During the school year, contingent faculty are often denied basic benefits such as health insurance or equitable pay. The New Faculty Majority has just launched a campaign to draw attention to the fact that adjunct faculty are also denied a basic benefit between terms: Unemployment insurance.
Federal unemployment law includes a clause that indicates that faculty with a 'reasonable assurance of re-employment' cannot collect unemployment insurance (UI) during scheduled breaks. This standard is intended to prevent instructors who have continuing contracts from collecting both salary and UI, or 'double-dipping,' between terms. While contingent faculty rarely have the benefit of continuing contracts, colleges and universities across the country have relied on this same clause to contest their applications for unemployment benefits during winter and summer breaks.
Calling on Contingent Faculty to Exercise Their Rights
Adjunct and contingent faculty are professors and researchers working off the tenure track. Numbering over a million individuals nationwide, they make up 73% of instructors at American colleges and universities, yet they're regularly treated as second class citizens in postsecondary institutions. Adjunct faculty carry equal, and sometimes heavier, workloads as their tenured peers while working for a fraction of their per-course compensation. They're routinely denied health and retirement benefits, and while they have the same responsibilities toward their students, they rarely have access to administrative support and basic resources. A recent study found that many also feel excluded and disenfranchised from their universities and even their own departments.
Denying adjunct faculty between-term UI is seen as an exceptionally hypocritical move by higher ed. Most institutions categorically deny contingent faculty certainty of future employment through the very nature of their contracts, which are typically term to term. Yet when these faculty apply for unemployment benefits, the same institutions contest their applications on the grounds that they have 'reasonable assurance of re-employment.' Many schools point to letters of assignment describing their intention to re-hire faculty as evidence of this assurance. Faculty advocates counter that the fact that their positions are dependent on available funds and student enrollment leaves their future employment status uncertain.
The New Faculty Majority (NFM) launched the National Unemployment Compensation Initiative as one small step toward securing equal rights for adjunct and contingent faculty. They emphasize that the campaign is focused on helping faculty gain access to an existing basic right, not attempting to create a new right. The organization points to California, where the Court of Appeals ruled in 1989 in the Cervisi decision that part-time faculty must be considered eligible for unemployment benefits. As a result, UI is regularly awarded between terms to contingent faculty in California. Washington is another state where lawmakers have adjusted state unemployment regulations in favor of adjunct faculty. And NFM's brief on the initiative also points out that seasonal workers in other industries do not have the obligation to prove 'no reasonable assurance' in their off-season.
The first goal of the National Unemployment Compensation Initiative is to raise awareness because many adjunct faculty don't know that they have the right to apply for unemployment benefits between terms. To this end, the NFM is broadly publicizing the campaign and offering practical resources to assist faculty applying for UI. Their next goal is to gather data on faculty's experiences with the process in order to establish patterns of activity around unemployment claims. Finally, they hope to use this information to lobby the federal government to eliminate the 'reasonable assurance' clause altogether in order to make it more difficult for colleges and universities to systematically deny UI to contingent faculty.
The relatively young organization chose to take on this issue because of its timeliness: Persistently high unemployment rates across the country have put unemployment benefits on the minds of Americans in all walks of life. The NFM is trying to bring the challenges faced by contingent faculty to a broader audience than academia in the hopes of exposing - and rectifying - illegal and 'problematic' practices.
Advocating for Faculty Off the Tenure Track
Although NFM is the only organization in the U.S. devoted entirely to advocacy for adjunct and contingent faculty, they are part of a growing movement to improve the working conditions of these professionals. Earlier this year, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released a brief calling for more equitable treatment of faculty working off the tenure track. 'One Faculty Serving All Students' seeks fair compensation and benefits, stronger administrative support, more opportunities for professional development and better enfranchisement in departments and institutions.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a powerful teachers' union, has also launched the Faculty and College Excellence, or FACE, campaign. FACE promotes two parallel goals:
- Securing equal compensation for contingent faculty
- Ensuring that 75% of undergraduate classes are taught by full-time tenure or tenure-track faculty and that qualified adjunct faculty have the opportunity to achieve these positions
The hope is to gain better treatment for adjunct faculty while returning the academic workforce to a time when the majority of positions offered the security of the tenure track. FACE does assure their members that these goals will be phased in slowly to prevent job loss for contingent faculty.
The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL is an international grassroots organization that advocates for contingent faculty. Focusing on unions and collective action, they coordinate adjunct faculty groups across North America.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) co-sponsors the biennial Campus Equity Week, known in some places as Fair Employment Week. The event aims to publicize the challenges faced by adjuncts, bring contingent faculty together and support both statewide legislation and single-campus efforts to create change.
There has also been a proliferation of local advocacy groups in recent years. Some run entirely out of a single school, others link up whole university systems and many have developed out of a push to unionize contingent faculty members. These organizations offer more hands-on support for faculty working at their member institutions.
Together, these organizations make up an increasingly powerful movement to bring equity to the academic workplace.