A student’s classroom experience can only be as good as the professor creating it. But in the case of Boston University’s adjunct professors, some say there are boundaries hindering their ability to create the ideal teaching environment they desire.
At BU, approximately 41 percent of professors are members of the part-time faculty. They are paid on a per-class basis, which ranges anywhere from $3,750 to $9,563 for each course, and they receive no medical benefits, in comparison to the $157,000 average yearly salary and full medical benefits of tenured and other full-time professors. The adjuncts are required to reapply to teach at BU each semester, and their jobs depend entirely on class enrollment. If the quota for enrolled students is not met before the start of the class, the class is canceled, and an adjunct could find him or her unemployed in the blink of an eye. They are not given offices, classroom tools or a significant say in the curriculums they teach. These unsatisfactory working conditions have led adjunct professors at universities across the country to unionize, and movement for an adjunct professor union is now growing at BU
On Tuesday, four BU adjunct professors visited The Daily Free Press office as representatives of the union movement. These professors and the other BU professors supporting an adjunct union are led by Adjunct Action, a branch of the Service Employees International Union that works to organize unions for adjunct faculties one city at a time. Within the Boston-area, they are currently working with BU, Tufts University, Northeastern University and Lesley University.
The visiting members of the adjunct faculty organizing committee recounted their personal struggles as adjunct professors, citing insufficient living funds, lack of office space and the insecurity that stems from having to continually reapply for their teaching positions.
“I have been teaching pay-per-course at BU and collecting unemployment, and I have also been eligible for food stamps,” said Maureen Sullivan, an adjunct lecturer at Metropolitan College. “I absolutely could not make it on what I am doing here at BU.”
Aside from their concerns about being able to adequately support their own lives, an overriding theme of their reasoning to start an adjunct union was to benefit the classroom experiences of their students.
“We need this union to put the check on the university to say ‘invest in the classroom experience,’” said Dan Hunter, a lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences. “You can have a great library, resources, law books, athletic teams, but the core of the classroom experience lies in the professors…We are here because we see a way of improving BU so that the teaching is better, so that the benefits accrue to students, tenure faculty and us as well.”
BU has published a webpage titled “Part-Time Faculty Working Group” that addresses the issues expressed by members of the adjunct faculty and that explores the effects a union may have on the BU faculty and campus as a whole. Although ostensibly neutral, BU doesn’t exactly seem to be encouraging a union.
“It is hard to know the precise impact that any potential unionization of our part-time faculty would have on the broader BU community,” the webpage states. “…While unions certainly have their place for a number of reasons, organized labor’s focus has been rooted, historically, in areas other than the merit-based systems found at institutions of higher learning.”
The potential demands of an adjunct union could add costs for BU, and if costs for the university were to increase, the additional funds would have to come from somewhere. If you think about the fact that about half of BU’s operating budget comes from tuition, there is a considerable possibility that the additional costs to meet any demands would result in some kind of tuition hike.
It’s hard for us as students to take a definitive stance on whether an adjunct faculty union at BU would ultimately be beneficial. When we are in the classroom being inspired by whatever particular adjunct professor is teaching that class, it’s difficult to find a reason why they should not receive equal treatment as tenured and full-time professors. However, we are also students struggling to pay for college, and the threat of any tuition increase has a souring effect on the potentiality of a supportive student body.
In a perfect world, the funding necessary to better compensate and provide for adjunct faculty would be easily attainable, but this is not a perfect world. There’s no question that there are glaring issues in an education system where almost half of a school’s faculty feels underpaid, mistreated and unappreciated, but this issue is not unique to BU.
Universities across the United States have fallen into the habit of taking advantage of their part-time faculty for the sole reason that universities need professors and adjuncts are cheap. The calls for adjunct unions at BU and other universities should speak to the larger need for a reformed education system that stops taking advantage of students and teachers alike. Until that happens, there are no winners.