Adjunct professors on some local campuses have won pay raises, professional development dollars and other gains on the heels of a recent push to unionize them.
But they say the bid to boost their working conditions has only just begun.
Part-time faculty have formed unions on three local campuses — part of rapid national growth that has almost doubled bargaining units at private nonprofit institutions since 2012. Supporters say the effort springs from frustration with modest pay and job insecurity for a group of faculty whose ranks have swelled. But some administrators are pushing back, invoking the very financial pressures that have led colleges to lean on adjuncts more heavily and insisting they pay fairly for what was designed to be part-time work.
At Hamline University, home of Minnesota's first adjunct union on a private campus, faculty and administrators have been caught up in contentious talks over a second contract since July.
"Our first contract was a huge improvement over what had been, but it fell far short of what we'd hoped for," said David Weiss, the Hamline union steward.
Pay and working conditions have also improved on a string of local campuses where unionization efforts ultimately failed.
And in the Minnesota State system, the university faculty union said it has made part-time professors a major focus at the bargaining table. This spotlight on adjuncts comes as nontenure jobs now account for two-thirds of teaching positions nationally, up from only a third in the 1970s.
Hamline alumna Melanie Galloway returned to teach on the St. Paul campus last year after earning her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Minnesota.
She found out that to break into her dream job as a university professor, she would need to weather an uncertain stretch as an adjunct.
This semester, she is teaching a physics course with two labs — the equivalent of 2.5 courses — earning about $11,600.
She says she relies on savings from a substitute teaching job at a local high school last fall.
"I had absolutely no idea it is this bad," said Galloway, a member of Hamline's adjunct bargaining team. "It's disheartening because I love academia."
Faculty and administrators hailed the first adjunct contract in 2015. It granted most part-time faculty their first base pay raise in a decade, during which the per-course rate had remained at $4,000. It also included new pay bumps for terminal degrees and longevity at Hamline, professional development dollars and a tuition discount.
The second time around, talks have been so contentious that at one point, the two sides retreated to separate rooms, with a federal mediator shuttling back and forth.
The union's current request would raise base pay to $5,350 over the three years of the contract, which leaders say would restore buying power lost during 10 years without a raise. Adjuncts, who are teaching almost a fifth of classes this year, have pushed back against a proposal to cut off university e-mail after they wrap up their courses — what administrators tout as a network security measure but professors describe as a setback for efforts to become more fully integrated into the campus community.
Union leaders have decried an upcoming policy of posting most courses taught by adjuncts each semester.
Hamline says the policy will ensure adjunct assignments go to the most qualified instructors. But the union argues it will bring more faculty turnover and could be used to retaliate against them.
Hamline Provost John Matachek said the administration in 2015 granted raises in line with pay increases full-time faculty had received. Pointing to national data released this week that places average university adjunct pay at $3,890 per course, he says Hamline has never struggled to enlist adjuncts. Now, he said, the university must balance their ask against competing financial pressures.
"We are trying to be reasonable and good stewards of the university," he said.
Nationally, about 70 new faculty bargaining units — all but one for nontenure faculty — have sprung up on private campuses since 2012, when there were 77 such units, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. More than 50 new faculty bargaining units have formed at public institutions, a 10 percent increase.
"Adjunct faculty's working conditions have been problematic in many ways, and the unions have really capitalized on that," said Adrianna Kezar, director of the national Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.
In Minnesota and nationally, the Service Employees International Union has been at the forefront. Matt LaBo, a local SEIU organizer, said proposals aim to foster a sense of belonging for adjuncts: access to shared office space, campus-issued computers, opportunities to serve on committees. One proposal that hasn't gained traction: one- or two-year appointments for veteran adjuncts.
In December after a year and a half of talks, Augsburg University adjuncts ratified a contract that will raise base pay per course from $4,250 to $5,000 by 2020.
It also increases fees adjuncts receive when their courses are canceled and includes new professional development grants, a tuition discount and a retirement contribution match.
Sharon Gerlach, a French instructor on the bargaining team, notes that even after the contract's pay increases, if an adjunct taught a full load of six courses a year that professor would earn $30,000, not even half of what a typical full-time professor makes.
At the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, SEIU unionized both roughly 80 adjunct and 30 full-time faculty in separate bargaining units, which recently negotiated contracts granting them pay raises and other gains.
On private campuses such as St. Catherine University and Macalester College, unionization efforts failed after administrators offered adjuncts raises or other improvements. At the University of St. Thomas, Vice Provost Robert Riley says the school made a case that administrators and adjuncts could work better together without a union.
Adjuncts received a roughly 23 percent raise and, for some, new one-year contracts under which those who teach six courses a year can receive full benefits.
In 2017, University of Minnesota Twin Cities faculty suspended a campaign to form a union after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that almost 1,000 adjuncts could not be in the same bargaining unit as tenured professors.
In the Minnesota State system, the union representing college faculty says its contract — which includes the same salary schedule for full- and part-time faculty and equal access to benefits — makes it a national outlier. The Inter Faculty Organization, the university faculty union, says it has scored major gains for adjuncts recently, including tying pay increases to full-time professor raises.
At Hamline, Galloway says if applications for a full-time teaching position next fall don't pan out, she will act on the near-daily job alerts about corporate positions she receives: "I can't be an adjunct forever."