enrolled in those courses

This situation is true for even long-term adjuncts, such as myself. I have taught at Webster for 16 years, during which time I estimate I have taught over 1,200 students. I have developed new courses and written many letters of recommendation to help students get jobs or get into graduate school. I stay in touch with many of my students long after they graduate. During all my 16 years at Webster, I have always taught on a semester-by-semester basis. This is the norm for nearly all adjuncts at Webster.

At Webster, most of us adjuncts receive only $3,000$3,500 per class. One adjunct I know pointed out that at this rate, you would have to teach 10 courses a year just to make the salary of a convenience store manager. But there are now strict limits on the number of courses we can teach per semester, so in fact, our meager pay results in many of us hitting the freeway to teach at multiple institutions. Indeed, one adjunct friend works at three different places, teaching as many as eight courses a semester. Needless to say, this is not an easy way to make a living.

I hope you can begin to see why organizing to form a union makes sense from the standpoint of adjuncts. Adjuncts must be able to negotiate collectively with Webster’s administration for more secure contracts, better pay and more supportive working conditions.

A new, equitable system would greatly benefit students. With better contracts and working conditions, we wouldn’t have to rush off to our next teaching gig. We could hold more flexible and extended office hours. We could devote more time to enriching our Webster courses, and to develop new courses. In short, we would be able to commit ourselves fully to the students of Webster

Our tenured- and status-faculty colleagues also stand to see benefits from an adjunct union. This is not a zero sum game.Better contracts and pay will make it easier to find and retain the most qualified adjuncts. Since we teach 70 percent of the classes, academic programs will benefit from having adjuncts more directly involved in their departments. Improved working conditions for adjuncts will make it harder for the administration to cut positions on the basis of cost alone.

Skeptics and opponents of the union will raise concerns about the ongoing budget crisis with which Webster University is struggling. These are legitimate concerns which many adjuncts share.  An adjunct union would have to work and negotiate with good faith within the limits of hard fiscal realities. However, let’s not forget that our current system of relying on underpaid faculty labor has played a central role in the business model that helped create this budget shortfall.

Students want a college education because a degree is associated with a better life, more money, and whatever they consider the “American Dream.” Being able to accomplish this dream is increasingly threatened by trends in higher education which treat faculty as cheap and renewable labor. Many adjunct faculty across the country are demanding that colleges reverse trends that have pushed higher education to extreme conditions. Adjunct faculty at Washington University recently voted to form a union. All across the country, students and faculty are uniting to urge new national standards of more equitable pay and benefits and to make quality, higher education affordable and accessible for all students (see Adjunctaction.org). Together, we can re-focus university and college resources on learning. By committing to its adjunct faculty, together we can commit to a sustainable and just future for Webster University.

We invite Webster students and others to join our effort by speaking out in favor of fairness for all adjunct professors.

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  • Julie Bonk

    I wish every adjunct professor passionate about this cause would discuss it with their students. Unionization ensures nothing but the best for the faculty, including job security and possibly health benefits. Collective bargaining in and of itself if a priceless benefit.