While still a teaching assistant at Temple University, Amy Weigand knew one thing: She was not interested in being an adjunct professor, a position she equated with low pay and little security. In fact, she promised herself she would organize a union if that turned out to be her fate.
Nine years later, as luck would have it, she is an adjunct, as nontenure-track, part-time college instructors are known.
True to her pledge, she is knee-deep in the effort to convince other adjuncts that they should be represented by the Temple Association of University Professionals (TAUP).
"There really needs to be some justice in terms of the pay we receive for the work we do," Weigand, who teaches religion at Temple, said in explaining why she sees a need for union representation. She estimated she makes less than minimum wage after factoring in the time it takes to grade her students' work for the two courses she teaches each semester.
The university counters that adjuncts - a diverse pool of employees with sometimes conflicting interests - are better served without a union.
"What seems to be working best is their talking directly with their deans and their colleagues on their various issues," said Richard M. Englert, Temple's provost. "This is not a one-size-fits-all situation."
The effort to organize adjunct professors has been ongoing for several years, said Weigand, a member of the Adjunct Organizing Committee, which is directing the drive for TAUP. It has taken on a new urgency since last fall, when the university and TAUP agreed on a new contract for the full-time faculty, eliminating a distraction from the association's organizing effort.
"We have the sense that now is the time," Weigand said, adding that there was a growing concern that Temple would rely more on adjuncts should enrollment increase or full-time faculty be cut.
The drive comes at a time when the unionization of adjunct professors is a hot-button issue on campuses across the country. Schools as diverse as Western Michigan University, Montana State University, and Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, in New York, all have seen adjuncts unionize. Locally, the Community College of Philadelphia has a unionized adjunct faculty.
"The vast majority of people who teach college courses these days are teaching off the tenured track," said Joe T. Berry, an adjunct activist who also is a labor specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about."
Berry said that universities and colleges turned increasingly to nontenured part-time faculty starting in the 1970s as a way to reduce costs and to create a teaching force that could be more easily expanded or reduced in response to fluctuating enrollments.
The result for adjuncts is lower pay and less job security, he said.
Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for adjunct and contingent faculty, estimated that 73 percent of all college instructors nationwide were adjunct.
That is consistent with a study by Beverly H. Burris, an assistant sociology professor at the University of New Mexico, who found that the percentage of adjunct professors nationally had grown to more than 75 percent in 2008 from 22 percent in 1970.
"There is a popular perception that adjunct faculty are professionals who don't need the money but want to teach a class or two," said Maisto, who teaches composition at the University of Akron.
"There are huge numbers of adjuncts who basically have trained to join the ranks of the full-time professoriat only to find there are no full-time jobs. We end up cobbling together part-time positions at a fraction of the pay and without benefits."
Weigand, for instance, supplemented her teaching salary this year by working on a grant-funded education project at Temple.
Art Hochner, president of TAUP, said adjuncts at Temple were paid about $1,200 a credit hour. Some courses are three credits, some are four, and adjuncts can teach no more than two courses a semester. They can make $14,000 to $19,000 a year.
By comparison, the lowest-salaried full-time professors are paid $42,500 for teaching 24 credits a year, Hochner said.
Adjuncts have access to health-care benefits, but at a cost, he said, while full-time faculty have full health and retirement benefits paid by the school.
Englert, Temple's provost, countered that it was difficult to fairly equate compensation packages because full-time faculty members have many more duties than the adjunct instructors.
"You have to realize that the full-time faculty not only teach, but they also conduct research, write articles, publish, advise students, do clinical work," for example, he said. "It is really impossible to make that comparison in a meaningful way."
Englert said he did not see "a big interest" in unionization by the adjuncts.
"We have already taken a lot of really positive steps with our adjunct faculty members," he said, noting that the university had appointed an associate vice president to deal solely with adjunct issues. "Talking to them directly seems to be working."
Temple has a part-time teaching staff of 1,585. Its full-time staff is 1,896.
To authorize a unionization vote, 30 percent of Temple's adjunct professors must sign cards supporting the organizing effort, Hochner said.
"We want to get more than 50 percent because we want to win an election," he said.
Hochner declined to say how many adjuncts had signed cards, but Weigand said support was strong.
"There are very few people who don't want to be represented," she said. "Our challenge is to reach everybody. We did a survey, and 50 percent of the respondents did not have offices. It is pretty hard to find someone without an office. We have to go to their classrooms, basically."