Strike? Adjunct Faculty Consider Work Stoppage in Chicago and New York

Kari Lydersen

As the Chicago Reader wrote this week, adjunct faculty at Columbia College and Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) in Chicago are currently considering going on strike, and adjuncts at New York University are still considering striking after a strike vote last fall.

In recent years, universities and colleges have increasingly relied on adjunct faculty without benefits or job security rather than tenured or even full-time non-tenure-track professors. This is a cost-saving measure for institutions and of course undermines the tenure system and the intellectual freedom it was supposed to guarantee.

One can argue that the spirit and process of tenure in higher education has become corrupted, often having the opposite effect: Professors are so desperate to get tenure, they censor themselves to please the powers that be. And academic freedom is chilled at the pre-tenure level as much or more than it is protected at the tenured level.

Carried out in the right way, a higher education system relying heavily on adjuncts can have significant benefits for professors and students, along with the bottom line, as it facilitates classes taught by working professionals in media, the arts or other realms. As the Reader notes, Columbia College was a pioneer in this realm, attracting adjuncts currently working in their fields who weren’t planning to give up their day jobs for academia but who wanted to teach for extra stimulation or income, and could serve as professional mentors for their students.

Columbia College (where I am an adjunct journalism professor and union member) and NEIU have also long had part-time adjunct unions, as does NYU. To the extent a heavily adjunct system is an increasing reality, and does have some benefits for all concerned in a constantly changing media and art world, it is crucial to have strong unions who protect the rights and well-being of adjuncts and also work with full-timers unions to make sure the two groups work in solidarity rather than being pitted against each other.

Columbia College part time teachers are represented by the Part Time Faculty Association, or P-fac, and Northeastern by the University Professionals of Illinois. NYU adjuncts are represented by the ACT- United Auto Workers Local 7902. Their contract negotiations have been going on for almost a year. They’ve been working with a mediator since October, with periodic contract extensions extended.

The Chicago Reader describes the national trend:

Now universities are loading up on part-time, contract scholars, who typically work sans benefits and job security, and often for burger-flipper wages.

NEIU and Columbia College have especially high percentages of adjuncts. The Reader says:

Adjuncts now do a major portion of the instruction at both schools, handling more than 50 percent of the classes at NEIU and accounting for nearly 77 percent of the teachers at Columbia, which has 360 full-time faculty and about 1,200 adjuncts.

Columbia College professors quoted in The Reader described having the credits and pay for their classes cut, even as the student enrollment and workload remained the same; and having their classes cut even as, they said, the number of students per section was significantly increased. Professors also described the frustration of being passionately dedicated to their profession but pragmatically unable to give students extra attention as they scrambled to make a living.

The Reader describes one long-time, popular professor’s wages going from $29,000 to $9,000 a year, as students per section are increased and sections are cut.

Photographer and Columbia College professor Karen Glaser told the Reader:

It’s in my blood to be a teacher,” she says. I’ve kept doing it … but I look at everything that’s happened now and I feel, God, what have I been working for?’”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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