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VCU Changes Adjunct Policies as Professors Seek Better Compensation

People hold sign
Workers from Virginia Commonwealth University march through Monroe Park after announcing they would form a union on April 26, 2021. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Amid a push by adjuncts for increased pay and benefits, Virginia Commonwealth University is changing how it classifies professors. An email notifying the coming policy change was sent days after VCU adjuncts announced they’d formed a union.

In her email, VCU Provost Gail Hackett told the heads of several schools the university will seek to cap course loads for adjuncts to six credits per semester. Previously, an adjunct professor could teach up to nine credits per semester and still qualify as a part-time employee.

Hackett says in the email the change in policy was directed by VCU President Michael Rao, and she says adjuncts who teach more than six credits will automatically become eligible for full-time benefits.

“While it will take us well into next year to change this official policy, the President has directed us to informally follow this policy effective immediately,” Hackett’s email reads. “Those of you who are employing many adjuncts for more than 6 credits may want to consider creating full time term faculty positions rather than continue to rely on part time adjuncts.”

In an email to VPM, VCU Spokesman Mike Porter characterized the policy change as “positive” and in the best interest of adjuncts who want to be considered full-time, while reiterating the university’s position that “adjunct faculty positions are truly meant to be part time, non-tenure track positions.”

“Adjunct faculty have consistently communicated that those who teach three courses per semester… should be considered full-time employees who are eligible for benefits. We agree with their position,” Porter said. “VCU is responding in a positive way to what we heard by changing our adjunct practices to allow those teaching a minimum of three courses per semester to become eligible to be term faculty with benefits.”

But rather than positive, some adjunct professors are interpreting the move as retaliation for their recent union activity. In a press release, the newly-formed union, the VCU chapter of United Campus Workers, criticized the policy change as “rushed” and called for it to be paused immediately.

“This course of action would cut adjuncts’ classes to two per semester to keep them from being able to argue that they deserve full-time benefits. This is a further adjunctification of higher education that hurts students and faculty alike,” the release says. Adjuncts worry the policy change could result in layoffs. Nationwide, universities have cut nearly 5% of adjunct positions during the pandemic. 

Besides disagreeing with the policy change itself, the professors are taking issue with how the change is being carried out, accusing the provost of “by-passing procedures designed to gather input.”

Adjuncts are also filing a Freedom of Information Act request to verify whether the policy change was made in direct retaliation to the formation of their union. The request seeks for the university to hand over any emails and written communications between VCU leadership regarding adjuncts’ concerns.

“The public needs to understand why the usual due diligence is being skipped in order to carry out a directive that has not yet been formalized as policy,” the press release says.

Since 2017, adjunct professors at VCU have been calling on the university to increase their per-credit pay. They’re currently seeking $3,000 per credit. Currently, per-credit pay sits at just over $1,000, an increase from $738 per credit in 2017. Adjuncts are also asking for full access to VCU Health Services, as they’re not eligible for health insurance during the pandemic.

Porter previously told VPM budget recommendations being submitted to the Board of Visitors for approval this month will include further pay raises for all adjunct faculty.