Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Q&A: The Congressman Who Wants to Make Adjunct Labor an Issue

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At a hearing last month, a U.S. House of Representatives education committee was told that the Affordable Care Act could hurt contingent faculty. But for Rep. George Miller, a member of the committee, the hearing turned out to have much broader implications.

Miller, a senior Democrat from California, wasn’t all that familiar with the struggles of the nation’s adjunct faculty. So when several part-time professors spoke up about their working conditions, his reaction was simple: “Whoa.”

Days later, Miller created an online forum that asks adjunct professors to share their stories as a way to “inform Congress about what’s happening on the ground of higher education.” It urges part-time employees to submit statements detailing how long they have worked on a contingent basis, what they receive in compensation and benefits, and how their working conditions help or hinder their ability to do their jobs.

With responses rolling in before the December 20 deadline, I chatted with Miller to find out more about the motivation behind the project, and where he hopes to take it:

Q. The plight of the adjunct faculty isn’t anything new, though it’s been in the spotlight recently. What prompted you to create the forum when you did? Why now?

A. There was a hearing for our committee on the effects of the Affordable Care Act on education and the jobs that were being cut. [Several professors and adjuncts spoke, including Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group]. One of our witnesses was an adjunct professor. She said, “This has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act. They’ve been cutting the benefits, the salaries and hours of adjunct professors for years.… It’s just a continuation of a policy that puts adjunct professors in a very difficult financial situation, a very difficult physical situation …”

In a sense, these adjunct professors are working as hard as they can to try to deliver the curriculum ... but they’re put in a pretty difficult situation. Many of them, not all. I don’t want to draw conclusions. But it raises issues: Is this arrangement good for the students? What does this arrangement say about the fees that students are paying to go to school? What are the representations to them and to their parents about this?

Q. Was the forum a long time in the making, or did you decide at that meeting to take on the project?

A. I decided at that meeting. It was very clear that members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, were quite stunned when the conditions were laid out that many adjunct professors are forced to work under. These are people who have accomplished the same professional milestones in their careers as full-time professors. They have résumés that are right up to snuff with other professors.

And yet they’re in a very different teaching situation. Because they’re in that very different teaching situation, I’m asking the question: What’s the impact of that on students and the access of students to the full curriculum?

Q. How familiar were you, if at all, with adjunct labor conditions? Had you explored that issue much before that hearing?

A. No. You know, you hear about it. I have friends that have done this; I have a member of my family who has done this. But we’ve never discussed it in these terms. The testimony of our witnesses … was like, “Whoa.”

Q. When I spoke to your press secretary two weeks ago, he said you had received about 200 submissions. How many responses are there now?

A. Over 300 now. I hope that people are finding it helpful and that they’re telling others. It’s very interesting. It’s adjunct professors with kids, adjunct professors with families, adjunct professors that have to have another job to make ends meet. You start to see a range of situations here.

Q. Do you have a goal for the number of responses?

A. More people than are enrolled in Obamacare. If they can get me a million by the 20th, I’ll be happy. [Laughs]

Q. Are you personally reading the stories that come through?

A. Yep, Yep. You betcha.

Q. Do you plan to hold any meetings with contingent faculty members in addition to the online forum?

A. I certainly don’t rule it out. We’ll see what the response is, we’ll see what can be done. I hope we might have the opportunity to have a full-committee hearing in the education and workforce committee.

Q. At that hearing, would you try to draft anything?

A. I don’t know yet. It’s too soon. The decision on the hearing is not mine to make. That’s for Chairman Kline [John Kline, a Minnesota Republican, leads the House Committee on Education and the Workforce]. I would hope there would be. I just don’t know the end of the story here yet.

Q. So, are there any ideas about where this will go?

A. Oh, I’ve got a million ideas, but I can’t share them with you at the moment. [Laughs]

Q. Well, what would you ultimately like to see come of this?

A. I don’t know. I’m trying to be very objective about this. What I’m getting now are bits and pieces of evidence on … how they carry out obligations to the students under those conditions. Then we’ll look at that and say, “What are we seeing here in terms of this? How is this consistent with how it’s presented to the public: students, parents, people borrowing money to go to school?”

Q. Why is this important to you?

A. My first impression is these are talented people who are put in stressful situations in order to do their job. And part of that job, a big chunk of that job, is to be able to teach students in the various disciplines. If the stress and pressure they are put under starts to diminish capabilities to do that, we ought to know. We have to know how the schools function. There’s a lot to do here.

Q. Anything you would like to add?

A. It’s early on here. This is the first giant step. We need the responses. There’s a big universe of people, a significant number of people. And I’m not just looking for negative comments. If it works for people, I want to know that too. I’m not interested in a one-sided picture.

Image: Courtesy of Congressman George Miller.

Sydni Dunn is a staff reporter at Vitae. Find her on Twitter at @SydniDunn.

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