Adjunct instructors at Portland State University (PSU) say they play a critical role at the school, but aren't being treated fairly by university management.
PSU is Portland's only public university and the second-largest college in the state, with a total enrollment of a little more than 22,000 students. In order to educate so many students, PSU heavily relies on about 1,000 adjunct faculty members—non-tenure track instructors who work at the university part-time—to teach 34 percent of student credit hours.
But adjunct instructors at PSU say they aren't being treated equitably by their administration, especially with regard to pay. While many adjunct faculty members say they ultimately want to see PSU and other American institutions of higher education dramatically reduce their reliance on adjuncts, they're fighting for fairer conditions in the short-term.
Adjunct faculty represented by the Portland State University Faculty Association (PSUFA) Local 3571, a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have been bargaining with university administration since March to reach a contract adjustment for economic increases, or what’s known as an “economic reopener.” PSUFA and PSU's general labor contract doesn't expire until 2025, but a reopener gives union members the opportunity to bargain economic increases they say are necessary now and can't wait until the next major contract negotiations.
Earlier this month, PSU administration filed for mediation with Oregon's Employment Relations Board, a process that can be initiated by either side after 150 days of bargaining without a contract agreement. This brings the two groups closer to an impasse—and possibly a strike.
PSUFA members say they were surprised by the administration's decision to enter mediation.
"Why is PSU calling for mediation as soon as they are legally allowed to, and without giving PSUFA any indication this was the direction they were moving?" a PFUSA blog post from August 29 states. "We hope that it is motivated by a commitment to continue bargaining in good faith and in a democratic spirit and not an attempt at unilateral implementation of their vision of 'fairness' and 'equity' upon our unit."
What adjuncts are asking for
Right now, adjunct faculty at PSU don't receive health insurance or retirement benefits, and are paid less than full-time faculty on a per-credit basis. In their economic bargaining with PSU, members of PSUFA have stated they want pay and benefits on par with what full-time faculty members at PSU receive, adjusted to their part-time employment status.
The union is proposing adjunct faculty make $1,397 per credit hour in the first year of the economic re-opening contract. The current minimum per-credit rate for adjuncts is $1,120, and PSU has offered a $99 increase for the first year of the contract. PSUFA members say with inflation, this isn't enough.
"Proportionately, we should make the same as [full-time faculty] do, and we don't," Vasiliki Touhouliotis, the PSUFA membership chair and an adjunct in PSU's International and Global Studies department, told the Mercury. "We've been insisting to the university that we do the same instructional labor that they do."
Touhouliotis said another issue PSUFA has brought up in the ongoing economic bargaining is the fact that PSU does not have a system in place to offer raises for adjunct faculty. She said this is unique when compared to other public universities.
"One of the egregious things about PSU is that they have no mechanism for offering raises to people who have been there for a long time," Touhouliotis said. "You can be teaching at PSU [as an adjunct] for 20 years, and you'll always make the same amount."
Adjunct faculty are also asking for higher bonuses for instructors who have been at the university for several years. Currently, adjunct faculty who have taught at PSU for more than seven years qualify for a $350 bonus, and those who have been there for more than 12 years can earn $500. PSUFA wants to see that amount go up to $1,500 and $2,000 after seven and 12 years, respectively.
Touhouliotis said the bonus system is "shameful."
"Just keeping this in context, when I refer someone to my dentist, he sends me $50," she said. "So what does it mean to offer somebody $350 who has been teaching at your institution for 7 to 11 years?"
PSUFA members say the university has repeatedly said it doesn't have the money to increase adjunct pay, offer a raise system, or increase the amount of bonuses. But union members point out that adjuncts currently make up about 3 percent of PSU's budget, and the current union proposal would raise the portion of the university's budget to only 4.3 percent.
They say the request is in line with the amount of work they do for PSU.
"Every student who attends PSU is taught by an adjunct at some point in their education. But adjunct faculty also do much more than teach classes. They mentor students, write letters of recommendation, develop courses, conduct research, write grants, and serve as important role models," a recent PSUFA community solidarity letter states. "Adjuncts are essential to shaping student experience, education, retention, and success. They are the public servants who serve the diverse populations that PSU was founded to educate and engage."
Christina Williams, PSU's director of strategic communications, told the Mercury in a statement that "PSU respects and is grateful for the important contributions of all of our part-time faculty."
"We have and continue to support our part-time faculty by providing a form of employment security through assignment rights and with economic benefits that are somewhat unique for a part-time work force, such as providing our part-time faculty with access to professional development and faculty education funds, as well as funds to assist them during times of financial hardship," Williams wrote. "We also have a history of working collaboratively and have partnered on a number of important initiatives."
Williams said PSU and PSUFA have an additional bargaining session prior to entering the mediation process in September, and the university "remains optimistic the parties will reach a successful agreement." She also wrote PSU "acknowledges the importance to its members of receiving a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA)."
Members of PSUFA want an agreement with the university, but they say the current economic crisis they face is indicative of a deeper structural problem that will take work to fix.
The impact of low pay
Without adequate pay or benefits, many adjunct faculty members have to piece together multiple jobs to stay afloat. They say the constant scrambling adds stress to their lives, and impacts thousands of students who rely on part-time faculty for instruction and academic support.
One adjunct faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told the Mercury they work three part-time jobs, including instructing at PSU and two other universities. They said this has an impact on how attentive they can be with students at all three institutions.
"I mostly teach freshmen, and a good practice is to meet with them one-on-one at the beginning of the term to make sure they're set up for success," they said. "[But] I can't do that. I can't be in three schools at once. So I basically have to pick and choose which students need me the most, and allocate my time that way."
Touhouliotis, the union leader, pointed out PSU is currently facing problems with reduced student enrollment—an issue she directly correlates with the treatment of adjunct instructors. Both of Touhouliotis's parents finished their college degrees at PSU after immigrating from Greece, and she said the impact the university had on her family growing up is one reason she's so committed to the institution. But she's concerned with its current trajectory.
"The university isn't investing in a way that will maintain it as the kind of intellectual resource that it has been for the city of Portland," Touhouliotis said. "PSU is in a crisis with declining enrollment. And yet, they're offering students contact with a poorly-paid labor force with no job security, which doesn't seem to be the way to offer a quality education or really support their students, many of which are non-traditional and don't come from privileged backgrounds."
While members of PSUFA say the crisis appears even worse at their institution than it is elsewhere, they recognize it's not specific to PSU.
Bennett Gilbert is an adjunct assistant professor of history and philosophy who has been teaching at PSU for almost 10 years. He told the Mercury he thinks the system of relying heavily on adjuncts is harming universities across the country.
"Traditionally in American education, there has been a tenured faculty...which works closely with students and does a great deal of research, and then are protected and promoted in that research. That deal allowed the faculty the time, freedom, and security to do the kind of long-term work that advancements in knowledge requires," Gilbert said. "That deal has been broken by the American university system across the board, not just at PSU. And that's due to a neoliberal economic system, which doesn't value the public good or the common good. In that sense, PSU is as much of a victim as an actor in this."
During the most recent Oregon legislative session, state Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) sponsored Senate Bill 416, which would have required Oregon's public universities to pay part-time faculty at parity with full-time instructors to prepare and teach courses. Adjunct faculty members across Oregon spoke up in support of the bill at a hearing, but it died in committee. Adjuncts at PSU say they hope to see a similar bill move forward in the future, along with more robust changes to the university teaching model.
"The adjunct position is difficult and harmful, not only to adjuncts, but to students and education generally...and it's very non-traditional. When we've talked about reforming the adjunct system, they say it's radical. But it's actually the present situation that's very radical," Gilbert said. "I feel for the administration. But they have to be able to see beyond the habituated reliance on adjuncts for balancing the budget. Now, they don't have the money. But somehow this has to change at some point.”
For now, however, members of PSUFA want to make sure their new contract is the best it can be.
"Adjunct unions are in a weird position, because they should be arguing themselves out of existence," Gilbert said. "But in the meantime, they have to argue for better conditions for adjuncts for the benefit of everyone."
The next bargaining meeting between PSUFA and the university is on September 1, after which point they will enter a formal mediation. Union members say without a fair contract, an adjunct faculty strike could occur—though Touhouliotis said "nothing more concrete is on the table at this point."
PSUFA plans to hold two town halls for union members toward the end of September. They say they will "not quit negotiations until a fair contact has been agreed to."