3 Catholic colleges appeal rulings on adjunct faculty unionization [CWN]

Three Catholic colleges–Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Manhattan College in New York, and St. Xavier College in Chicago–have appealed rulings from the National Labor Relations Board …


The plight of adjunct, part-time professors in the US is a disgrace, even more so as the majority of colleges and universities rely on their adjunct faculty. If all adjuncts would go out on strike, the higher-educational system across the nation would come to a halt. Religious-affiliated universities, particularly Catholic and Jewish, are especially notorious for mistreating their adjunct faculty beyond the norm of non-sectarian public and private universities. They are apparently more interested in hiring cheap labor than providing fair compensation, health benefits, and other resources and working conditions that full-time faculty receive. This is a moral as well as legal issue, to be sure.


Is it really a disgrace?

People who decide to become college professors know how it works. You get your advanced degree(s). Then you apply at various places and get accepted somewhere as an adjunct. You know the pay and benefits aren’t very good, but you do it anyway because you want to do that, and you want to be on the tenure track to a job where you don’t have to work very hard, can’t be fired and get much better pay and benefits. You also do it because you don’t want to sell cars or design cards for Hallmark or work in HR in some industry like other people do. You like the ivy halls and the statuary and the generous library where you can research your field all you desire and spend a great deal of time discussing your ideas and writing things you hope will be published.

Then, you decide that choice you made quite knowingly just isn’t paying you what you think you ought to be paid. So you unionize and threaten or go on strike to get a better deal than the deal you knew full well you were making.

And, of course, the students pay for it all, a good part on borrowed money they can’t repay and can’t bankrupt out of. And a goodly number of them would give the right side of their rear ends to be as fortunate as an adjunct professor as they flip burgers or try to sell condominium timeshares on commission.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for these adjuncts or for the tenured professors every one of them aspires to be and probably someday will be. If they don’t like it, why don’t they try their hands at selling insurance or something? They don’t because they don’t want to do the work other people, including their students, will have or would like to have.

There is a significant turnover of adjuncts who do try their hand at other professions. This turnover, however, is not good for students. Some adjuncts, a minority, don’t want anything more than part-time work and are adjuncting as a second income. You’re right about the wonders of teaching which no money can buy. But to compare adjunct professors to undergraduate students is a little bizarre. Most adjuncts have their Master’s or PhD degrees; they have not only student debt of their own but more of it than undergraduates. They made a commitment to teaching because they love it, are good at it, and have spent a lot of time and money preparing for it. Given these circumstances, why shouldn’t they receive at least an ethical living wage and fair working conditions for the profession they trained for and the job they are currently doing, sometimes better than the full-time professors? University administrators don’t care about adjuncts even though they depend on them, and they apparently don’t care much about education either.

I did not compare them to undergraduates. I only said the students are the ones paying the bill.

I have a friend who has a master’s degree. He works at two jobs because neither pays very much, and has a major student debt to pay. He also has a wife and baby. They struggle, but he makes it work. Due to the nature of his degree, he has a reasonable expectation that, in time, he will work at only one job, and for better pay. He knew that going in, and both he and his wife accept it.

Why is an adjunct professor more deserving than this guy?

I know a young lawyer who moved to a town and “hung his shingle”. Business was slow in coming, and the older lawyers have all the plush clients for now, so he took on a second job as an assistant prosecutor in another county. Neither thing pays him very well, but he does it because he has expectations of a better life in the future. he knew going in what a tough slog it would be. He is married, and his secretary is his wife. They recently lost their home to foreclosure because they just couldn’t make the payments.

Why is the adjunct professor more deserving than that guy?

The above two people make what they make because the market for their services won’t support better incomes for them at present, though there’s a good chance that, in time, it will. Unionized adjuncts are trying to bypass the market for their services at the expense of the students they are purporting to serve.

That’s not to say I have no criticisms for universities, because I definitely have.

How are unionized adjuncts fighting for better working conditions and pay doing so at the expense of their students? Students’ tuition rises anyway to support many administrators’ exorbitant salaries. The money that might have gone to adjuncts would be a pittance in comparison. Better working conditions and pay means less turnover, and that is good for students.

The money (and benefits) they want have to be paid by somebody. And that “somebody” is the student. No way around that.

Just saying that administrators get exhorbitant salaries (and I don’t question that) is a symptom of another problem entirely. Same with the extravagant building that has gone on in the last few decades. Same with tenured professors who aren’t putting in value for the money they receive. Same with a lot of publication. Same with the cabals of professors who change the textbooks (they and their buddies have written) every few years so they can reap the royalties on overpriced but required books. (As a former captive student text writer for one group of them, I know how it works.)

The fact remains that increases in salaries and benefits for adjuncts will be paid by the students. There’s no free lunch. Somebody always pays for everything.

Meltzerboy, yes – it’s a complete disgrace. The problem isn’t that people don’t know what they’re getting themselves into when earning specific types of degrees that normally lead to adjunct work. The problem is the university, which overwhelmingly seeks to hire as many part-time employees as possible to avoid paying for benefits. As you’ve noted, this is disastrous for students. Adjuncts often don’t have office space (I’ve known many who had to meet with students in public spaces and discuss all manner of subjects in front of others), library privileges over summers (when most need libraries to plan fall courses), health benefits, or even a reasonable wage. Regardless of whether one deserves to adjunct at three colleges to make ends meet, students in all three of these institutions suffer from an overloaded adjunct who is poorly treated (they’re usually the last to receive information from the college, normally are unfamiliar with the college’s curriculum and transfer capabilities, are not usually given the resources to offer academic advisement to students, etc.). While full-time profs are part of a system that rewards professional development, adjuncts must fund their own professional development and in most cases can’t – there goes the idea of remaining current in one’s field. And in most institutions, professional development monies are produced via overload students (meaning those who bump the cap size of a course beyond its maximum). Who are the majority of those profs teaching these past-maximum size classes? Adjuncts. So they’re doing the lion’s share of the teaching work to benefit full-timers. You’re absolutely correct in noting that if adjuncts universally pulled out of teaching tomorrow, the university system would collapse. The system is, at present, unethical. Those in charge of Catholic institutions seeking to deny adjuncts unionization would be wise to read their Pope Leo XIII again.

That is very odd, my university gives benefits and a real office to all adjuncts.

Insofar as benefits are concerned, I’ll bet it’s not a Catholic university and I’ll also bet it’s a public rather than private institution. Yes, there are universities that provide office space for adjuncts, but there are also many that don’t, or, in some cases, the office is too crowded since there are so many adjuncts using it at the same time.

Non-Catholic, public.

We can’t be too proud of being charitable when we volunteer someone else’s money to pay the person to whom we wish to exercise charity. And for certain we need to know whether and whom we’re harming in the process.

Not only adjuncts teach undergraduates. Grad students do too, and they’re not well paid and have no benefits at all.

I would certainly be among those who say that universities in this country are exploitive. If one looked at only one thing, you know their values are skewed. Look at the true financial aid given at the universities with the largest endowments. There is often an inverse relationship between the size of the endowment and the generosity of the financial aid.

Among Catholic and nominally Catholic universities, Notre Dame is highly regarded and has one of the largest endowments. Yet, its financial aid is massively less than in some schools with little in the way of endowment. When I talk about “financial aid”, I mean real financial aid, not “aid in getting a loan”, which they deceptively include in talking about their “financial aid”. In looking at “financial aid” offered by any university or college, it’s important to know how much of that is actually loan money.

Colleges and universities have some “need based” true financial aid. But mostly they give financial aid to those incoming students who will raise their average SAT and GPA levels. The more prestigious the school, the higher your SAT and GPA has to be in order to obtain any kind of real financial aid. It’s a prestige game among themselves.

In some universities, the students never actually see the nominal professor for the course. In some, they never see an actual professor in any given course. The tenured people tend to be doing other things; research, writing, politicking, traveling. Yes, they leave much of the yeoman work to the adjuncts, but also to the graduate students.

And meanwhile, in the last few decades, massive, lavish campus building and landscaping has been going on. Both of my alma maters have done that to the point they’re hardly recognizable anymore. They have not many more students than when I was there, and yet they have spent what I would say is hundreds and hundreds of millions on lavish improvements. And in one of them, they recently decided to build a new multimillion dollar building for one graduate school for which they built a multimillion dollar building only a few years ago. And what does it really require to teach that course of study? Well, professors, a floor, walls, ceiling, water fountains and toilets. Nothing more. Well, I’ll concede that a blackboard and chalk sometimes comes in handy.

All of that has to be paid for by somebody, and that somebody is the student.

So, in weeping for the fate of the adjunct professors, we have to be keenly aware of whose pocket the raises and benefits are going to come from. It’s going to come from the students and from nobody else. Some of that is going to be money the student earned by mowing lawns and flipping burgers. Some of it is going to be money the student’s parents painstakingly saved by giving up a lot of life’s amenities. Some of it is going to be borrowed money the student has no assurance at all that he will be able to pay back.

Everybody knows that, of course. Parents know they’ll have to sacrifice. Students know they’ll have a big debt overhang and (presently) poor job prospects. And yet, they undertake it. Adjunct professors know what they’re getting into as well.

There is no compelling reason to reward the adjunct professors at the expense of people who are no better off than they are and are, in many instances (what’s the employment rate of recent grads now?) much worse off.

Poor pay for adjunct professors is a symptom of a much worse disease in the university system. Treating the pay issue on the backs of students is no cure and may, in some respects, even exacerbate the disease.

When I attended college, the heads of the departments had their own offices, but all the rest of the professors, tenured or not, shared offices. Strange that they managed to get by that way. There are two things professors do in offices. One is to do course work, which they can do in the library. The second is to talk to students or each other. So, okay, I guess it would be a hardship for them to do the latter in the public areas or lounges (though I have certainly seen it) but they sure don’t do that all day or even every day.

“Oh, spare us the “back in the day” stories”, one might say. People expect so much more nowadays; the marble, the fountains, the daily accessibility of teachers, the gyms, the swimming pools, the meticulous landscaping.

But do they? If one is faced with spending thirty to forty thousand dollars a year for undergraduate school alone, would he really turn down the opportunity to spend half that but be without the marble, the fountains and the swimming pool? And if he is going to be taught by a graduate student who is only getting a thousand off his tuition for his pay anyway… Oh well, I’m wandering off topic. I’ll stop.

Some graduate students ARE adjuncts, and they should also get paid fairly. Even those grad students who are TA’s (Teachers’ Assistants) should get paid, as are work-study students; however, these graduate students, who ordinarily do not have the experience and educational background of adjuncts, should get paid based on their qualifications. On the other hand, many adjuncts have been teaching for several years and do not receive sufficient pay increases and often not even yearly contracts.

You persist in stating that giving adjuncts a fair wage means “robbing” students because the money has to come from somewhere. Why not also say that paying full-time professors a fair wage hurts students? After all, about 40-50% of the faculty are full-timers, who receive higher salaries than adjuncts. Where is the money coming from when THEY are paid? And what about administrators, who receive even higher salaries? It seems to me, according to your logic, NONE of the faculty or administration should receive a living wage because this ultimately comes out of the pockets of students. Perhaps workers in other professions should also not be paid fairly so that their customers benefit. Is that what you believe? My feeling is that if you’re going to hire people to do a job, and they perform the job satisfactorily or better, they have earned the right to receive a salary that compensates them sufficiently for their effort and achievement. In its extreme form, this situation represents the eternal conflict between management, who must function within a budget and make every attempt to give the least compensation possible for the most work, and workers, who are interested in making the most money for the least effort. There is, however, a middle ground, provided employers and unions (not a dirty word in my book) are both willing to negotiate.

Never did I say increasing adjunct professors’ salaries constitutes “robbing” the students. I only said that those increases necessarily are paid by the students. Nobody can deny that.

In an ideal world, nobody would ever be paid less than what his performance is “worth”, subjectively. But there is no objective standard, in most cases, to determine what any particular job is “worth” other than what the “traffic will bear”. Ms. X might spend a thousand hours making the most astonishing patchwork quilt anyone ever saw, yet only be able to sell it for $1,000, and perhaps not that much. If no other similarly made quilt commands a price above $1,000, then Ms. X’s work is “worth” a dollar an hour in a market sense. (less actually because of the cost of the materials)

So, we’re really not talking about “worth” in that sense, are we, if all or most universities do the very same thing? Unless the universities conspire to do it (and there’s no reason to think that) it’s entirely legal to pay “what the traffic will bear” (what the market thinks it’s worth).

But is it “fair”? Is it “Christian”? Is it “Jewish”? It’s none of them if the adjunct has no choice in his life; no alternatives, and if he cannot live decently under these circumstances. There is no real reason to believe they have no alternative choices. Perhaps someone could do a study on that, but I have not yet seen anything that tells me the average adjunct professor could not possibly make more money if he did something else.

So, then, if Ms. X loves quilting so much that she stays with it while she could actually do something that paid her better, does she have a legitimate complaint in terms of “fairness”, “Christianity” or Judaism. I can’t speak for Judaism, but there is nothing about “fairness” or “Christianity” that requires anyone to pay her, say, $20,000 for the quilt, no matter how much she loves doing it, if she could go to work elsewhere and earn more if she needs to earn more. One has no inherent right to hold others hostage to one’s mere preferences.

In any event, it’s not an “either/or”. All decisions about what is right or proper or fair or Christian to pay someone for his work must be put in the balance of how it affects someone else. Will greatly increasing the salaries of 50-60% of the professors in any given university cause tuition to increase beyond the abilities of some significant number of students to pay for it or for the debts they incur for deferring payment? I don’t know. Somebody can do a study on that, and probably someone has.

Is it possible that having so many adjuncts is due to the lassitude and exploitation by the full professors? Maybe someone needs to do a study on that. Is the adjunct pay level due to “gold plating” campuses? Probably. Is it due to an unwarranted emphasis on keeping class sizes small so universities can brag about that? Maybe. Is it due to overburdens in management numbers and pay? Maybe…no probably, at least in part.

If universities deem themselves unable or unwilling to pay similar salaries to adjunct professors than that which is received by, say, a management trainee at Google or even Walmart, or a program writer at Silverlake, then perhaps serious attention needs to be put to the reasons for it, not simply to say “Oh, let’s pay them more and charge the students more in order to do it, without so much as taking a look at alternatives.” We already know a great number of former students find themselve unable to pay their loans. What’s the default number now, over a trillion dollars, isn’t it?

Why doesn’t anyone think to attack this from some angle other than simply making students pay for one’s vicarious largesse? Well, it’s because the students are the weakest participants in the process, that’s why. It’s like a hungry grade school student who left his lunch at home looking around for someone else’s lunch to “share”. He isn’t going to go to the biggest kid, or the kid who’s up a tree and hard to reach. He’s going to go down the path of least resistance.

Now, if there is some good reason to think adjunct professors should be treated somehow differently from, say, medical interns, aspiring CPAs, young lawyers, management trainees and many others who really are underpaid while working toward a higher level of reward, the “path of least resistance” should not be the first recourse as a remedy, precisely because that path burdens the least able to bear it.

Students pay college tuition for a whole variety of things, of which adjuncts’ small salaries, despite their numbers, is probably one of the least. Not only full-timers and administrators’ salaries must be paid, but custodial workers, security officers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, librarians, buildings upkeep and operations, etc. The university is, unfortunately, a business first and an institution of higher learning second. Adjuncts are just cheap labor–some would say slave labor–in an effort for the administration to economize. Never mind the fact that the teaching function of universities (which is secondary in research, grant-driven institutions) is being jeopardized. At least medical interns and young lawyers, whom you mention, are in many instances going somewhere in the future and gaining valuable experience in the meantime, while too many adjuncts are simply on a treadmill.

Whether or not adjuncts are paid fairly, I don’t see any reason to object to them being represented by a labor union. In particular, I don’t understand why this would be in conflict with freedom of religion. It kind of makes me wonder if valid claims for freedom of religion (such as not wanting medical plans to fund abortions) would be accepted more readliy but for all the spurious claims such as this one.

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