This post has been updated.

A class at American University. (Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

Adjuncts are the temps of higher education. They make up more than half of all college faculty nationwide, but most work part-time “for very low wages with no benefits, job security, administrative support or academic rights,” the labor union SEIU said in a release. (I should note that those characterizations are for adjuncts everywhere, not just at AU.) About 30 percent of the courses taught at AU in the fall semester were taught by adjuncts, according to university officials.

University officials said they would not challenge the vote.

Adjuncts are typically paid by the class and are considered relatively cheap labor. At AU, according to the union, an adjunct with a doctorate teaching three classes a semester could make as little as $18,000 in a year. Adjuncts at AU are capped at three courses per term.

In response, AU spokeswoman Camille Lepre wrote, “It’s not a fair comparison to hold an adjunct that teaches a course up to a tenured or tenure track faculty member who is generally teaching four courses a year, conducting research on an area of new knowledge, advising students, supervising theses, dissertations, and internship experiences, and providing service on university committees and to the community on behalf of AU.”

A full professor at AU earns $152,000 a year.

Federal data show AU employs 688 full-time and 547 part-time faculty. The university reports that it employs 1,672 adjuncts on three-year contracts, but not all of them teach at the same time.

Adjuncts view unionization as a path to the middle class, according to the union. Some have already arrived. “Many AU adjuncts are professionals employed elsewhere, with salary and benefits,” Lepre said in an e-mail.

“This is a major step in reforming higher education, not just at American University but across the country,” said Mark Plane, an adjunct in the anthropology department at AU, in a statement.

Adjuncts often are hired “at the last minute, so it is harder to prepare for their courses.” the union release said. “They do not have office space and many work additional jobs to make ends meet so there’s less time to be available to students after class.”

Plane: “The reality is that, except for a lucky few, anyone trying to forge a career in academia will serve an indefinite time as an adjunct. The university too often treats this as business as usual, but for my fellow adjuncts, it can be a real struggle to get by.”