The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

On paper, Asia Leeds had the perfect career. An assistant professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, she could focus on her passion of studying Afro-Latin American culture.

In reality, she felt like she was doing at least seven jobs while getting paid for one: teaching, research, writing, applying for grants, advising students, running a minor, serving on committees.

Asia Leeds left her job as a professor at Spelman College after teaching during the pandemic “took the last bit of energy I had.” She says the stereotype of the highly paid professor who shows up to deliver an occasional lecture is a fantasy. Credit: Asia Leeds

The stereotype of the highly paid professor who shows up to deliver an occasional lecture and spends the rest of the time reading books “is an idea that for 90 percent of people doesn’t exist,” Leeds said. “It’s this fantasy you’re sold because it was what your professors were doing when you went to college.”

Now, not long after they were recognized for helping keep their colleges running during the pandemic, faculty are coming under new pressure to prove their value while dealing with attacks on job security, demands for greater productivity and criticism over what and how they teach.

They’re also quietly squaring off to fight back. A planned affiliation of two labor unions promises to expand their bargaining positions by uniting full-time professors with part-time adjunct instructors, graduate assistants and others.

In a significant move largely unnoticed outside of academia, the governing councils of the Association of American University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers this month agreed to a formal affiliation that would unite nearly 316,000 academic employees.

If it’s approved by the memberships of both unions, the deal promises to accelerate labor organizing on campuses.

“Organizing is expensive, and we haven’t had the capacity to organize as much as we wanted to,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the AAUP. “AFT has muscle and reach. This agreement is going to be a game-changer.”

It’s part of an under-the-radar but dramatic escalation in labor activism among university faculty at a time of steadily increasing challenges.

University and college administrators, governing boards, state legislators and governors say they’re trying to improve the efficiency of higher education at a time of limited resources and sharply declining enrollment.

Faculty say they’re defending the quality of the educations that students, families and taxpayers are paying for.

Related: Some universities’ response to budget woes: Making faculty teach more courses

About 120 new faculty union chapters have won recognition since 2013, with more than 36,000 members, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

That includes 65 at private, nonprofit institutions, where faculty have historically been slower to unionize. Over the last 10 years, the number of faculty union chapters at private, nonprofit colleges has shot up by more than 80 percent.

“Faculty are organizing chapters in places that have not had chapters in many years, or ever.”

William Herbert, executive director, National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions

“This is a continuation of union activism that we’ve been seeing on campus for the past decade,” said William Herbert, the center’s executive director. “Faculty are organizing chapters in places that have not had chapters in many years, or ever.”

He compared the mood among faculty to that of society more broadly: “The level of tension is high.”

Much of the momentum has been among the growing ranks of part-time adjunct faculty and graduate research and teaching assistants, whose frustrations have translated into labor agitation that won significant concessions during the pandemic, when their comparatively low-cost labor was badly needed. Now they will for the first time team up broadly with full-time faculty colleagues, some of whom previously eyed them warily as potential competition.

Park Hall, which houses the departments of English, classics and comparative literature at the University of Georgia. The University System of Georgia has made a policy change under which tenured faculty considered underproductive and not sufficiently contributing to student success can be fired without the usual dismissal hearing before a committee of their colleagues. Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

Already, more than 500 full-time faculty and students at Howard University came out in support of part-time adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty — represented by another union, the Service Employees International Union — who reached a tentative settlement this month of a dispute over pay and job security, just in time to avert a strike. 

The proportion of faculty who are part time has increased from 22 percent in 1970 to 46 percent during the most recent period for which the figure is available from the U.S. Department of Education. Half earn less than $3,500 per course, or about $28,000 a year for a typical teaching load, according to an AFT survey — about the federal poverty level for a family of four. Four in five say they have trouble covering basic expenses. Fewer than half have employer-provided health insurance.

Full-time faculty are also angry, though over other issues. Fewer than 40 percent strongly agree that they are treated with respect on the job, a Gallup survey found. They’re increasingly being shut out of having a say in presidential searches, for instance, a privilege they have long enjoyed, according to an AAUP report. That may seem like a small offense, but faculty see it as a first step toward weakening their role in sharing oversight of the universities and colleges where they work.

Related: Amid pandemic, graduate student workers are winning long-sought contracts

Some are quitting. Asia Leeds left her Spelman role to work in sales for a technology company, for instance. The pandemic, she said, “took the last bit of energy I had. Just to physically deliver courses online was exhausting, but to also bear the weight of the struggles my students were going through — that was really draining.”

So draining that, for Leeds, who is 40, it became “just too much to bear.”

The fact that many others are planning to stay and fight is in part because their options for moving elsewhere inside academia have narrowed. The number of available faculty jobs is at a historic low because of hiring freezes, program cuts and enrollment declines, the American Historical Association reports; for every job advertised in the 2019-20 academic year, it said, a median of 82 and as many as 419 candidates applied — and that was before Covid.

Faculty job openings in science, technology, engineering and math fell 70 percent as the pandemic closed in, based on listings on the job board of the journal Science.

An affiliation between the Association of American University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers would unite nearly 316,000 full-time faculty, part-time adjuncts, graduate assistants and others.

But what’s most alarming full-time faculty are threats to tenure, the form of indefinite appointment they enjoy that is meant to protect them from encroachments on their academic freedom but also serves as an important guarantee of job security.

“Those two trends, coming from inside and outside — you can see the allure of, ‘Collectively can we organize to start fighting back?’ ” said Scott Schneider, a partner at the law firm Husch Blackwell who counsels higher education clients on employment and other issues.

A proposal introduced by South Carolina legislators would have abolished tenure altogether for new hires in that state’s public universities and required all full-time faculty to teach at least two undergraduate courses each semester. The principal sponsor has withdrawn the bill, but says he’ll reintroduce it in some form next year. Iowa legislators have proposed abolishing tenure at Iowa State University and the universities of Iowa and Northern Iowa.

Under a measure making its way through the Hawaii state senate, newly hired faculty without teaching responsibilities would no longer be eligible for tenure. Backers say that faculty who conduct research but don’t teach contribute to rising tuition costs; faculty respond that, in fact, tuition is increasing because of cuts in state funding for higher education.

Related: Inflation is coming to college campuses. Prepare to pay more.

Florida’s legislature has passed a bill requiring tenured faculty at public universities there to undergo performance reviews every five years, measuring such things as their productivity, with “consequences for underperformance.” The University of Missouri System has adopted a rule allowing the salaries of tenured faculty to be unilaterally reduced for reasons including low productivity.

The University System of Georgia made a policy change in October under which tenured faculty considered underproductive and not sufficiently contributing to student success could be fired without the usual dismissal hearing before a committee of their colleagues. The new rule says it is meant to “ensure accountability and continued strong performance”; the AAUP counters that this has “effectively abolished tenure” in Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

And Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in February proposed ending tenure for new faculty and revoking it for existing faculty if they teach critical race theory.

The University of Missouri System has adopted a rule allowing the salaries of tenured faculty to be unilaterally reduced for reasons including low productivity. Credit: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Faculty are also facing more immediate threats, including mergers and job losses. More than 60 percent of colleges and universities reduced their number of full-time faculty last year, and around the same proportion froze or reduced pay, the AAUP says.

City College of San Francisco has proposed layoffs of 50 full-time faculty members. Faculty at Connecticut’s 12 community colleges fought unsuccessfully against combining them into a single institution on the grounds that it would hurt students. Faculty at Pierpont Community and Technical College in West Virginia are making the same point to resist a merger with Fairmont State University.

Those faculty who are left are seeing their workloads rise as they are required to teach more and larger classes.

Determined though they are to preserve their authority over what happens on their campuses, and to safeguard policies that protect their jobs, faculty may have a challenge winning the support of an important audience: students, families and taxpayers.

Only about a third of Americans think higher education is fine the way it is, while fewer than half believe that four-year universities spend their money wisely or are run efficiently, a survey by the left-leaning think tank New America found. Only about one in four college graduates strongly agree that they had a professor who cared about them as a person, according to a separate poll by Gallup.

Few other workers have job guarantees akin to tenure. And even after last year’s freezes and reductions, full professors at doctoral-granting institutions earn an average of $159,919, the AAUP says — or nearly four times what the Census Bureau says is the median pay of Americans who work full time. At private, nonprofit universities, full professors’ average pay is more than $200,000.

Related: Another million adults ‘have stepped off the path to the middle class’

“There’s the caricature of university faculty members as elitist, out of touch, don’t work hard,” said Schneider, who said that, for most, that’s not actually the case.

Taxpayers and parents “just see a place where students are going into massive amounts of debt and possibly having trouble enrolling in the classes they need to graduate in a timely manner,” said Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations and president of the union at Rutgers, where the AAUP and AFT have already combined to collectively represent close to 10,000 full-time and part-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates and counselors.

“But if they look at the fact that a large proportion of classes are taught by adjunct faculty, the disconnect between what they’re paying and what they’re getting is not about faculty productivity. It’s about other university spending priorities.”  

Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. About 10,000 unionized full-time and part-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates and counselors at all three Rutgers campuses have combined forces as academic workers push back against layoffs, furloughs and threats to tenure. Credit: John O’Boyle for The Hechinger Report

University and college faculty spend years getting doctoral degrees and working their way up the ranks. Measuring their productivity is “extremely difficult,” and risks reducing rather than improving educational quality, said Mulvey.

“If you’re going to start bean-counting, faculty may be reluctant to try an ambitious risk-taking research program that may not lead to results for a few years because they’ll be judged as unproductive. Or faculty might self-censor in the classroom, worried they might get complaints from students or parents, and their evaluations will be lower.”

Adam Sowards is another who isn’t sticking around to find out. Sowards is leaving his tenured full professorship in history at the University of Idaho at the end of this semester; he’ll be following his spouse, who has a new job, even though Sowards doesn’t.

“It was pretty easy for me to say, ‘Okay, let’s go,’ ” he said. “I’ve seen more and more interference from legislators and state boards about how our institutions should be run, and now we’re getting to the point where it’s interfering with how our classrooms can be managed. At the same time there is less financial support from the state.”

Still, said Sowards, it’s “heartbreaking” to leave a place he’s worked for 19 years.

“In an ideal form, being a professor is the greatest job ever,” he said. “But the gap between that and the reality has just gotten too wide.”

This story about unionizing by university and college faculty was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *