RICHMOND — Virginia Commonwealth University will limit the number of classes adjunct faculty can teach and allow those teaching a full load to become eligible for benefits, the university said days after staffers announced the formation of a labor union.
School spokesman Michael Porter said VCU made the change because it agrees that adjunct faculty shouldn’t have to work a full load. But members of the labor union called the move retaliation and questioned how the administration would pull it off without negatively affecting the university.
On Monday, 60 VCU faculty and graduate students announced they had formed a chapter of United Campus Workers to advocate for better compensation. Many adjunct faculty members teach three classes a semester, which is considered a full load, but make only $25,000 a year and don’t earn benefits.
Two days later, VCU said it would change its adjunct practices. It would allow faculty teaching three classes to become eligible for full-time contract positions with benefits. But those who remain adjuncts will be limited to two classes.
“Adjunct faculty positions are truly meant to be part-time, non-tenure-track positions,” Porter said.
Barry O’Keefe, an adjunct instructor in the departments of art foundation and communication arts, said the decision was made quickly and without consulting adjunct faculty.
“Everyone was surprised and disappointed and concerned for students,” he said in an interview. “It comes off as retaliation and punishment.”
The classes he teaches can’t be taught by other instructors, because he conceptualized them, he said. If he is limited to two classes per semester, he wonders how VCU will fill in the gap. Will it hire more adjuncts? Will it force full-time professors to teach more classes? Will it decrease the number of classes available to students?
O’Keefe already has signed up to teach three classes in the fall. It’ll be the sixth time in seven semesters he’s taught a full load.
“We recognize that this change may place a financial strain on some academic units, but we believe it is the right thing to do for those adjuncts who are carrying a significant teaching load,” Porter said.
O’Keefe also worries about the financial impact of losing one class a semester, which equates to $6,600 a year of lost income. To make ends meet, he sells his own art and works at studios in the area. Securing a mortgage to buy a house was a challenge, he said.
He has a master of fine arts, which is typically the highest degree earned in the field of art, he said.
In a statement, the labor union said the new policy shouldn’t go forward.
“VCU administration must allow for time to dialogue in good faith about the best course of action for students and educators,” the statement read.
There are about 700 adjunct faculty members at VCU, said Rose Szabo, an adjunct and member of the union.
VCU’s budget, which hasn’t been approved yet, would raise adjunct pay to $1,200 per credit hour. That amounts to a 20% raise over four years.