The Adjuncts Among Us

On June 6, ballots were counted at the National Labor Relations Board office in Baltimore, as union organizers and representatives of McDaniel College’s administration looked on. By a margin of 82 to 36, the adjunct faculty at McDaniel voted to form a union. Negotiations will take place during the coming academic year on a first contract. What does all this mean, and what big issues are at stake?

First, an adjunct faculty member is a college-level teacher who is hired by the College to teach a course – once, and maybe again, or maybe not. There are a lot of adjuncts in American higher education; at McDaniel there are more than twice as many adjuncts as full-time “regular” faculty members.

McDaniel is not unusual in this respect. The percentage of instructors in our colleges and universities who are adjuncts has steadily increased over the past 60 years, and is now well over 50 percent. The large number of adjuncts enables colleges to offer a broad and varied curriculum, keep class sizes relatively low, offer courses that are responsive to changing needs, release full-time professors to work on projects, and still keep the overall costs of instruction low.

However, despite their large numbers and their importance to the delivery of the curriculum, adjuncts have little or no voice in the conditions of their employment. A college may employ hundreds of adjuncts, each under an individual contract, usually with no opportunity to bargain.

The power in this situation is all on the employer’s side. Because the workers are scattered and not in touch with each other, discussion of common concerns is difficult. So while student tuition (as you know) has steadily risen, adjunct pay has hardly changed in twenty years, and administrations have had little incentive to respond to adjuncts’ complaints – or to their often wise advice.

Adjuncts are remarkable people. Most have master’s or doctoral degrees in the subjects they have been hired to teach. Most combine academic experience with work and life experience in business, industry, government service, the arts, education, or nonprofit management, making them a rich resource for students. Many adjuncts bridge the worlds of the campus and the community for their students, creating internships for them and pointing the way to places of employment and further training. Yet most of the colleges that employ adjuncts bar them from being advisors to individual students or student organizations, because they are not regular faculty members.

In these and other ways, adjuncts are undervalued at many colleges. They are ignored and dismissed in campus affairs, and often made to feel that the college is a bit embarrassed to have them around. I don’t think this attitude was deliberately adopted; it just evolved – though this evolution was abetted by raw economics, because adjunct instructors are a huge bargain for colleges.

Unionization of adjuncts, which is happening all over the country, seeks not only better pay and fairer working conditions, but also a reversal of this neglect and disrespect. It would be fairly easy, and more realistic, to celebrate adjuncts and recognize them for what they do. That would certainly be more in the spirit of the college as a learning community. Adjuncts turbo-charge the institution’s base of instructional talent, and so the rest of the community ought to be proud to be associated with them.

Colleges have the opportunity, if they choose, to incorporate adjuncts more fully into meaningful conversations about the college work environment, and to enlist their help in urgent tasks such as student recruitment, engagement, and retention. We look forward to discussing these and other issues at the bargaining table with the McDaniel administration this fall.

Adjuncts have much to offer and are willing to be active partners in the life of the College, but first they need a seat at the table. That is why that vote on June 6 was so important, and why we are looking forward to collaborative and productive collective bargaining negotiations at McDaniel.


The author is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Rhode Island. He is also an adjunct instructor for McDaniel in Graduate and Professional Studies, and a member of the McDaniel Adjunct Faculty Union/SEIU Local 500 Leadership Team.