The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a city full of adjunct faculty members, many struggle to get by

Adjuncts across the region are protesting what they say are unfair working conditions

Zein El-Amine carries his bags from Georgetown University on his way to drive to American University in Washington on April 11. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Zein El-Amine has three bags in the trunk of his Toyota Prius.

One is for his teaching job at American University; another, El-Amine brings with him to lecture at Georgetown University. A third bag is reserved for Thursday nights at George Washington University.

The schedule of the Lebanon-born engineer turned writer and adjunct instructor is hectic. On a recent Monday, El-Amine, 59, started his day prepping coursework in his office at Georgetown, drove to lecture at AU and ended the day back at Georgetown.

El-Amine’s workload is not uncommon. Many adjuncts in the District cobble together classes at various universities so they can earn a living wage.

“This is the life of an adjunct, right,” El-Amine said while driving to teach a class on Arabic film he designed for Georgetown. From all these roles, he is making about $16,400 this semester.

That reality has recently inspired protests at Howard University and AU, where adjuncts have pushed for higher wages, better benefits and more pathways to permanent employment. It has also shed light on an often overlooked truth of higher education: At the District’s eight major universities, more than four out of 10 instructors are teaching on a part-time basis, according to federal data from fall 2020, the most recent available.

Howard University faculty calls off strike after reaching tentative labor deal

About 50 percent of GWU’s nearly 2,500 instructors are adjuncts. At AU, 46 percent of instructors are adjuncts, and 44 percent of those at Georgetown are teaching part time.

The figures demonstrate universities’ deepening dependence on temporary labor, now yielding a steep increase in unionization efforts, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York.

“One of the things that happens when contingent faculty unionize is that university administrations, for the first time, learn about contingent faculty’s working conditions,” Herbert said. “A lot of higher education is built on cheap, precarious academic labor.”

An increasing reliance

More than three-quarters of public and private university faculty were either tenured or on the tenure track in 1969, according to a report from University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education. Now, they are in the minority.

“Over the last half-century there’s been a flip,” Herbert said. “Now the vast majority are nontenure-track, who generally are paid at a much lower pay level than tenure-track faculty.”

More than 70 percent of college and university faculty are contingent staff — which include part-time adjuncts, full-time faculty who are not on the tenure track and graduate workers, according to data from the American Association of University Professors. Part-time instructors account for about 40 percent of the faculty workforce.

Some faculty worry the adjunctification of universities limits research production, as adjuncts and nontenure-track faculty do not have the same research and publication obligations as their tenured and tenure-track peers.

Others are concerned about exploitation. What makes adjuncts attractive to universities — short contracts, flexible schedules, cheaper rates and not having to provide medical benefits — can come as a disadvantage for the instructor.

Adjuncts and nontenure-track faculty were among the first to have their positions slashed when cash-strapped universities had to adjust to the economic pressures of the pandemic. These workers tend not to have the same job-protecting safeguards as their tenured and tenure-track peers, which can lead to self-censorship around hot-button issues in the classroom, said Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University.

“If you’re hired on a piece-rate basis, course by course, you’re never going to feel secure,” Givan said. She added that “it’s not that adjunctification is bad. It’s that we need a humane solution that really supports student needs and furthers the mission of universities, and that means a path from adjunct status” to permanent employment.

Universities often rely on adjuncts for their flexibility. They fill last-minute vacancies. They can offer new ­courses without significant staffing or the “long-term financial requirement” of a tenure-track hire, Givan said.

And, in a talent-dense city like the District, adjuncts can be a marketing tool. The opportunity to learn from former White House officials, political strategists, attorneys and journalists draws many students to the nation’s capital. Many of these professionals have full-time jobs outside of teaching. They get health insurance and other benefits elsewhere and are not solely dependent on teaching wages.

‘It keeps you nice and disposable’: The plight of adjunct professors

Most adjuncts, however, don’t fit into that “romanticized” view of the field, said Derek Tozak, an adjunct who teaches freshman writing courses at AU. Many depend on second and third jobs to make ends meet. Tozak tutors Bethesda high-schoolers.

“You can make a lot more getting students into AU than you can teaching at AU,” he said.

Labor demonstrations spread through the District

The precarity of adjuncts has helped propel the labor movement, particularly at private universities, according to researchers at the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. The number of faculty bargaining units at private nonprofit institutions grew 81 percent between 2012 and 2019, and the number of faculty represented grew 61 percent.

Researchers noted there has been a “major shift” in faculty representation as a result of factors such as the rising demand among contingent faculty for improved working conditions and a “more friendly” legal environment at the National Labor Relations Board during the Obama administration.

On-campus demonstrations, too, are popping up on campuses throughout the country. Faculty unions at Duke, New York and Howard universities have staged protests in recent months over contract negotiations.

America’s next union battlefield may be on campus

At Howard, pay concerns, along with policies that require non-tenure-track instructors and lecturers to reapply annually for their jobs and leave their teaching positions after seven years, were at the heart of a years-long negotiation process between the university and employees.

The labor battle came to a head when 350 nontenure-track faculty members, represented by the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, threatened a three-day work stoppage if they could not reach an agreement with the university. The sides ultimately reached a last-minute deal that was ratified early this month.

Now unionized adjunct faculty and graduate student workers at AU are in contract renegotiations, and a fledging staff union is pushing for its first contract. The separate groups of faculty, graduate students and university staff — also represented by SEIU — are pushing for better pay.

The groups have received wide-ranging support across campus. Students have organized alongside their instructors. More than 80 tenured faculty penned a letter in March urging AU administrators to settle a labor agreement with its unions.

“Low pay and feelings of disempowerment have meant high turnover and short staffing,” the faculty wrote. “In short, we cannot complete our research missions without a robust and empowered staff.”

Unionized employees have also staged several protests on campus. Workers rallied on Monday to push the administration for higher wages. Early this month, they took their efforts off campus to protest in the rain outside the Kennedy Center as AU President Sylvia M. Burwell held a fundraising event inside. Instructors stuck price tags to their shirts that displayed their pay.

On El-Amine’s shirt, the number $3,785 was written in bold red font. That number, he said, does not represent the work required of his job — hours of lesson planning for his course on Arab history and literature, writing letters of recommendations and coordinating extracurricular events.

El-Amine said he is much happier with his pay at GW, $5,200 for a master’s-level course, and Georgetown, which pays about $7,500. Georgetown also gives El-Amine supports that are rarely reserved for adjuncts — including his own office and, when he taught a six-credit class on Arabic language, a graduate assistant.

On heels of tenure debate, non-tenured faculty at Howard U. decry working conditions

Matthew Bennett, a spokesman for AU, said the university regularly compares its compensation packages with those of its peer schools. “Among the other local universities where adjunct faculty are represented by SEIU, only Georgetown University offers higher minimum rates,” Bennett said in an email. “AU and GWU have rates that are nearly identical, and both are higher than other local universities.”

Bennett added that the same factors that faculty say necessitate raises — among their concerns are rising living costs, inflation and financial challenges triggered by the pandemic — have also increased the university’s operating costs. He said the salary increases proposed by the union are “several times” higher than what had been agreed upon in previous contracts and “far beyond what the university’s budget could accommodate.”

But, Bennett said, the school’s upcoming budget includes “significant additional resources for compensation and benefits for faculty and staff.” Officials have proposed raises for adjuncts in the current negotiations, but union members said what the university has offered is too low.

Bennett added that the union and university have agreed to enlist the help of an outside mediator to get the campus closer to a resolution. “We remain committed to bargaining in good faith with both units and hope we can renew the existing collective bargaining agreements soon,” he said.

Still, the pace of the negotiations continues to frustrate members.

“Even though they’re progressive in their writings and supposedly in their approach academically, they really have no idea about how we live and how we survive or how much we’re being exploited,” El-Amine said. “AU, whether they care or not, is at risk of losing adjuncts like me who are, by any measure, excelling in educating the students there.”

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