BYU adjuncts hesitant to unionize


Everything is chaos. Papers are strewn about and there is no rhyme or reason to the essays and half-completed projects that litter the floor. Crushed cans of off-brand soda suggest the now-sleeping owner of this mess has worked through the night.

This scene conjures up images of students before finals, but it also oddly describes the life of many adjunct professors.

Adjuncts work without many of the benefits available to full-time faculty, despite having a similar course load to their full-time counterparts.

“Adjuncts get a raw deal in most places, including BYU,” said BYU English Department Writing Coordinator Brian Jackson. “They are treated like semester contractors with no job security or benefits, and they work for low pay. The full-time people in their departments may not even know them.”

Non-tenure track faculty unions are forming across the nation at schools like Duke University and the University of Chicago. Multiple professors told the Universe they support the idea of a BYU union. But despite a desire for greater representation and professional benefits, adjunct faculty at BYU seem unable to unionize or obtain the resources they need to transition to full-time positions.

Adjuncts fulfill a similar role as full-time faculty at BYU and teach courses across a wide variety of disciplines.

“In most departments at BYU, adjuncts are called upon to fill holes in teaching rosters and typically cover a wide variety of 100 and 200 level courses,” Jackson said.

However, non-contracted adjuncts, who are an essential part of the staff at many universities, go without professional benefits that are standard for full-time professors, such as job security.

Given this environment, adjunct faculty have come together and formed unions at many universities. Non-tenure track unions, like those formed in the past year at Duke University, have taken measures to affiliate themselves with the Service Employees International Union and now actively pursue measures to improve life for adjuncts, such as securing compensation for teaching expenses and making on-campus resources more available.

Multiple professors told The Universe they support the idea of a BYU adjunct faculty union.

However, despite the cries for unionization on the east coast, adjuncts at BYU seem hesitant to pursue greater representation.

“In general, I feel that a union at BYU would hurt our adjunct faculty and even potentially our tenured faculty, as well, in the long run,” said BYU Department of Finance administrator Jessi Valentine. “If they were unionized, there’s a good chance that departments would use less adjuncts; the pay for our adjuncts would probably go down. This might be a good option at other universities, but my guess is that at BYU it would hinder things greatly.”

Tom Patterson, the university’s faculty relations manager, echoed those same sentiments.

“In Utah, (unions) present an uphill battle as Utah is a ‘right-to-work’ state,” Patterson said.  “States that have a history of embracing unions would be better tests for this issue. Additionally, given BYU’s private institution status, it would be less likely to unionize as opposed to a public institution.”

These issues are not exclusive to BYU. As many other adjunct unions work with the Service Employees International Union, there have been difficulties in negotiating with universities. The idea of paying adjuncts more sounds good in theory, but many universities are unable to afford the actual expenses.

For example, the city of Chicago and a teacher’s union spent 22 months and around $880,000 in legal fees to reach an agreement. This number does not even consider the costs associated with increased benefits that a private university would be expected to fully cover.

With unionization seemingly so difficult, the only solution for adjuncts at BYU may be individual advancement to a full-time position. However, this, too, is more difficult than it sounds.

“(Some adjuncts) simply may not have the qualifications to be hired as full-time faculty,” said linguistics professor Jacob Rawlins. “They may not have a Ph.D. or enough relevant expertise. And most adjuncts do not have the time or the resources to move up the ladder.”

Managing the time and money going back to school costs makes obtaining the necessary education and experience to transition to a full-time position difficult. Because of this, some feel that BYU could benefit from a union or similar collective.

Still, there are some who find the little joys in their work. Teaching is often credited as a difficult yet fulfilling position and there are those who feel their work is reward enough.

“The opportunity cost for me to teach as an adjunct is substantial; however, teaching at BYU offers a unique opportunity for me to give back to the university,” said adjunct faculty member Kelly Nash. “That is why I do it, not for the money.”

Editor’s note: Following a conversation with The Universe after this story’s publication both in print and online, one professor requested that his remarks be modified to better represent his opinions concerning adjunct faculty. This story reflects those changes. 

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