A Call to Action on the Labor Crisis in Higher Ed: Colleges Are Running On the Backs of Underpaid Part-Timers

2/24/2015 8:49 AM

February 25th is National Adjunct Walkout Day


By Jim Miller

As I have noted here recently, the successful assault on public sector unionism has marched hand in hand with the surge of income inequality and the erosion of the American middle class. Of course, central to this is the ongoing war on teachers’ unions and the nationwide trend toward austerity budgets in state capitols across the country.

In the world of higher education, what this means is that as we have seen taxes go down for the wealthy and corporations over the last thirty years, budgets for education from K-12 to the university have suffered.

And while the growing student debt crisis has received significant attention, far fewer people are probably aware that in addition to gouging students, colleges across the country are increasingly relying on an exploited army of highly educated part-time teachers in the classroom to help keep their budgets in line.

Indeed, most colleges in America run on the backs of adjunct instructors who don’t receive the same pay for the same work as do the shrinking pool of full-time faculty. And if this trend continues unabated, we may very well be seeing a generation of what some have dubbed “the last professors” with any form of professional autonomy and/or adequate compensation.

This is why Capitol and Main chose to include the stories of part-time professors in their fantastic month-long series on inequality. Exploitation of contingent labor is not just a problem for employees at Starbucks, Walmart, and fast food chains where workers are fighting for $15 an hour; it is an epidemic in the academy as well.

Consequently, as this problem has gotten worse, there has been an upsurge in activism around part-time faculty equity of which one manifestation is this Wednesday’s National Day of Action around adjunct issues.

For more on this, I yield the rest of my space to my friend, union brother, and professional colleague, Ian Duckles, an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy in the San Diego and Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College Districts as well as at the University of San Diego.

National Adjunct Walkout Day: A Primer
By Ian Duckles

Beginning with an anonymous Facebook post on October 1, 2014 calling for a National Adjunct Walkout Day (NAWD) on February 25, 2015 interest and excitement for the event grew rapidly.

Since then it has come to light that the instigating Facebook post was made by a lecturer in Writing from San Jose State University who goes by the pseudonym of “National Adjunct.”


Because of the anonymous and grassroots nature of the National Adjunct Walkout Day individuals and individual groups have an enormous degree of leeway in deciding how to respond to this call. While undoubtedly some will engage in an actual walkout, many national groups and organizations are using the February 25th date as an opportunity for a day or week of action on behalf of adjuncts rather than a full-blown walkout.

Here in San Diego we are calling it the National Adjunct Action Day, and will be holding a series of rallies across the region.

But why now and why February 25? As to the first question, I think National Adjunct put it best when she wrote in an interview, “I think another way of looking at this question is to ask why this call hasn’t been made sooner.”

The simple fact is that the situation confronting adjuncts and part-timers has been growing steadily worse over the past 30-40 years, and enough adjuncts are becoming aware of the injustices and exploitation they face that many have finally reached a tipping point.

Historically, many adjuncts preferred to remain silent or not rock the boat in the expectation of ultimately being able to move into a full-time position. As many adjuncts have often worked under these conditions for 10, 20 or even 30 years it has become clear that without robust action on the part of adjuncts, the situation is unlikely to change and will continue to deteriorate.

As to the question of why February 25th, the answer is less clear. According to National Adjunct, the date was chosen because it was believed that a mid-week date close to the beginning of the spring semester would ensure the greatest turnout without being too disruptive of midterms or running afoul of various Spring Break schedules.

Paterson Silk Strike, 1913

In addition, February 25, 1913 was the start of the Paterson Silk Strike, a work stoppage involving silk mill workers involving demands for establishing an eight-hour day and improved working conditions.

While the choice of a date was fairly arbitrary, the need for such an event is overwhelming.

In 1969 approximately 80% of instructors were full-time. Today about 70% of instructors are part-time, and despite a California state law that mandates that 75% of instruction at the community college be performed by full-timers, the actual numbers are closer to 60%. In addition, adjuncts make significantly less that their full-time counterparts even though they do the same work and have the same credentials.

In fact, in many cases adjuncts have stronger credentials than full-timers. Furthermore, adjuncts often do not have access to healthcare benefits (though the ACA has changed this somewhat), and generally have very poor job security.

In addition to these problems that directly confront the health and economic well-being of adjuncts, the increased adjunctification of the Academy harms students as well. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates many of these negative impacts. For example, recent studies have shown that an over-reliance on part-timers significantly diminishes student success by lowering graduation, retention, and transfer rates.

In fact, for every 10% increase in the number of full-timers transfer rates increase by 4%. Furthermore, this research shows that the deficiencies with part-timers have nothing to do with pedagogical qualifications but are almost entirely a product of a lack of time and resources. Because adjuncts often aren’t paid for office hours, and often must commute from school to school in order to earn enough money, they simply don’t have the time to devote to students that full-timers do, and because they are teaching so many classes, student success suffers as a result.

Given these facts, what does the National Adjunct Walkout Day hope to accomplish? To answer this question, I will once again let National Adjunct speak on my behalf:


The goal with NAWD is systemic change. That is the goal. But there are steps towards achieving that goal, such as raising awareness about the situation of adjuncts. Providing a network for adjuncts to connect from campus to campus. Changing the messaging about adjuncts from, “why don’t they just get another job?” to “why does a system that claims to value education exploit 75% of its faculty?” Getting tenured faculty involved—many of whom are horrified by what they see as the increasing corporatization of colleges—is huge. And finally, shining a national light on these issues so that no adjunct or campus is facing these issues alone. Systemic change is the goal, but achieving any of these steps would mean that NAWD has been a success.

Here in San Diego, many adjuncts are better off than elsewhere in the state. In the SD Community College District and Grossmont Community College District adjuncts who teach 50% or greater of a full-time load get good health benefits, and in the SDCCD we do have a fund to cover adjunct office hours, but the pay is still 60-80% of what a full-timer makes for the same class. And while we can argue over the causes of this, the solution is fairly clear, the state needs to devote more resources specifically to adjuncts in order to alleviate these disparities.

In a state with one of the largest economies in the world, we simply don’t devote enough of our resources to education and to ensuring that teachers are adequately compensated for the necessary work they perform in empowering students to succeed and to ensure an intelligent, well-informed populace.

If you would like to get involved, I encourage you to come to one of the many rallies we have planned across the region:

1. Southwestern College at 11:30 on the Mayan Theater Patio.

2. UCSD will have a student walkout at 11:30, a rally at noon at Geisel, and a Teach-in at 12:30 in the Yosemite Room.

3. City College at noon in Gorton Quad.

4. Mesa College at noon outside the LRC.

5. Palomar College at noon at the Palomar Clock Tower.

6. Grossmont College at 2:00 outside the LRC

Ian Duckles, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Cuyamaca, Mesa, Miramar, and USD. Jim Miller and Ian Duckles are both on the Executive Board of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931