• December 18, 2014

Presidents, Do Right by Athletes and Adjuncts

Dear College President:

A disturbing pattern in higher education has come to my attention, and that of my colleagues on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Our committee has been examining recent efforts by both adjunct professors and college athletes to organize and bargain for better working conditions.

Colleges and universities should stand as pillars of fairness and honor in their communities, with missions to expand knowledge and opportunity for all, but we have instead seen that many colleges are increasingly exploiting cheap labor in the classroom and on the athletic field. And when campus workers try to band together to improve their lives, administrators’ responses generally range from trying to scuttle the workers’ efforts to repeating old promises of change—with little or no action.

In May the committee held a hearing in response to Northwestern University football players’ attempt to unionize and the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to allow the players to vote on a union. That decision exposed, in startling detail, the extent to which playing Division I football is a full-time job during the five-month season, with part-time obligations year-round. Players dedicate 40 to 50 hours per week to the game—risking their health and safety, and compromising their academic pursuits and long-term career options—while the multibillion-dollar college-sports industry reaps huge profits off of their talent and hard work.

Every witness and committee member, regardless of party affiliation, seemed to agree that the players’ grievances were legitimate, their demands modest. The athletes are looking not for a paycheck but for policy changes like guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses and policies that minimize the risk of traumatic brain injury.

But the players’ demands are nothing new. One of the demands—cost-of-attendance stipends—has been around since 1973, and for the past 40 years colleges and the NCAA have said they would get around to addressing it. Two witnesses at the hearing—Ken Starr, Baylor University’s president, and Bernard M. Muir, Stanford University’s athletic director—expressed strong opposition to the athletes’ demands for action through unionization while admitting that more needed to be done to protect the players’ health and safety, provide them with adequate insurance coverage, and strengthen athletic-scholarship rules. Both administrators were stunningly unashamed of the decades of filibustering by the NCAA and colleges and universities to do right by college athletes.

According to those administrators, it would seem that the solution to the players’ problems is always just around the corner—but the administrators are certain that, whatever that solution is, it’s not collective bargaining. Unfortunately, their reaction is not much different from the responses I see when adjunct professors try to join together to improve their working conditions.

As I’m sure you know, your institutions increasingly rely on contingent faculty members to teach courses. Those adjunct professors receive little from their respective employers in the way of compensation and job security. Earlier this year, I issued a report, "The Just-in-Time Professor," that summarizes concerns about adjuncts’ working conditions, as relayed to me in an eForum.

Adjuncts compose nearly 75 percent of the teaching faculty on college campuses, but some live on the edge of poverty and rely on public assistance to make ends meet, despite teaching courses at several institutions at once. Their median salary is just $22,041, below the poverty line for a family of four.

While adjuncts have taken on the task of educating the nation’s future leaders, they often do so with little, if any, administrative support from their colleges. Interestingly, according to a recent study, the colleges with the highest-paid presidents also have some of the fastest-growing shares of their work forces made up of adjunct faculty members.

Like many college athletes, adjuncts are demanding change. Their call for decent pay and benefits, greater job security and administrative support, and opportunities for career growth are eminently reasonable. Like the players at Northwestern, they have turned to collective bargaining.

And the response from one college administrator after another seems to follow a pattern: Don’t unionize. We will address your concerns. Things will get better. A solution is just around the corner.

But lip service is not enough. Colleges can try to wait out the organizing drives by vaguely promising improvement, or by blaming poor working conditions on forces beyond their control. But the truth of the matter is that the buck stops with you, as a college president.

Adjunct professors are your employees. College athletes may be your employees, depending on how you’ve chosen to structure their work and academic lives. And they are definitely your students. How they are treated is your responsibility. Insofar as they are employees, it’s your job to respect their right to organize and bargain with them. And insofar as they are your students, it is your job to protect their health and their right to an education that is not stifled by unfair college athletic policies or NCAA rules.

If the NCAA is as all-powerful as some would make it out to be, maybe you need your own union to bargain for a better deal. I note that the Pac-12 Conference presidents have written their colleagues in other conferences, calling for a new model for college athletics that would address the players’ grievances.

But calling for change just to stem pro-union sentiment among players falls far short of your responsibilities to your institutions. Change must actually happen. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t insist that you are unable to make things better for athletes or adjuncts, and simultaneously insist that they should not try to make things better on their own, through collective bargaining.

You own these working conditions. You can keep defending the status quo and trying to excuse shabby workplace practices, but I respectfully suggest you change them instead.

George Miller of California is the senior Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce.

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