Academic freedom?

USF’s adjunct faculty consider unionizing to fight for benefits and job security.

There used to be a time when getting a master’s or PhD was a relatively safe bet for job security.

Earning a terminal degree was tough as hell, not to mention expensive, and certainly not for everyone. But it gave you a decent shot at a comfortable life in academia, where you’re given a nowadays-uncommon degree of job security in exchange for bestowing your knowledge upon students and researching and writing about the things that fascinate you most. Your salary may never go north of six figures, but your health care is probably covered, and maybe your kid’s tuition, too. Plus, you get to go on sabbatical.

These days, though, countless bright aspiring academics go as far as they can go in their research and education only to find the window closing on them. At public colleges and universities across the state, they’re offered adjunct positions for a pittance, and no job security and benefits. Some have slept in their cars, skipped meals or gone without phone service or auto repairs. And they’re desperate to change that.

In the coming weeks, adjuncts teaching at the University of South Florida may get more say in their circumstances via a vote to potentially form an adjunct union. Advocates argue that offering job security, better wages and health benefits to adjunct faculty will result in better student outcomes, given that the ones grading their papers wouldn’t be struggling to eat and pay rent.

“I have an apartment with a roommate, and if it wasn’t for her and her job I’d be homeless, literally,” said Tara Blackwell, who teaches biology courses remotely because she is on dialysis and awaiting a kidney transplant. “I only have insurance now through Obamacare, though politicians right now could screw that up, too.”

Blackwell said she earns about $4,000 per class, per semester, and currently, she teaches two classes each semester. In other words, unless she picks up a class or two in the summer, she’s looking at an annual income of $16,000.

Starting February 16 and going through March 13, some 900 USF adjuncts will have a chance to vote on whether to form an adjunct union. If it passes, USF would be the third public higher education system to do so, following Broward College and Hillsborough Community College. USF administration is against the measure, but the Florida Public Employee Relation Commission told the university earlier this month that the administration must allow such a vote to take place.

USF officials, meanwhile, maintain that having a union representing all adjuncts would create a “one-size-fits-all contract for these employees,” which “could lead to less qualified adjuncts teaching classes,” said USF spokesman Adam Freeman in an email.

“Such a contract could also reduce the ability for the university to hire adjunct faculty and could cause a reduction in course offerings to students,” Freeman continued, adding that adjunct positions were never intended to be secure. “The salaries of USF System adjuncts are intended to provide supplemental, not primary, income until a permanent position can be obtained. In many cases USF adjunct faculty members have full-time employment elsewhere, including in clinical and professional settings.”

Dwayne Smith, USF’s senior vice provost and dean of graduate studies, told CL’s Alex Pickett in November that adjunct teaching is “a very questionable career choice” that he would advise against for most people, save perhaps for retirees who don’t need the money but would like to pass along their lives’ work.

But Mark Holbert, who teaches in USF’s world languages department, said despite the meager pay, it’s very much a full-time job, one that probably pays half of what instructors earn at a private school.

“They expect people to do it as freelancers...basically a hobby rather than paying teachers [full time],” he said. “The good teachers go elsewhere because they can receive better pay at a public school or private.”

Also pushing for the vote is Service Employees International Union. They, of course, have skin in the game because they’d stand to benefit from organizing the adjunct union should it be approved. But to supporters, union dues are a small price to pay for benefits and job security.

“The union is just helping us to do this because they know how to form a union and we don’t,” Blackwell said. “The dues are very minimal, and if we have to pay a little dues to get job security and health care, that’s a bargain, I’d say.” 

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