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Take action during Campus Equity Week, Oct. 28-Nov. 2

The death in October of Pittsburgh-based adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko, who was fighting cancer with no health insurance and teetering on the edge of homelessness, has caught fire in the national consciousness. Vojtko taught French for 25 years at Duquesne University. Last spring, the university declined to renew her contract.

The public was appalled to learn that many adjuncts are like Vojtko, facing a perilous existence from semester to semester, with low pay, a lack of benefits and no guarantee of a job when the semester ends.

During the last week of October, more people will learn about the implications of higher education's reliance on a temporary, contingent academic workforce.

Oct. 28-Nov. 2 is Campus Equity Week, an international (Canada is on board, too) week of action to call attention to issues of quality and equality in our system of higher education. CEW is a collection of locally conceived events that are coordinated by faculty activists and organizations, including the AFT. It encourages each local to focus on raising the profile of the issues most pressing on their campus. At the same time, the strength of CEW is the power of holding events all around the country that are connected through community outreach. Find out more on the AFT website. You can also follow developments on Facebook or through Twitter.

Statistics on the overreliance of U.S. colleges and universities on contingent faculty paint a portrait of abuse that is positively Dickensian. No matter what the state of the economy, there are part-time faculty whose families turn to food pantries some weeks of the month.

Yes, some adjunct faculty may teach as a sideline or to share the technical skills of a nonacademic profession. But the more common reason the numbers of part-time faculty have been growing in the past 20 years is that highly trained, advanced-degree-holding scholars have encountered a slammed door when they go to apply for tenure-track teaching jobs.

Look at the numbers:

  • More than 3 out of 4 faculty members in American higher education today work in low-paid, insecure (often part-time) appointments that usually offer no health or other benefits, according to the recent annual compensation survey of the American Association of University Professors.
  • The median pay for adjunct teaching is $2,700 per course.
  • Tenured and tenure-track faculty comprise less than 25 percent of instructors.
  • And 75 percent of respondents to a 2012 Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey said they have sought, are now seeking, or will be seeking a full-time tenure-track position.
  • Higher education sees the contingent academic workforce as a cheap alternative to tenure-track faculty. This can come as a rude awakening to young people who put their lives and peak career-building years on hold to acquire their academic credentials.

Frankly, students who have seen the cost of higher education soar beyond their ability to pay are surprised to learn that meeting their professor after class may be a bit awkward, since their professor doesn't have an office.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has declared Oct. 30 Adjunct and Part-Time Faculty Recognition Day. In addition, a film version of the solo play "For Profit," which highlights the student debt crisis, will be shown on campuses around the country, followed by panel discussions on the connections between disinvestment in higher education, student debt, equity issues for disadvantaged students, and poor working conditions for adjunct faculty. Other events planned nationwide range from a statewide higher education summit to an LGBT wedding reception to preview screenings of the documentary "Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor."

Events are planned for campuses in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, with additional events being added daily. More than 50 California campuses will participate, including 23 community colleges and all 23 California State University campuses.

An updated list of all events is available on the Campus Equity Week website. Let us know what your campus does to participate. Share a picture on AFT Higher Education's Facebook page.

[Barbara McKenna, Tom Lansworth]

Oct. 25, 2013