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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

At Wash. U. and Webster, a Fight to Unionize Adjunct Professors -- With Different Results

Posted By on Wed, Jul 15, 2015 at 6:30 AM

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Webster University - PHOTO BY PATRICK GIBLIN
  • Photo by Patrick Giblin
  • Webster University

Both Wash. U. and Webster are private, not-for-profit and located in leafy suburbs west of St. Louis. But that's where the similarities end.

Tax returns show Washington University generated a $181 million profit in the 2012 fiscal year and $221 million in 2011. Webster, however, has struggled with its budget.

Last fall, Webster University's own The Journal reported that the school was facing a shortfall in its operating budget of $12.2 million. It planned to close three of its campuses.

In an effort to make itself a "truly global university," Webster has sought to put campuses in every country of the world. Unfortunately, this model of franchising has left some schools with more staff and administration than actual students. Webster is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Franchising has had other bad repercussions for the university. Many of its schools have poor academic results at best, and there have been problems with financial aid on the London campus where the U.S. Department of Education required Webster to repay $95,464 in what was determined to be ineligible student aid.

The Thailand campus has probably been most disastrous. According to, Webster students studying in Thailand have made wide-ranging allegations: "concerns about issues of academic rigor, student health and safety, student services, the condition of physical facilities, faculty and staff turnover, and reported fears of retribution against those who dare to challenge the administration."

Through its spokeswoman, Jennifer Starkey, Webster declined all comment for this story.

The university has become increasingly reliant on adjuncts. According to, Webster's use of full-time instructors ranks among the nation's lowest: Only 13 percent of its instructors teach full-time. That's significantly lower than the nationwide average of 51 percent.

Those adjuncts are paid $3,500 per class. There is no health insurance, no 401k, no sick leave. Adjunct professors don't even have a guarantee — or often any idea — of what classes, if any, they may teach the following semester.

SEIU argued that it could help change that. Some Webster adjuncts reported that the union suggested teachers could make as much as $15,000 per class — although Boehm says that wasn't a promise so much as an aspirational goal.

What the SEIU could promise, if instructors voted to unionize, was the power of collective bargaining and the opportunity to negotiate a contract.

Ann Haubrich teaches cultural policy for the Arts Management in Leadership master's program at Webster. She was on the fence for several months about unionizing because of past family experiences with unions, but after some soul-searching, she decided to support SEIU's effort.

Haubrich wonders about the ethics of Webster's business practice. "Ultimately, you think about the Loreto nuns who started Webster and their social-justice advocacy — what would they think about 80 percent adjuncts making unfair wages?"

These days, Webster administrators live much differently than the women in religious orders who founded the college — and much differently than its more than 500 adjuncts. President Elizabeth Stroble earned $500,174 last fiscal year, including a $75,000 bonus. In 2011, Webster also purchased Stroble a $935,000 home.

Like most universities, Webster is bloated with administration. Like bureaucratic Russian dolls, even the president's administrative assistant has an administrative assistant. Webster Provost Julian Schuster made $357,111, including a $45,000 bonus. Like Stroble, Schuster received a new car.

Many Webster faculty, staff and students have wondered if top Webster administrators should be receiving bonuses when the university is facing such large budget issues — or when 80 percent of its faculty receives nowhere near a living wage.

"If Webster had to pay their employees proportional to what full-time professors make, they would probably have to fold," says Webster adjunct philosophy professor Steve Findley. "Or at least make some big changes."

I first met Findley at Foundation Grounds in Maplewood, where he lives. We sat down and talked over coffee — adjunct to adjunct.

The son of a United Methodist minster, Findley was originally a pre-med and a chemistry major at Rice University, but the "big questions" got him hooked on philosophy.

"I applied to both medical school and a philosophy program and got into both," Findley says, "and I picked philosophy. Not the most genius move I ever made." With a doctoral degree earned from Boston College in 1996, Findley has taught philosophy around the country. Since 2002, he's been an adjunct philosophy professor at Webster.

The $3,500 he makes per course at Webster is above the national average, as he knows well. At the University of Southern Indiana he made a little over $2,000 per class of 60. That's a lot of philosophy papers to grade. Including class prep, office hours, and invariable out-of-class-and-office student meetings, the math worked out to about a nickel a paper.

Findley's wife is an associate professor of French at Saint Louis University, which does a lot to pay the bills. Chris Boehm's wife is an accountant at Turk & Associates. Adjuncts without spouses need to work many other places in order to survive — and many receive federal assistance.

Sausele, for example, would have been eligible for benefits at Trader Joe's, but after the Affordable Health Care Act passed, the grocery chain began requiring workers to put in 30 hours a week instead of 20 to qualify for health care.

Sausele now gets her insurance through Obamacare. When we spoke, she had just returned from an urgent-care visit — treating a dog bite that required stitches and later become infected. Because her insurance is a limited plan, she'll still have to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket.

Next: The Webster vote

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