Thirty years ago Edward R. Murrow's documentary Harvest of Shame shed light on the deplorable conditions migrant workers in this country endured to provide fruit and vegetables to millions of Americans. The farmworkers lived in squalid housing and earned indecent wages with no health benefits or sick pay.
If you trade the hoe for a pen and the farm for a college classroom, you'll have a sense of the conditions under which adjunct, or part-time, college professors work at the University of Cincinnati, according to filmmaker Barbara Wolf. She wove themes from Harvest of Shame into her 1997 documentary, Degrees of Shame. She has since followed up with a 30-minute documentary, A Simple Matter of Justice.
The idea for the video came as a result of a conversation Wolf had with an adjunct professor who, after 10 years of teaching, was made to apply for his own job.
"I didn't think to much of it until he didn't get the job," Wolf says.
The job went instead to a recent college graduate. The decision outraged Wolf.
"After talking to so many adjunct professors, I realized these people were the migrant workers of the information economy," she says.
At UC, the complaints of adjunct professors are starting to be heard.
The subtitle of A Simple Matter of Justice is telling: Contingent Faculty Organize. The documentary has become a tool for union campaigns around the country and in Canada.
"The video is in 46 states, most recently Hawaii," Wolf says.
Now it's starting to work in Cincinnati.
Howard Konicov, a former adjunct math professor, is coordinator of the Adjunct Faculty Association (AFA).
"I started AFA to create a forum of adjunct faculty to work on some of the issues they had with the university," he says. "Teachers are overworked. They teach in overpopulated classes for outrageous pay and they do it because they love it."
The solution might seem obvious — form a union. But state law stands in the way. Ohio is the only state in the country that provides bargaining rights to full-time faculty, but not part-time faculty, according to State Rep. Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton). Last month Strahorn introduced a bill that would repeal the exemption of part-time faculty and graduate assistants from collective bargaining.
Konicov enlisted the help of Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, who in turn formed an alliance with Strahorn. Mooney calls the law "wrong and unusual."
Konicov says that after nine years of teaching, he discovered an educational glass ceiling that prevents professors from moving up.
"The University of Cincinnati created, in its infinite wisdom, a new way to discriminate against people by this artificial class system of title," he says.
But Greg Hand, spokesman for UC — and also an adjunct professor — disagrees.
"Adjunct faculty are able to be promoted among the ranks," he says.
Adjunct faculty made up 42 percent of the faculty at UC last year, according to Konicov.
"But they taught the majority of undergraduate curriculum," he says.
Hand disputes the allegation, saying statistics from the Ohio Board of Regents show that adjunct faculty taught 30 percent of undergraduate classes and graduate assistants 15 to 20 percent.
He also argues that the roles of adjunct and full-time professors are different.
"If all full-time staff did was teach, they would receive similar salary," Hand says.
In fact, Hand argues that adjunct faculty at UC have better pay than similar personnel at other colleges.
"UC has the best for adjuncts in the Cincinnati region and within the state of Ohio," he says. "They are paid more a credit hour, more benefits and various discounts."
The average salary at UC for an adjunct professor, depending on department and college, ranges from $12,700 to $16,700, according to AFA. Full-time faculty average $47,698 to $64,473.
"Administrators at UC vote on their own salaries — and wages of part-time faculty," Konicov says. "There are almost 500 people at the university that make over $100,00 a year. About half of them are administrators."
The university already attends to the concerns of adjunct faculty, according to Hand.
"There are two representative groups that bring adjunct concerns to the administration," he says. "The adjunct situation is on continual improvement. The need for another faculty union doesn't serve the students that well. UC views all faculty as being one."
The Ohio Board of Regents estimates that an average Ohio first-time freshman has 39 percent of his credit hours taught by part-time instructors and another 12 percent taught by graduate students.
"These people are grossly exploited," Mooney says.
Salary isn't the only issue. Konicov says the disparities that plague part-time faculty affect students. Some part-time faculty don't have offices in which to prepare for classes and allow students to get help outside the classroom. Others have small offices, but no telephones.
"UC graduates 40 percent of its students," he says. "The propaganda that comes out of the university is what a great quality of education center UC is. If high schools graduated 40 percent of their youth, citizens would be in crisis mode everyday."
Hand challenges those figures.
"The graduation rate is 50 percent," he says. "It's about standard for urban institutes in Ohio. Ideally it should be higher."
UC's open admissions policy affects the graduation rate, according to Hand.
"UC accepts some students and provides them with opportunities they might not be ready for," he says.
The possibility of unionizing adjunct faculty will have an impact beyond their own economic situation, Konicov says.
"Were going to change the power structure at the university," he says.
The first signs of change are already taking place. Karen Gould, Dean of the college of Arts and Sciences stepped, became the first administrator to raise pay for adjunct faculty. Konicov sent her flowers as a token of his gratitude.
"I appreciate the work she has done," he says. "It's hard to be the first."
The AFL-CIO Labor Council plans a rally at noon Dec. 10 at McMicken Commons on the UC campus in support of adjunct professors.