Adjunct security

Feb 092011
Authors: Jim Sojourner

With zero job security, Don Eron might consider handing out higher grades to keep his job.

Eron, who has been an adjunct teacher at CU-Boulder for 21 years, testified in front of the House Education Committee Wednesday, arguing that Colorado’s at-will employment policy has become a “towering disincentive” for adjunct teachers to fulfill their professional responsibilities.

He testified in support of a bill that would require Colorado universities and colleges to hire contingent faculty under legally binding contracts, provide written reason for firing a teacher and allow adjuncts redress if they feel they’ve been unfairly fired.

Under current state law, most public employees –– including adjunct faculty –– are employed “at will,” meaning either party can terminate employment for any reason at any time.

Although adjuncts are usually hired under contract for a specific term, such as a semester or school year, their at-will contracts are not legally binding, so an adjunct can quit, or be fired, even mid-semester.

The at-will status also means universities do not need to provide justification for firing a contingent teacher. Teachers have no means outside of the court system of contesting what they believe to be an unjustified or illegal firing.

For these reasons, Eron said as an adjunct, he’s less likely to get fired if his classes are less-than-rigorous and if he hands out high grades to garner positive student reviews. Plus, he said, when a department chair could fire him without cause, it’s a powerful motivation to stay silent during faculty meetings, even if he thinks a proposal will hurt his students.

The current system, he said, is “a guarantee of classroom mediocrity.”

Eron testified along with two CSU professors, arguing in favor of House Bill 1057, which would allow adjuncts to be hired under a binding contract according to terms agreed on by both the teacher and the institution.

Sponsored by Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, the bill would also require institutions to provide a legitimate, written reason for terminating or not renewing a contingent teacher’s contract and would give both the employer and employee the right to go through an arbitration process to seek a remedy if either party violates the terms of a contract.

“Unfortunately, in the world we live in, contracts are not contracts,” CSU management professor Ray Hogler said during his testimony.

Facing decreased funding for higher education, universities have had to rely increasingly on adjunct faculty to teach classes, and Chair of CSU’s Department of Economics Steve Shulman warned the current at-will policy creates a damaging rift between tenured and adjunct faculty.

Although adjuncts are replacing tenured professors in classrooms, he said the uncertainty that stems from a lack of basic job security makes adjuncts feel disenfranchised from the institution.

Meaningful contracts, he said, would help adjuncts feel more committed to their institutions, to quality teaching and to the relationships they build within departments. Removing the overhanging fear of getting the boot for saying the wrong thing would allow adjuncts to be more effective teachers, he said.

“They say the wrong thing and boom, they’re gone, and that creates a level of inhibition,” Shulman said.

But not everyone who testified supported the bill.

Representing the University of Colorado’s legal counsel, Jeremy Hewitt said Fischer’s bill would take away an extremely important tool that gives institutions the flexibility they need to fill teaching spots for last-minute classes or for temporary research activities.

Mark Malone, chair of faculty council for the University of Colorado System, seconded Hewitt, saying universities can’t afford to commit to long-term positions when they need teachers for the short term.

In addition, Hewitt said tenured professors have access to extensive review processes, can only be fired for cause and can appeal firing decisions.

He said cases of professors going through those grievance processes are rare, but when they do happen, they’re expensive, costing upward of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Expanding those procedures to cover adjuncts would not be fiscally feasible, Hewitt said.

Malone, too, framed the debate as a tenure issue.

He said the bill would give adjuncts access to the tenure review processes. Getting protection under tenure is a long, stringent process, Malone said. Applying tenure review procedure to adjunct issues would be inappropriate, he said, and coming up with a new review process would be expensive and time consuming.

Fischer broke in to clarify, however, that the bill is not related to tenure or tenure review procedures.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with tenure,” he said after the hearing.

Hogler’s testimony also contradicted the opposition’s argument.

The grievance processes already in place at universities could easily accommodate arbitration for adjuncts, Hogler said. Big companies in Colorado like Anheuser-Busch and Frito Lay have instituted dispute procedures, he said, not because they’re required to by law but because it’s just good policy.

“If you want to follow the best practices, this is the best practice,” Hogler said.

Chair of the Education Committee Rep. Tom Massey, R-Denver, laid the bill over until Monday for a vote because the committee ran out of time. Fischer said if it passes it will move on to the appropriations committee.

Managing Editor Jim Sojourner can be reached at

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