Unionizing Vermont Adjuncts Reflect A National Trend
Within the past three weeks, adjunct professors at three educational institutions in Vermont have announced that they've voted to organize unions. Adjuncts at St. Michael’s College, Burlington College and Champlain College all say they want better pay, more benefits and stable working conditions.
Peter Hans Matthews, a labor economist at Middlebury College, says that the recent events reflect a trend that reaches far beyond Vermont. “The face of education has changed drastically in the past half century,” Matthews explains. “Fifty years ago, 70 percent of all academics were tenured or tenured tracked. At this point … 19 to 20 percent are tenured or tenured tracked. The rest are adjuncts who work under a variety of conditions, often not particularly hospitable.”
“Adjuncts simply don’t have time to spend in contact with students, they don’t have the time to supervise research, they don’t have the time really to inspire students, which is why they went into teaching in the first place.” - Peter Hans Matthews, labor economist at Middlebury College
Matthews, who is a tenured professor, sees the rising use of adjunct professors as a result of institutions responding to pressure to keep costs down. He worries that this is affecting the quality of education throughout the country. “Adjuncts simply don’t have time to spend in contact with students, they don’t have the time to supervise research, they don’t have the time really to inspire students, which is why they went into teaching in the first place,” Matthews says.
This isn’t necessarily the fault of the adjunct professors, Matthew thinks, but simply a result of poor working conditions, low pay and lack of time. “The median pay for a three-credit course for adjuncts across the United States is about $3,000, which means that even if you teach [a heavy load] you would be making an amount that still qualifies you for food stamps in most of the United States,” Matthews says. As for the working conditions, Matthews explains that most adjunct professors don’t have health insurance and often don’t feel like they are part of the faculty. “They have very little say in curriculum, they have very little say in votes and they often don’t have offices. In some cases they work out of cars as they scramble from class to class,” says Matthews.
"The median pay for a three-credit course for adjuncts across the United States is about $3,000, which means that even if you teach [a heavy load] you would be making an amount that still qualifies you for food stamps in most of the United States."
So, can colleges in Vermont afford to meet the needs of adjunct professors? Matthews thinks so. He explains that it’s important to look at institutions nearby that have gone through the same experience. “Tufts University [in Boston] underwent a recent campaign and I think both sides would argue that they found common ground. And it wasn’t just about compensation, but also about working conditions and professional support. We’re often talking about accommodations that aren’t necessarily hugely expensive,” Matthew says. But he points out that it’s clear monetary compensation for adjuncts needs to go up as well.