Adjunct faculty at St. Joseph's University take steps toward organizing

Michael Burns says adjuncts who call in sick must find -and pay - replacements.
Michael Burns says adjuncts who call in sick must find -and pay - replacements. (RYAN S. GREENBERG / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 14, 2012

They're not quite a union - not yet, and maybe not ever, but the adjunct faculty at St. Joseph's University are beginning to act like one.

They have formed a group, held meetings with the university administration, and managed to win a pay raise along with a handful of professional perks important to academics.

"We've made a lot of noise, and we are in the process of making a lot of noise, and I'm making a lot of noise myself," said Caroline Meline, an instructor in the philosophy department who earns $3,780 per three-credit course.

That's top scale, because of her doctorate's degree. It's also a raise, from $3,500, before the "noise."

Meline usually teaches three courses a semester with 70 to 75 students enrolled in her classes. Each semester, her students produce nearly 1,000 pages of written material that she must review and grade.

Her maximum income per semester is $12,000, and she has no benefits. At her age, she can rely on Medicare.

Salaries for full-time tenured faculty, who generally teach three courses a semester, range from the low $60,000s to around $100,000 a year, a university official said.

"This is an injustice," Meline said. "It's not only St. Joe's injustice. It's endemic in higher education."

Like most universities and colleges throughout the nation, St. Joseph's, which is in the city's Overbrook section, relies heavily on part-time, non-tenure-track faculty.

"There are a lot of part-time faculty that are forming their own unions," said John Curtis, research director with the American Association of University Professors, a professional group.

"You have part-time faculty who are paid very low wages, no health benefits, and there is no job security," he said.

At St. Joe's, there are 400 to 500 adjunct faculty members a year, compared with roughly 265 tenured or tenure-track professors, with two-thirds of the classes taught by full-time faculty, said the university's provost, Brice Wachterhauser.

Neither Meline nor history instructor Michael Burns, also on the adjunct organizing committee, believes that St. Joe's adjunct faculty will unionize soon, although a union organizer has visited the group.

"It's always a possibility," Wachterhauser said. "But we think there are many ways we can continue to make progress. I don't think we've hit that kind of impasse."

Since the committee organized a year ago, St. Joe's has provided raises and set aside some money to cover expenses when adjunct faculty members attend conferences.

A plan to allow some adjuncts to buy into the university health plan fell through because very few people could qualify for the plan, and those who did either could not afford it or didn't need it.

In 1975, when the AAUP began tracking instructional changes using U.S. Education Department data, the majority of teaching, 29 percent, was handled by full-time tenured faculty. Part-time faculty comprised 24 percent of the instructional staff. Graduate students, tenure-track faculty, and full-time instructors made up the rest of the teaching corps.

Since then, the proportion of tenured faculty has dropped to 16.8 percent, while the proportion of part-time faculty has grown to 41.1 percent.

"The justification is usually cost," Curtis said. "They don't have the levels of funding to put tenure or tenure-track funding in every class."

In February, St. Joseph's human resources department surveyed area colleges on adjunct pay.

Most paid around $1,125 per credit hour, which comes to $3,375 for a typical three-credit course.

At $930, St. Joe's was below the median, with Haverford and Swarthmore paying the most.

It's not only the pay, said Burns, who has been teaching at St. Joe's since 1975.

When a professor is sick, he or she can cancel the class or schedule a makeup. An adjunct who has to miss a class must find and compensate the substitute, Burns said.

Class sizes have crept up, he said, adding more work, but no more pay. "Supposedly the class limit is 35, but that's very fluid. A lot of times your class goes up to 40," he said.

Last-minute course cancellations are a problem, as well, making it difficult for the adjunct to find additional work to make up the income loss, he said.

Contact Jane Von Bergen at, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at

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