Educate (and Agitate and Organize): Campus Women and the Rise of Contingent Faculty Unions


This week is Campus Equity Week, an annual event to raise awareness about the poor working conditions experienced by the majority of faculty in higher ed, especially those on temporary and low-paid contracts. It’s a golden opportunity to take a minute to speak candidly with students about the realities of university teaching and dispel any lingering myths about academics having “cush” jobs. I found that my students, themselves facing ever-mounting levels of debt and the looming specter of job insecurity, were quite responsive and empathetic when it came to these discussions, which were as much about their collective presents and futures as they were about my own. After all, faculty working conditions, so the saying goes, are student learning conditions.

When Campus Equity Week was first introduced by the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor in 1999, the proportion of part-time faculty was on the rise, from 15% in 1960 to 30% in 1975 to about half of all positions. According to the US Government Accountability Office, by 2015, contingent faculty made up a whopping 70% of the post-secondary workforce. News outlets have reported widely on the “adjunct crisis” in higher ed and helped to publicize the issues faced by “the fast-food workers of the academic world” – including low pay, no benefits or job security, little institutional support or opportunity for advancement and exclusion from the campus community.

As a one-time graduate teaching fellow and visiting instructor, I’m familiar with many of the anxieties and hardships Campus Equity Week was designed to bring into classroom and public conversations. The close of spring term always brought with it a palpable climate of apprehension that went much deeper than the menacingly tall stacks of final papers piled on everyone’s desks. As my students nervously awaited their grades, my colleagues and I tensely waited to hear the fate of our contracts. For many, the ensuing scramble to cobble together enough gigs to make ends meet lasted straight through ’til fall. It’s the kind of tenuous professional existence that makes long-term planning or basic “adulting” practically impossible.

Though concerns about the rise of contingent labor in higher ed have been around for decades, successful efforts to organize and unionize this sector have only recently begun to gain momentum. A 2016 report in the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy cited an uptick of unions among non-tenure-stream (NTS) faculty at private institutions as one of the most significant developments in today’s higher ed workplace. Dubbed a “year of change,” just the first nine months of 2016 saw the certification of 20 new unions, an impressive increase given that the Journal’s previous directory of US private sector unions had only identified 77 in total. Under the watch of its first female president Mary Kay Henry, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) alone is responsible for organizing 54,000 faculty members on 60 campuses since the launch of its Faculty Forward campaign in 2012.

It’s a trend that’s particularly important to campus women and is, in many cases, being led by them, too.

Surprisingly or NOT, the increasing “adjunctification” of academia has corresponded to increased numbers of female and minority university grads and faculty. Women make up the majority of contingent faculty in the US, representing up to 61% of the temporary workforce.

As sociologist Ashley Finley has noted, besides women occupying a disproportionate number of precarious and low-paying positions, universities also tend to hire more contingent faculty in fields in which women tend to predominate. Such gender biases in the academic workforce reflect entrenched cultural narratives that, among other things, privilege (masculine) research over (feminine) teaching.

Part-time and temporary gigs likewise have been framed as “family friendly” arrangements that are implied to be especially well suited for women, who continue to be the de-facto primary caregivers. Yet surveys have shown again and again that most part-time and temporary faculty would prefer to be on full-time and permanent contracts. Furthermore, no work that fails to provide a living wage can be seen as “family friendly.” As one private university physics instructor put it: “I voted yes to form an adjunct faculty union . . . because I love teaching, but I pay more in child care than I make from teaching and it is unsustainable.”


The non-profit advocacy group New Faculty Majority (NFM) lately designed a project to draw attention to the specific difficulties faced by women in contingent academic employment. NFM identified female adjuncts as “likely to be among the most politically vulnerable and economically precarious in the academy” and highlighted two salient groups among them: women who were, on the one hand, under significant pressure as heads of households with sole responsibility for dependents or, on the other, reliant on partners to “subsidize” their academic careers. While NFM has cited these demographics (which by no means cover all women in contingent positions) as historically difficult to organize because of their extreme vulnerability or comparative immunity, it appears campus women of all stripes are becoming increasingly emboldened to take collective action and fight for reforms. One of the key ways in which female faculty around the US are empowering themselves is by joining and leading union organizing campaigns in spite of legal challenges and sometimes fierce institutional pushback.

The fruit of such campaigns – collective bargaining – has proven to be a powerful tool for contingent faculty to better their circumstances. Kristen Edwards and Kim Tolley, two faculty at the newly unionized Notre Dame De Namur University, recently published a study in The Chronicle that answers the question “do unions help adjuncts?” with a fairly resounding “yes.” Looking at all the collective bargaining agreements ratified between 2010 and 2016, they found that unions not only won significant pay raises for NTS faculty across the board, but also in nearly every instance improved their overall benefits, job security, working conditions, academic freedom and access to professional development.

While these mark substantial gains for the few women and workers covered by such agreements, Edwards and Tolley also note that collective bargaining is still falling well short of many of the movement’s big-picture goals, like “attaining true parity in salary and benefits with TS faculty, obtaining meaningful participation in shared governance, and halting the increasing overreliance on gig labor in higher education.” To these aims, one might add: gender parity. To get there would require additional bargaining on issues like family leave policy and cultural changes, such as the equal recognition of teaching and research. In the end, campus equity will rely on campus women actively participating in bottom-up changes and on the show of solidarity amongst all faculty.