Why College Students Need to Support Their Professors

03/28/2012 01:18 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2012

Last month, adjunct professors at my school, American University, voted to form a union and join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), local 500. They join part-time professors from George Washington University, Montgomery College and schools across the nation in coming together to form unions of part-time professors. Many people often think of unions as only for blue-collar workers. So why do professors with PhDs need unions?

Nationally, 35 percent of part-time professors earn less than $2,500 per three-credit course they teach in a semester. Only 28 percent of part-time professors receive health insurance through their employer, and just 26 percent have an employer-funded retirement plan. When compounded with the fact that about half of all professors at U.S. colleges and universities are part-time, these statistics can be a bit confusing for students such as me who pay upwards of $35,000 per year in tuition and fees.

During the unionization drive at AU, I talked to a lot of students about the conditions faced by our adjunct professors. Many students cited adjunct professors as some of their best professors, and others did not know if their professors were adjunct or full time. This is because, unlike in the past when adjuncts were mostly professionals who also wanted to teach a little bit here and there, adjuncts now posses the same advanced degrees and other credentials as their full-time counterparts.

So what causes professors who have advanced degrees to be paid poverty wages while students go into thousands of dollars of debt to pay for school? A lot of this comes from the increasing corporatization of colleges and universities, a trend that was started in the late 20th century and has continued since. While most of our schools are legally nonprofit institutions, they are consistently acting more and more like large corporations: increasing tuition and cutting costs in order to enrich those at the top.

Unlike in the past when only 10 to 20 percent of professors were part-time, more than half of professors across the country are part-time, according to the New Faculty Majority. Colleges and universities have created a hierarchy of academic labor, with part-time adjuncts at the bottom, full-time non-tenure-track professors in the middle and tenure-track professors at the top. When also factoring in graduate students, 73 percent of academic laborers are in contingent positions. They know this, and many contingent professors have been organizing nationally and internationally through organizations such as New Faculty Majority and the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor.

Colleges and universities occupy a unique position in our economy as both the producers and employers of academic labor. They have the ability to dramatically improve, or worsen, the situation of adjunct professors and other contingent academic labor. That is where students come in.

As students, we should be extremely concerned with the conditions faced by our professors. When our professors are forced to work at multiple schools in order to make a meager living, they cannot give us the attention that we need in order to reach our full potential in our classes. We are paying upwards of $3,500 per class. Think about when you have at least 20 students in a class and that is a total of $70,000 per class. Yet when our professors are not paid living wages, we cannot expect any guarantee of personal attention that smaller schools love to tout. We should not only be worried about the quality of our own education, but also the quality of life of our professors. Students need to show solidarity with our professors in their struggles for justice on campus. Across the country, students should heed the well-known chant of the student-labor solidarity movement: When students and workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up fight back!

A video I put together of student leaders expressing support for adjunct professors organizing at American University: