Part-Time Faculty Union Poses Positives

It’s the first day of class. You arrive early, sit down and wait for the professor to arrive. She walks into the room, writes her name on the board and gets down to business. For the next hour she goes over the course description, the syllabus, the assignments, the attendance rules. You can tell that she knows what she’s doing. She’s been teaching at the university for years. You’ve heard from your peers that she’s a good teacher. You think that you will probably learn a lot in this class.

Here’s what you won’t learn. She’s paid by the course. She’ll earn $3800 for teaching your three-credit course. That means that a mere 1.5 out-of-state-student tuition fees (or less than five credits of the total 54 credits of tuition collected from students in this class) will pay her salary for this course for the semester. UVM does not provide her with any access to health care or retirement benefits, any paid sick days or vacation time. She will not be compensated for office hours, nor will she be paid for student conferences or independent studies. And even though she has reserved this day and time to teach this course for six months, she could find herself being called a few days before the semester begins and told that the course will be canceled due to low enrollment. In this case, she will not receive a penny for reserving the time or for preparing for the course. And, even though she has been teaching at the university for years, the department is under no obligation to hire her next semester, or ever again. She will teach four courses this semester — a fulltime workload — by teaching two at the university and two at another local college. For this she will earn $12,300.

This is my life. This is the life of a lot of your professors. I am a part-time UVM writing professor. I have a Masters degree in my field and 24 years of college teaching experience. My students consistently give me good evaluations. I love teaching.

I am not alone. Approximately 150 to 175 regular part-time professors teach at the university in any given year. We are not covered by the fulltime faculty union.

Despite the poor working conditions I labor under, I am actually better off than many of my part-time colleagues. Some faculty members are paid far less per course than I am. Some part-timers work for departments that don’t provide them with offices, phones, mailboxes or photocopying privileges (My department, English, does).

Some will tell you that part-time faculty have full-time professional jobs and teach merely for a little extra money or for the love of teaching. But for most of us this is just not the case. In fact in a recent survey, two-thirds of part-time UVM professors who responded said they teach as a career, not just as a professional side line. One-third said they have been teaching at UVM for 10 years. Some have taught far longer (United Academics AFT/AAUP, 2002). Many hold doctorate degrees. Too many of us try to cobble a living together by working at two or three colleges. Some teach five or six or even seven courses in a semester, just to make a decent living.

Why do we continue to work under such conditions? Granted, some part-timers do prefer to work part-time. But increasingly more of us simply have no choice. We want but can’t find full-time teaching employment. Why? Because full-time teaching positions are becoming scarcer and scarcer at the nation’s colleges. UVM is no exception. Increasingly colleges are replacing outgoing full-time faculty with part-timers. Why pay for one full-time faculty member when you can get the same work at a significantly lower cost by hiring two part-timers and by letting them go whenever you wish? It’s the Walmart strategy. And colleges across the nation are embracing it. The percentage of part-time faculty at the nation’s colleges increased from 33.1 percent in 1987 to 42.6 percent in 1998 (The National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). The part-time faculty ghetto gets bigger each year.

But it’s not just the part-time faculty that is getting ripped off. It’s also you, the students. These unethical labor practices cheat undergraduates out of the education they pay so dearly for. Increasingly, undergraduates, especially those in introductory classes, are being taught by low-paid, undervalued part-timers. Money is being shifted away from undergraduate instruction. Such practices send the message to students that the university considers undergraduates a low priority.

What does this mean to you?

It means that when you go looking for your teacher, you’re not likely to find her. She’s only here at the university during the time she is teaching your class or for the few office hours she may hold each week.

It means more and more of your teachers are not able to remain current in their fields. There are few if any professional development funds for part-time faculty. For the most part, their professional development happens on their own time with their own money, two commodities of which they are likely to have little.

It means more and more of your teachers play little role in the life of the university. They have few opportunities to serve on committees, participate in curriculum decisions or make their voices heard in university governance. And even where those opportunities exist, they will not be compensated for the work.

It means more and more of your teachers feel pressured to lower the standards for students. Faculty that can be let go for little or no reason may fear holding the line against grade inflation when it could lead to lower ratings on student evaluations. They may worry that if they fail students, those students will lodge complaints against them. They may give fewer assignments because they haven’t the time to grade them. And the concept of academic freedom is merely a concept when making the smallest waves could drown your livelihood.

This is why a union for part-time faculty would improve the quality of education for students. A unionized part-time faculty could bargain for better working conditions, pay, benefits and job security. A unionized part-time faculty could focus on teaching students instead of on holding onto their jobs, finding healthcare and making ends meet. A unionized part-time faculty could bargain for a little respect.

That a union would benefit part-timers is obvious. But even more importantly, a union would benefit the entire university community by strengthening part-timers’ relationships with the institution, with their departments and with their students. And it just might be that students would benefit the most.