Adjuncts deserve potential new deal

Cass Dalglish, Professor Emerita & Adjunct Professor

After more that 30 years in the classroom, I retired from a full-time career as an Augsburg Professor, embraced my faculty emerita status and became an adjunct — teaching part time in the MFA in Creative Writing. As an adjunct, I was offered the opportunity to join a team of volunteers who were donating their time to negotiate a contract for Augsburg’s new adjunct faculty union, and I’ve been on that team ever since.

Now, after a year and a half of work, Augsburg’s adjunct union negotiators and the administrative team have finally reached a tentative agreement on the university’s first union contract for adjunct instructors. This is still a tentative agreement; before it becomes an official contract, it will need to be formally approved by both adjunct professors and the administration. 

    I believe that this is an extremely significant moment — one that calls our attention to the tremendous contribution our part-time faculty members have been making to Augsburg’s academic environment, and one that reminds us to focus on the university’s mission to seek equity and justice in our community.

    Augsburg’s been honored by the Governor and praised by the “Star Tribune” for that “commitment to equity and justice.” We’ve gained a reputation for trying to make things right — on and off campus. But over the years we have had a problem that the university has ignored — and that problem is the serious inequality forced upon many of our own professors.  

    This year, 36 percent of Augsburg’s classes are being taught by adjuncts — dedicated academics who have invested in graduate degrees and who bring expertise to the classroom at the same time that they have been held under an unbreakable glass ceiling of severe underpayment by the university. Here at Augsburg, adjuncts work for extremely low wages; they are limited to four courses a year and therefore kept in a permanent part-time status that offers no benefits. They have no job security from year to year. They are the equivalent of indentured servants — without the security of an indenture.

    Nationally, the percentage of adjunct professors supporting colleges and universities is escalating. A report by the American Association of University Professors shows that across the nation institutions of higher education are staffing 40 percent of their courses with adjunct professors.

    Doesn’t this mean that Augsburg has simply been following a national trend? Shouldn’t the university be encouraged to continue this treatment of adjuncts if everyone else is doing it?  Indeed, everyone else seems to be doing it. It is a national problem. In fact, it’s a national scandal. And everyone else is participating. But the fact that everyone else is doing something that is harmful to a segment of the community has never been okay here at Augsburg.

    Augsburg, like many small private colleges and universities, is dependent on income from tuition paid by its students. Yet I don’t believe our students understand that so many of the professors they admire and appreciate are scandalously underpaid for the outstanding work they do in the classroom. 

At the same time, in colleges and universities across the nation and here at Augsburg as well, salaries continue to climb for administrative positions. Augsburg’s top four employees are earning from 10-to-nearly-22 times the wages of professors teaching 36 percent of our courses.  Some would say that — like the high percentage of adjunct faculty — this income disparity is a universal characteristic of 21st century Academe, that Augsburg shouldn’t have to correct a problem that no one else seems to be worried about. 

   But ignoring injustice is not the Augsburg way. Augsburg has a reputation for a bold commitment to campus equity and because of that commitment it’s time for the university to turn its financial attention back toward the classroom. 

     A union contract for Augsburg adjuncts does not solve the problem, but it is a beginning.  It is Augsburg’s opportunity to set things right, to offer its adjunct professors a path toward equity and justice. We need to invite “everyone else” in higher education to imitate us as we focus on this issue of economic justice for adjunct professors. If we can’t do that, we’re saying that in the case of our own adjunct professors, we’re willing to give up on trying to make things right.

This article was originally published in the Oct. 19, 2018 issue.