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Organizing to Resist the Corporatization of Higher Education

The once hallowed and secure work life of American university faculty has for the past quarter century been in turmoil.

On May 29, 2014, Seattle University students protested their administration's decision to appeal the contingent faculty's right to have a union vote. (Photo: SEIU Local 925 / Flickr)

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The once hallowed and secure work life of American university faculty has for the past quarter century been in turmoil. Being a profes­sor was once a respected, stable profession, but is now increasingly characterized by low pay, minimal benefits, and no job security. An expectation of tenure – the permanent status that was once a hallmark of the profession – is replaced by the reality of contingency, which means that college instructors must reapply to teach courses every year, or even every semes­ter. This new contingency is not a temporary employment arrangement, nor is it confined to a sector of higher education such as community colleges. According to the Coalition of the Academic Workforce’s 2014 report, contingent faculty now comprise more than 75 percent of the instructional faculty in the United States. Faculty contingency is now the norm.

However, contingent faculty are confronting these changes to their profession by organizing and forming unions, the likes of which have not been seen since the graduate student organizing of the 1990s. In the past two years alone, nearly ten thousand faculty, mostly in the private sector, have joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), adding more energy to an already vibrant adjunct-faculty activist community.[1] Even so, this phenomenal organizing has directly touched only a fragment of the faculty in higher education. According to the 2012 report by the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions (NCSCBHEP), of the 1.2 million tenured, tenure track, and non-tenure track fac­ulty in the United States, 27 percent of all fac­ulty, both full- and part-time, are organized, and 21 percent of part-time faculty are organized. To break it down further, 42 percent of faculty at public two-year colleges have collectively bar­gained agreements, while 25 percent have done so in public four-year colleges, and just 7 percent in four-year, private non-profit colleges.[2]

If we take only the faculty recently organized into the SEIU, that represents just under 1 per­cent of all faculty newly organized in the United States in the past two years. Although this is not an insignificant addition to the universe of union­ized faculty, the degradation of the professoriate has happened to such an extent that it will take decades of organizing to restore the profession to anywhere near its former self, and a much more comprehensive movement to transform higher education broadly. Furthermore, large swaths of faculty, specifically tenured faculty in the private sector – who are considered managers per a 1980 Supreme Court decision – and both ten­ured and non-tenured faculty in right-to-work states, are excluded from union representation.[3] According to the aforementioned report by the NCSCBHEP, nearly half of the organized faculty are concentrated in just two states – New York and California – and nearly two-thirds of orga­nized faculty are in just five states (New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois, and Michigan).

Undaunted, however, contingent faculty are organizing in states across the country, both within organized labor and outside of traditional union structures. One of the most dynamic exam­ples is Faculty Forward Network, a national non­profit organization that unites the professoriate through local organizing focused on national solutions to problems in higher education.

How Did Things Get So Bad?

Faculty at colleges and universities can be ten­ured, tenure track, full-time non-tenure track, part-time non-tenure track, graduate assistants, and postdoctoral fellows. Contingent or adjunct, faculty are non-tenure track, largely hired each semester, although some have full-time contracts of varying lengths (e.g., one-year appointments). Graduate assistants teaching outside of their pro­gram are considered adjuncts. Postdocs are, per­haps, the newest class of contingent academic laborers as adjunct faculty increasingly find themselves jumping from one fellowship to the next with decreasing hope of landing permanent positions. Each of these classifications of faculty can be found in greater or lesser numbers depending on the type of educational institution and whether it is public or private. According to Department of Education post-secondary school data for fall 2013, 64 percent of faculty at public four-year research institutions are contingent compared with 80 percent at public two-year colleges and 100 percent at for-profit colleges.[4]

This shift from a majority tenured academic labor model to one that is largely non-tenured has happened steadily over the past forty years. In 1975, there were 623,000 faculty in the United States (excluding graduate students), 29 percent of them tenured, and another 16 percent on the tenure track. In 2011, there were just under 1.5 million faculty (excluding graduate students), just over 16.7 percent of them ten­ured, and 7.4 percent on track for tenure, according to a 2013 AAUP report.[5]

Non-tenured adjunct faculty have been used for decades to bring “real world” experience into the classroom. Professionals such as accountants and nurses who held full-time jobs in their professions could teach a course to support students joining their profession or make extra money. Over time, college administrators have come to over-rely on this hiring model as a way to maintain flexibility in course offerings and hiring. Hiring contingent fac­ulty sidesteps the need to offer benefits, pay a full-time salary, or provide a path to tenure. The unraveling of tenure was quietly being done on campuses public and private, rich and poor, well before Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wrote tenure out of the state law for faculty in the University of Wisconsin system this summer.

Contingent faculty generally have no man­dated responsibility or support to conduct research or publish, serve on committees, or even be available to students. Increasingly, instructional positions are being unbundled, with syllabi and course content developed by one person, instruction or student supervision conducted by another, and grading done by still someone else. So, although contingent faculty themselves are often highly educated, their jobs, formerly characterized by high degrees of responsibility, autonomy, and prestige, are being whittled down to fragments of a career, limited to instruction in the narrowest possible sense – literally the hours spent in front of the classroom with little acknowledgment or compensation for the time spent preparing for classes, holding office hours, or keeping abreast in the field of instruction. Contingent faculty have lost mid-dle-class careers to support an academic busi­ness model more Fordist than Ivory Tower.

No one benefits from the outsourcing of college instruction except perhaps non-faculty college administrators who retain a flexible, poorly com­pensated workforce. Universities are receiving a similar quality product (instruction) for a cheaper rate, yet students – consumers in the neoliberal model – are not paying less for the product they are receiving, even with significant labor cost savings. Tuition continues to climb ever higher. The reality is the disproportionate use of contingent faculty means fewer members to write recommendations, serve on thesis and dissertation committees, share in administrative and committee duties, act as men­tors, and retain institutional knowledge. The loss of institutional knowledge, although rarely discussed, may be one of the most detrimental effects to any college or university because policies, curricula, and academic trends will be known by a shrinking few. Students looking for guidance on their own scholarship, career direction, or institutional con­cerns, academic or otherwise, may have great dif­ficulty finding it.

What Have Faculty Lost?

The profession of college professor has experi­enced losses ranging from job security and com­pensation to status and autonomy. Wages for faculty vary widely from full professor to adjunct teacher. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median salary for a post-secondary teacher as just under $69,000 per year. This can vary depending on professor rank, department, and university. Generally, adjunct-faculty compensation is low: median pay per three-credit course is $2,700, according to the Coalition of the Academic Workforce, with fully one in four families of part-time adjunct faculty accessing public assistance programs as reported by the April 2015 study released by the Center for Labor Research and Education at University of California, Berkeley.

Academic freedom and, closely related, ten­ure ensure the ability to teach, research, and publish ideas, be they unorthodox or conten­tious, without fear of censure or reprisal, and has been a perquisite of being a professor for a century. However, as Ellen Schrecker, a scholar of free speech suppression who has monitored the changes in higher education, argues, aca­demic freedom as a right is increasingly under jeopardy, from politicians and culture warriors on one side and the corporatized university on the other.[6] Contingent faculty almost singularly focus on instruction in every department and have little to no formal requirement or obliga­tion toward research and publishing, unlike ten­ured and tenure track faculty. Because publishing is usually not a requirement for contingent fac­ulty, professional development (attending con­ferences, sabbaticals, or providing research) is often not supported by college administrations. Yet, many contingent faculty, whether supported or not, continue to research and write because of professional obligations (and pressure). Where support for professional development is pro­vided, it is often through collectively bargained agreements by faculty unions. Even instruction, which represents the lion’s share of the work that contingent faculty do, is very often equally unsupported, as evidenced by the lack of train­ing, orientation, and resource support they receive. In the brave new digitized classroom and with the increase in different learning popu­lations, some with learning needs or limited lan­guage skills, this lack of support for instruction demands immediate attention.

A New Workers’ Movement

The SEIU has been organizing contingent faculty nationally for more than two years and in that time, thousands have joined the union. Many organized faculty have won standard-raising con­tract provisions such as employer contributions for contingent faculty benefits along with intellec­tual property and academic freedom protections. Adjunct contracts show marked pay increases. As part of their collective bargaining agreement, Tufts’ adjunct-faculty compensation will have a floor of $7,300 per course next year, truly impres­sive given the $2,700 median. Benefits and condi­tions have also seen gains; adjunct faculty on two-year appointments at Lesley University in Boston won employer contributions for retire­ment plans, a victory for contingent workers in any industry. The SEIU adjuncts in the Maine Community College System cannot have their course assignments reduced to evade employer responsibility under the Affordable Care Act. The SEIU adjuncts at multiple colleges are entitled to a robust evaluation process beyond student evalu­ations, can access professional development funds, have protections for intellectual property, and compensation for course design, and enjoy contractual protections for academic freedom. For faculty – adjunct or otherwise – who have orga­nized through an election process and success­fully negotiated a contract with their university, the process can be transformative, both emotion­ally and materially.

However, for far too many faculty members, the barriers to achieving a collective bargaining agreement on their campus may be formidable. Higher education is a disaggregated and disparate industry; colleges can vary widely in size, finan­cial health, campus culture, and student demo­graphics even within a close geographic area. States with laws hostile to unions and collective bargaining make unionizing challenging, even for full-time faculty, although non-tenure track faculty at Duke University are undeterred by North Carolina’s so-called right-to-work law and are exercising their right to participate in a free and fair election process. Colleges in rural or iso­lated areas also present a challenge to organizing as contingent faculty may feel particular pressure not to risk even a bad job for no job. Those who teach largely online, many at for-profit colleges, may never meet another faculty member in their institution, thus suffering a particular form of alienation and isolation that can make organizing daunting. Private sector tenured and tenure track faculty deemed managerial and graduate students adjudged pupils not employees have legal road­blocks to cross if they want to unionize. Yet, in many of these cases, all faculty – full time, ten­ured, and contingent – are in no less need of bet­ter compensation, benefits, and security, are subject to no less intimidation, harassment, or vagaries, and are no less desirous of improving their profession, personal teaching capacities, and finding community than their counterparts in Boston, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C. who have enviable contracts. Even for tenured faculty who may be well compensated and have job security, pay disparity by gender and race, pro­motions, discrimination, and academic freedom may still be issues. Where legal, many public-sector tenured faculty have supported unionizing even with the protections they already enjoy.

In spring 2015, two thousand faculty and adjunct-faculty activists, including the SEIU members, joined fast-food workers in Fight for $15 to build toward large scale mobilizations on April 15. These alliances were unparalleled, as workers representing multiple industries and unions – from teachers to health care workers to building trades workers and many, many more – participated. Actions took place on campuses across the country, including University of Southern California, Seattle University, University of Chicago, and University of California, Berkeley among hundreds of others with students joining their professors to demand living wages, proclaiming low wage workers need to earn at least $15 an hour, plus have the ability to join a union. Two years ago, this demand seemed impossible; no city would con­sider it, no employer would voluntarily pay it, workers would not fight for it. But pressure exerted by low wage workers – most not in unions – through strikes and other actions have resulted in fast-food, hotel, municipal, and air­port workers, as well as home health aides, achieving a $15 per hour minimum wage. In all, nearly eleven million workers in this country will see wage increases through minimum wage leg­islation. These victories speak volumes about the power of sustained and vibrant movement-build­ing. Even in a state with no minimum wage law, the Birmingham, Alabama city council recently approved a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour by 2017 with raises tied to inflation in subsequent years. The Fight for $15 movement has trans­formed labor by transforming labor organizing.

Just as $15 an hour was decried as “absolutely outrageous” (by Dunkin’ Brands CEO, Nigel Travis, whose total compensation in 2014 was $10 million) but now is the standard, adjunct fac­ulty in the SEIU set out their own audacious demand for $15,000 per course (comprehensive of wages and benefits), hoping to set a new stan­dard. By early Fall 2015, faculty had written more than one hundred opinion editorials and letters to the editor calling for $15,000 a course minimums. Although that may seem impossible to some, it is not so crazy to think that any faculty member, adjunct or otherwise, should teach five to six courses per year and stay current in their field through research or learning new skills, rather than teach ten classes per year or work multiple non-teaching jobs, as some contingent faculty are forced to do. What would a living wage, stability, health care, and retirement benefits do for the thousands of contingent faculty that live in pov­erty and near poverty? What would this do for the quality of education for a college student seeking recommendations, mentorship, or simply office hours with their professor who is not racing to the next academic gig? Finally, while the SEIU has put out the bold demand for $15,000 per course, it is incumbent upon college administrators, deans, students, and parents paying tuition to answer the question, “What are faculty worth? How should the people so central to fulfilling the mission of the university be compensated?”

The movement-style organizing of Fight for $15 has inspired adjunct faculty to engage in broad campus organizing. Because of the April 15 mobilizations and National Adjunct Walkout Day on February 25, thousands of adjunct fac­ulty reached out to and became active in the SEIU. National Adjunct Walkout Day was started by an adjunct-faculty member in California to draw attention to the situation of adjuncts nationally. Her call brought thousands of faculty, most adjuncts and many full-time sup­porters, onto campus lawns and city streets to protest administrative exploitation of and cal­lousness toward instructional faculty. This day of action also helped shatter the image of the tweedy, aloof professor and forced contingent and tenured faculty to admit to their students that the educational debt they were acquiring was doing little to alleviate adjunct-faculty poverty. Most undergraduate college students are unable to distinguish who is an adjunct versus tenured or tenure track faculty member; pulling back the veil on faculty disparity is often shocking for stu­dents. And faculty did not stop there, taking to the quads and the streets again on April 15 with other low wage workers. Seattle University fac­ulty and students along with low wage workers and community allies – twenty-one in all – were arrested while demanding $15 per hour mini­mum wage and protesting the Seattle University administration’s refusal to count adjunct-faculty ballots in a union election held the previous year.

Some of the greatest participation by faculty was in the South, in places with minimal to no faculty unionization. Elite research institutions such as Duke, public systems such as Georgia State and University of North Carolina, as well as historically black colleges and universities such as Clark Atlanta University and Fort Valley State University, found common cause in fighting for more resources, both in instruc­tion and the classroom, demanding more trans­parency by administrators and trustees in budget and governance processes, and refocus­ing their institutions toward their mission of providing a public service. If higher education is to be transformed, it will require hundreds of thousands of faculty and students demanding change both on their campuses and nationally.

Faculty Forward Network

Faculty Forward Network is a national 501(c)(3) set up as such to undertake activities to improve working conditions for adjunct faculty outside of traditional collective bargaining. This organization is an activist vehicle for any faculty member (full- or part-time, tenured, ten­ure track, or non-tenure), student or ally who is committed to transforming the academic pro­fession to one that pays livable wages, supports instruction and research in equal measure, and puts an end to academic contingency. With more than forty thousand members on cam­puses and individually, Faculty Forward Network is poised to bring about these improve­ments and re-establish faculty’s role as stew­ards of higher education. Its mission is to demand investment in instruction and higher standards for faculty and students. Faculty Forward Network members are now learning from experience that uniting in a broad national movement facilitates profound changes.

As one example, faculty at Jesuit colleges and universities throughout the country have delivered Just Employment petitions to their administrators, held rolling one-day fasts, writ­ten editorials, and participated in teach-ins and forums to demand increased investment in instruction and open a dialogue with adminis­trators about collective organizing. The major­ity of those participating in these actions are contingent faculty, with support from their full-time tenured colleagues. Although these actions could have taken place on each individual cam­pus unconnected to the other Jesuit colleges, by joining together nationally, faculty are experi­encing the power of solidarity. The Jesuit col­leges are bound together by a spiritual mission as well as a common association. Many faculty at the Jesuit colleges are now members of Faculty Forward Network and act as if they belong to a union. These actions under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act may be protected as they have “the right to self-organi­zation” and “the right to engage in concerted activities for the purposes of collective bargain­ing or other mutual aid or protection.”

Most successful models for alternative labor organizations, such as the National Taxi Workers Alliance and Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), start locally, in a neighborhood or in a city, then expand to other areas. ROC, first formed in New York City, is now a national organization with locals throughout the country. Faculty Forward Network flipped this model. As an outgrowth of the organizing by the SEIU faculty, faculty nationwide know that they are able to effect change nationally and push for change in communities outside their own for the benefit of all. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois with the SEIU’s support has sponsored the Adjunct Loan Fairness Act so that all faculty at not-for-profit schools may access the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which would erase student loan balances after ten years of payments. The SEIU faculty are engaged in local and federal legislative efforts to stop online instruction de-regulation, curb bad colleges – most notoriously in the for-profit sector – from taking advantage of students, and challenging the accepted practice of poorly paid, outsourced academic labor.

Challenging the Fair Labor Standards Act

The catalogue of issues many faculty face, item­ized above, is compounded by the lack of protec­tion at the federal level. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has an exemption for “Learned Professionals” that leaves faculty unprotected in matters of wages. This exemption presumes that all faculty are salaried, a dated premise now proved inaccurate by the percentages of adjunct faculty. The Department of Labor is hearing sto­ries of contingent faculty and lack of compensa­tion for preparation time, student office hours, department meetings, and more – what most other industries would call “wage theft.” To amend the FLSA to include faculty would be an achievement for all, but this requires national action from faculty everywhere, not just at unionized campuses. That is precisely the reason why Faculty Forward Network exists – to improve the lives of all faculty members and the classroom experience for students.

The rampant utilization of under-paid contin­gent academic workers is detrimental to faculty and their families and undermines the profession. However, this new normal also conveys to stu­dents that being a college professor is not a viable profession, especially when large student debt loads await upon the completion of education. One can only hope that this predicament does not undo the decades of progress to diversify the academy, research, and scholarship.


1. The National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), United Steelworkers (USW), American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the Service Employees International Union (the SEIU) are among the national unions that have seen vic­tories for faculty unionization. Other advocacy organizations, such as New Faculty Majority or Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), have made a huge impact in promot­ing public awareness of the reality and scale of the use of contingent faculty.

2. Berry, Joe, and Michelle Savarese, Directory of U.S. Faculty Contracts and Bargaining Agents in Institutions of Higher Education, series ed. Richard Boris, September, 2012.

3. The 1980 Supreme Court case, National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva, held that tenured and tenure track faculty were responsible for significant decision-making on campuses, including faculty supervision. Because ten­ured and tenure track faculty were now deemed managers, they were precluded from organizing under the National Labor Relations Act.

4. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, available at

5. American Association of University Professors. Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status, 1975-2011. April 2013, available at AAUP_Report_InstrStaff-75-11_apr2013.pdf.

6. Ellen Schrecker, The Lost Soul of Higher Education (New York: The New Press, 2010), 4.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of inter­est with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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