US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Despite Catholic social teaching, not all universities welcome adjunct faculty unions

Are Catholic universities living out their mission when it comes to adjunct professors?

By Elizabeth Lefebvre | Print this pagePrint |
Article Justice

In the spring semester of 2018 one adjunct professor in Iowa was teaching seven classes across two different college campuses, including one Catholic university. He was busy preparing materials, instructing, grading, being available to students, and commuting—all while submitting applications for full-time tenure-track positions, many of which had more than 300 applicants for a single opening. (He requested anonymity, as he is still seeking full-time employment opportunities in academia.) “I have a 2-year-old daughter who I didn’t get to see very much,” he says. “It was hard for me. When I was around, I was pretty stressed out. And I don’t have time to be publishing or pursuing those avenues that would help further my career.” 

Despite already teaching more courses at one time than most full-time faculty, he actually had to turn down additional teaching opportunities. “After doing some calculations, my wife and I discovered that if I were to teach as many classes as I’m being offered, I won’t be eligible for Medicaid anymore, and that would be an even bigger problem, because I wouldn’t be able to afford private health insurance,” he says.

For many adjuncts who rely on teaching as their main source of income, this is a too-familiar reality: low wages, scarce benefits, and huge workloads, piecing together an income making a few thousand dollars per course each semester, often in extremely tenuous situations without a guarantee of future employment. Adjuncts are often without a true voice in department decision-making and can lack mentorship or proper evaluation and sometimes even basic things like office space or access to supplies.  

Reliance on adjunct professors is increasing across higher education, including at Catholic colleges and universities. At some of these campuses, adjunct professors are turning to unionizing to improve their pay, benefits, and job stability—although not all Catholic universities are welcoming the idea despite traditional Catholic support for collective bargaining. “I don’t need much money, but I do need to be making a living wage that offers me some ability to be a contributor to my family,” says the Iowan adjunct. “I don’t feel respected when I get paid less than poverty level wages.”

The ‘migrant workers of education’

As the cost of higher education continues to rise, universities are trying to balance tuition with improving student outcomes and supporting groundbreaking research, meaning they can be hesitant to shift costs to students and raise tuition even further. Hiring adjunct faculty has been one place where universities look to cut costs. 

Recent data shows there are approximately 1.4 million part-time faculty across higher education, a share that has grown by 66 percent over the last 40 years, with part-time faculty now numbering more than tenured and tenure-track faculty combined. In 2016, 73 percent of faculty jobs were not tenure track, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). 

Adjunct professors are a cheap pool of labor that represent huge cost savings for universities. “Using adjuncts is a lot less expensive,” explains Kim Tolley, professor in the school of education at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. “What we’re seeing is full-time positions aren’t being filled when people leave. If one full-time professor earning, say, $130,000 per year teaching two or three courses a semester could be replaced with two adjuncts that might make $7,000 per course, that’s a huge savings.”  

The AAUP found that in the 2016–2017 academic year, median pay for all part-time faculty at religiously affiliated universities was $4,773 per course section. And Faculty Forward, an advocacy project of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), reports that Jesuit colleges in 2013 saved an average of about $42,000 for every course an adjunct taught. 

Tom Sheeran has been a part-time adjunct instructor since the early 2000s at the University of Scranton and Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, teaching in addition to his full-time job as a licensed social worker. “A friend of mine calls adjuncts the ‘migrant workers of education,’ ” he says. “You can’t survive without them, but they don’t get a lot for what they do. You couldn’t afford enough full-timers to teach all these classes, but it doesn’t matter enough to give adjuncts any real rights.” 

It’s part of what Tolley notes is the “gig economy” expanding into higher education. While the flexibility of adjuncting is attractive to some, for those who are using it to stitch together full-time employment, it can be far from ideal. “There’s no uniform adjunct individual,” Tolley explains. Some people, such as Sheeran, have full-time jobs and find it interesting to teach a course or two in the evenings. Often people who are retired look for courses to teach, sometimes for personal fulfillment and often as an income supplement. 

“But the people the gig economy really hurts are the younger faculty who took on debt to get a Ph.D. and can’t find anything because the job market has shifted so there’s only adjunct opportunities available,” Tolley says. That’s the situation for the adjunct in Iowa. “Long term, it doesn’t feel like a way for me to provide for my family, let alone myself,” he says. “It’s something I want to be doing part time, but as time goes on it’s beginning to feel like I’ll be adjuncting or not working in academics.”

Power in unionization 

Besides low pay, only about 5 percent of universities offer benefits to all part-time faculty, with about 25 percent of part-time college faculty members having to rely on public assistance programs. Unionization is one way for adjuncts to try to improve their situation, using collective bargaining to shift the power balance to secure higher pay, benefits, and job stability. 

“Even at Catholic colleges and universities, boards don’t want to give up the flexibility of the way they’ve been hiring,” Tolley explains. “They are looking at the bottom line from their perspective. Without the power of collective bargaining, there’s no way to have any kind of equal status at a bargaining table with an employer.”

Ashar Foley is a former adjunct and current lecturer in the communications and media department at Fordham University, which in 2018 ratified a three-year collective bargaining agreement with adjuncts. Foley served on the negotiating committee. “Unionization is the one approach that shows the university and the community at large that teaching faculty are valuable,” she says. 

Prior to the union contract, Foley had been making $4,200 per course as an adjunct at Fordham. Now adjunct pay will start at $5,000 per course, and by the end of the contract’s third year that will increase to $7,000. The agreement also won raises for lecturers, secured professional development funds for adjuncts, and included presumption of rehire and longer contract terms rather than relying on semester-by-semester appointments. 

There is another party that also benefits from adjunct unionization: the students taking part in the rich tradition of Catholic higher education. “All of this is for the best possible outcome for our students,” Foley says. “That is another reason to unionize. We can’t be trying to cobble a living together and designing courses with the students in mind. If you’re trying to cobble together a living, you’re more likely to design courses with the least amount of work on your end in mind.”

The social justice case

The Catholic Church’s historical support for unions and the rights of workers is a central pillar of Catholic social teaching. From Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), the groundbreaking 1891 social justice encyclical, to “Economic Justice for All,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter, to Pope Francis describing unions as essential to society, the church’s position is clear: All church institutions must recognize employees’ rights to organize, emphasizing their dignity as humans. So how does this square with the plight of adjunct faculty in Catholic higher education?

Georgetown University has set a model, amicably cooperating with adjunct faculty to ratify a union contract in October 2014. The initial contract increased minimum compensation, mandated a cancellation fee if courses were canceled on short notice, and added professional development funds, among other gains. Other Catholic universities where adjuncts have successfully unionized include St. Mary’s College of California, Loyola University Chicago, St. Louis University, St. Michael’s College (Vermont), Dominican University of California, and Trinity Washington University.

Notre Dame de Namur University unionized its entire faculty, including adjuncts, in 2016, when Kim Tolley was president of the faculty senate. “We completely unionized on the basis of the mission,” Tolley says. “NDNU very much has a social justice orientation, so it was easy to unionize around those hallmarks. We had faculty members who were teetering on the edge of homelessness. And I think that made the unionizing a lot more powerful. It was difficult for the administration to counter on the basis of social justice.” 

At Fordham, Foley agrees that Catholic identity was crucial during the negotiation process. Although the administration initially resisted, it ultimately retracted its position and took a neutral approach to bargaining. “I think why we had success is because the university is Jesuit, so they have both a commitment to the cura personalis, to the cultivation of the whole student, and to social justice,” she says. “We saw ourselves holding them to these principles. We were saying, ‘You can’t claim all these things about cura personalis when you pay the teachers poverty wages. You can’t impoverish the people who provide the cultivation of the student body that you are selling in the name of Jesuit education.’ ” 

Fordham President and Jesuit Father Joseph McShane released a statement upon ratification that said, “[O]rganized labor has deep roots in Catholic social justice teachings, and that given its Jesuit traditions and historic connection to first-generation and working-class students, Fordham has a special duty in this area.”

Meeting resistance

Still, despite these roots in Catholic social teaching, many Catholic colleges and universities are not practicing what they preach. Some Catholic colleges and universities have cited religious freedom to argue that federal labor law and enforcement bodies like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) shouldn’t have jurisdiction over a school’s relationship with adjunct professors. 

Joseph McCartin, professor of history at Georgetown University and executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, points out that there are alternatives to recognize unions that don’t rely on federal law or the NLRB, as long as there is a neutral third party to arbitrate. “None of the institutions that have taken the religious liberty approach have suggested such alternatives,” McCartin notes. “Their failure to do so makes it clear that they are hiding their anti-union animus behind the fig leaf of religious liberty.”

McCartin outlines three main reasons why some Catholic universities are resisting adjunct unionization. First, he says, wider culture in the United States is becoming more hostile to unions, regardless of religious affiliation. Second, university boards are increasingly made up of financial professionals who have profited from growing economic inequality. “Most of them do not come from working-class backgrounds, have little personal feel for the impact of recent economic changes on working families, do not bargain collectively with employees in their own firms, and have at best a vague understanding of the rich history of Catholic social teaching on the dignity and rights of workers,” McCartin says. 

Third, because most Catholic institutions lack large endowments and are funded primarily by tuition fees, schools worry that unions could upset a delicate financial balance. “Rather than viewing their employees’ demands for dignity and rights as an invitation to think creatively about how to balance the church’s historic commitments to workers’ rights with their responsibilities to preserve their institutions and bargain win-win solutions, [administrators] react out of fear and slam the door to negotiations of any kind,” McCartin says.

Besides institutional opposition, other obstacles remain for adjunct unionization. Tom Sheeran, the Scranton part-time adjunct, reflects back on a brief conversation about adjunct unionizing at the University of Scranton that ultimately did not lead to unionization. (Full-time faculty at the University of Scranton are represented by the Faculty Affairs Council.) “The push was from people who were making their living being an adjunct, and there was a real divide in the room,” he explains. “The folks starting this wanted us all to say, ‘These are the issues we all have,’ but some of us didn’t feel that way. Some of us don’t need the same things.”

The Iowan adjunct brings up another point: Not all adjuncts want to be adjuncts, and committing to that identity through unionization can be a difficult mental block. “Most of us would jump on the opportunity for a full-time faculty job,” he says. “We’re thinking, ‘Just give me two or three years and I’m not going to be in this position,’ so why would I go through the fight of setting up a union to protect my rights for two or three years?” Others don’t want to stir the pot if it seems like unionization could be controversial on campus. “That’s part of the calculus that’s going into it for me,” he continues. “[A full-time position] is something I’ve wanted ever since I started grad school, so I’m reluctant to jeopardize that possibility.”

A leadership opportunity

Unionizing is an effective way to improve working conditions for adjuncts and to bring universities in alignment with principles of Catholic social teaching, but unionization alone can’t solve some of the larger issues at play. “Collective bargaining carried out within the existing economic, legal, and policy structure is bound to be unable to deal with all of workers’ problems,” McCartin says. In order to decrease reliance on adjuncts, universities could consider increasing full-time teachers’ course loads, reducing sabbaticals, or making tenure-track positions that are focused on teaching as opposed to research.

But what are other changes that could make an immediate impact for existing adjuncts short of unionization? One solution would be to increase adjunct rights to give them a greater voice in university departments and communities. “I don’t feel like a full-fledged member of the community when I’m not making decisions about what I do in my classes,” says the Iowan adjunct. “You weren’t given a voice to participate in the decision but then are required to fulfill the request. That has often felt undignified. It doesn’t respect the work that I’ve done and the amount of effort I’ve put into my job.” 

Or universities could simply start offering benefits more in line with gains being made through unionization. “If a university is worried about faculty unionizing, they should consider what it is that their faculty would ask for and just start giving it,” Tolley says. “Your employees are not going to rise up and unionize if you pay them a fair wage and treat them with respect.” 

McCartin believes that Catholic institutions have the opportunity to be a leader in this space, coming together in shared dedication to social justice principles. “Many of our current problems can’t be solved effectively within single institutions. They will require institutions acting collectively, and they will also require the fashioning of supportive public policies,” he says. “Catholic institutions, by both their sheer numbers and their connection to a moral tradition that defends the common good, are well positioned to provide leadership.”

“It depends on us. We’re the ones who have to connect those dots and present that case to the public,” Ashar Foley says. “The middle class and the working class are both suffering in this country. The church and the Catholic universities could be part of the solution. The more dominoes fall, the stronger the movement becomes.”

Image: Megan Avery

This article also appears in the April 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 4, pages 12–17).

Monday, April 1, 2019