Unions Won’t Solve Higher Education’s Problems

I know nothing about cars. As an adjunct professor of finance, I have to join the United Auto Workers.

 By Paul H. Tice

I don’t know anything about cars, but I’m about to become a card-carrying member of the United Automobile Workers union. How did I accomplish this feat? By becoming an adjunct professor of finance.

In 2004 New York University agreed to the unionization of its adjunct faculty, signing the first of three collective-bargaining contracts with the UAW’s Adjuncts Come Together, Local 7902. Union membership kicks in at a minimum 40 hours of class time in an academic year, which amounts to one full-semester course meeting three hours a week. That’s meant to be a low threshold, at which point any NYU adjunct must pay 1.44% of gross annual wages to the UAW. Even if I don’t join the union, I’m required to pay.

I have a day job, but most adjuncts are not so-called hobby professors. They are highly educated and either formally trained or clinically experienced but still shut out of the higher-paying tenure track in the academy’s rigid caste system. To make a living, many cobble together part-time positions at multiple institutions.

Based on data tracked by the American Association of University Professors, the national average pay for adjuncts is about $3,000 a course. For a 12-week full-semester course with more than 25 students, that amounts to minimum wage after factoring in time for class preparation, office hours and grading.

The flags of Chrysler and the United Auto Workers over Chrysler's Trenton South Engine Plant, Trenton, Mich.
The flags of Chrysler and the United Auto Workers over Chrysler’s Trenton South Engine Plant, Trenton, Mich. PHOTO: ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Inside Higher Ed estimates some 750,000 adjunct professors teach in the U.S.—roughly 50% of all faculty appointments. At an average adjunct salary of $30,000 and an annual dues rate of 1.4% to 2%, that translates into potential revenues of $350 million to $450 million a year. That’s why the UAW and other declining unions—private- and public-sector, education-related and not—target adjunct professors for unionization.

But rather than improving the working lives of adjuncts, unionization will mainly reinforce the status quo, providing unions with a permanent class of dues-paying members and universities with a perpetual supply of low-cost labor.


Adjuncts function as a financial pressure-relief valve for universities, allowing tuition dollars to flow to other priorities—administration, recruiting, athletics, student clubs and services—while keeping down the student-to-faculty ratio, heavily weighted in college rankings.

The solution to adjunct pay and quality-of-life issues is not unionization but better management. Colleges should be run less like charities that depend on regular donations of money and time. Instead, they should borrow some of the best performance-driven practices from Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

First, teacher compensation should be decoupled from tenure-related titles and status considerations—as in the typical investment bank, where vice presidents often get paid more than managing directors.

Second, all university instructors, tenured or not, should be forced to compete for students and curriculum airtime, then paid equally on a subscriber model based on student demand.

Third, 40% to 50% of every tuition dollar should be paid out in the form of teacher wages and benefits—the current figure is roughly 30%—with larger classes paying more given the incremental work involved.

Such a proposal would result in fewer teaching positions overall and a tighter vetting process for adjuncts in particular. It would also require a long-overdue clean-out of frivolous, esoteric and politicized curriculum that has built up at many universities and liberal-arts colleges. Most positively, it would give tenured professors a financial incentive to teach larger foundational lecture courses, where their knowledge base and experience have been sorely missed for years now.

As for me, since New York is not a right-to-work state, all I can do at this point is slap a UAW bumper sticker on my American-made SUV. At least my mechanic will get a laugh the next time I bring my car in for service.

Mr. Tice works in investment management and is an adjunct professor of finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Appeared in the January 4, 2018, print edition.

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