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Defining Adjunct Rights

December 9, 2008

The American Association of University Professors is best known for its statements on tenure and academic freedom. In recent years, however, the association has asserted that its principles apply to those off the tenure track, and it has adopted specific guidelines about the treatment of adjuncts.

Today, the association will for the first time cite those standards on adjuncts' right to fair consideration for reappointment to issue a report finding an institution -- North Idaho College -- in violation of the AAUP standards. The case involves a long-term adjunct who was denied reappointment following the college's clash with her husband and a controversy in which some of her comments offended conservative students. The AAUP says she was denied appropriate due process in ways that endanger academic freedom.

At the same time, the association is investigating the end of the career of a long-time adjunct at Burlington College -- a woman who says she lost her position when she criticized the college's president. In this case, the president says she will not respond to AAUP's inquiries because she believes the association speaks only for tenured or tenure-track faculty members. (Such a stance would effectively remove the AAUP from having much to say at Burlington since it has no tenured or tenure-track professors.)

These cases come at a time that many experts on academic labor view the status of adjuncts as crucial to the future of academic freedom. Notably, two of the AAUP's findings of violations of academic freedom this year (using previous standards, not the new one) have come in cases involving long-term adjuncts -- one at the University of New Haven and one at Nicholls State University.

The disputes at North Idaho and Burlington also illustrate a central fight in the debates over adjunct rights: In both cases, adjuncts who lost their future teaching assignments insist that they are entitled to due process and some explanation. In both cases, the colleges disagree and reject the adjuncts' and the AAUP's view of the issue.

A Long-Serving Adjunct Loses Her Job

The finding against North Idaho College concerns Jessica Bryan, who taught English part time for 13 consecutive semesters -- and several summers -- ending in the fall of 2007. During that time, she taught at least two courses a semester and sometimes as many as five, including a course normally taught only by tenured professors.

On the last day of the fall semester in 2007, Bryan was told by the college that she would not receive any courses the following semester -- and her courses were subsequently assigned to more junior part-timers. Bryan's apparent good standing changed at the college -- according to the AAUP report on the college -- following two events. One was a conflict between college officials and Bryan's husband, in which he was suspended from his tenured position despite findings by the college's hearing officer that questioned the allegations against him. The other incident was that Bryan made a comment in class that one student and conservative blogs said amounted to saying that people who vote Republican should be executed. She has said that the comment was designed to provoke discussion and was clearly not intended literally.

There were threats made against Bryan, but the controversy died down. But when Bryan was not reappointed, she asked numerous North Idaho officials for an explanation and was given none, with college officials saying she was not entitled to one. She also asked for a faculty review of the case, and was rejected.

The AAUP's new guidelines on adjuncts state that long-time non-tenure-track professors are entitled to some seniority protection (violated according to the association's inquiry by giving the courses she taught to others with less experience) and to an explanation of non-reappointment (also found to be violated). Bryan's "vulnerability to the termination of her services at the administration’s pleasure ... could well have had a negative impact on the academic freedom of other part-time faculty members holding similar appointments," the AAUP report concluded.

John Martin, vice president for community relations at North Idaho, issued a statement in which he didn't dispute the facts of the case, but asserted the right of the college to hire and stop hiring adjuncts as it wishes. "As a community college, North Idaho College must have the flexibility to respond to the ever-changing needs of its students on a semester by semester basis. While North Idaho College does have a significant number of full-time tenured faculty, the institution must have both part-time and adjunct instructors to teach specific classes on a semester by semester basis. The employment policies for instructors at North Idaho College are adopted by a duly elected board of trustees and, understandably, do not provide for review of decisions regarding whether to extend a contract offer to individuals to teach a specific course on an adjunct basis."

The only pledge made by the college to Bryan was kept, Martin said. "The commitment to Ms. Bryan, as with other adjunct instructors under similar appointments, was to compensate for the specific classes for that semester."

Questions About a Dismissal in Burlington

At Burlington College, a small private institution in Vermont, the AAUP is investigating the end of the employment of Genese Grill, a literature instructor with a strong student following -- strong enough that dozens (of the 170 member student body) turned up at a board meeting to demand answers about why she was no longer teaching.

Grill maintains that she went from being popular with the administration to unpopular when she started questioning some of the decisions of Jane O'Meara Sanders, the president of the college. Then, after five years of teaching, Grill says her contract wasn't renewed and she was denied the right to a faculty review of her situation. She then left mid-semester with various accusations swirling over who was responsible for that -- her or the college. What is clear is that students liked her and signed petitions to have her reinstated. And the AAUP has made inquiries, again focused on the question of whether Grill's rights were violated.

The student petition says that there is a "crisis of confidence" in Burlington's leadership and that there can be no confidence when faculty members can disappear without right of appeal or information about why they aren't coming back. Such actions as ending Grill's work amount to "a breakdown of Burlington College's just and humane society," the students say.

In an interview, Sanders said that she couldn't discuss the reasons the college doesn't want Grill teaching any more. But she denied that it has anything to do with Grill's criticisms of her, or that the AAUP has a role in investigating. "At no college does an adjunct have the expectation of teaching every semester," she said.

What about an adjunct who says she was winning praise until she criticized the president? Shouldn't such a person have some protections? Sanders said that because of the accusations raised by Grill, the college had the decision not to rehire her reviewed first by the executive committee of the board, and then the full board, and that they concurred. The AAUP and other faculty groups have of course argued over the years that in such disputes, it is essential that adjuncts and other faculty members receive some review from professors, not just administrators and trustees.

But Sanders said that principle was irrelevant for Burlington. "AAUP policy is for tenured faculty, not part-time faculty," Sanders said. For adjuncts, there is no right of faculty review, she said.

Sanders objected to the idea that she is squelching workers' rights and indeed that's not a record associated with the Sanders name in Vermont. (Her husband is U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, long considered among the most liberal members of Congress and a vocal advocate for those without power and money.)

In her defense, Sanders noted that she created the position of "standing faculty," who may be renewed annually for a full-time position, instead of just being paid on a course-by-course basis. The standing professors also lack a tenure system, although Sanders said that the college is developing a code of conduct to better define expectations.

Even with this group (which did not include Grill), however, Sanders said that the AAUP would have no place defending anyone's rights. "They have absolutely no standing at any college that doesn't have tenured faculty members," she said. "They are the American Association of University Professors. Their policies do not make sense for Burlington College. Working protections are something we hold very dear. We have and we will continue to treat our faculty and staff with great respect."

Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, took issue with the idea that operating without tenure means the association's standards don't apply. "Burlington College has a progressive curriculum and at least a public commitment to shared governance. These values cannot be sustained if the faculty does not have full academic freedom," he said via e-mail.

"Shared governance is a hollow concept unless the faculty can criticize administration plans and actions without fear of retribution," Nelson said. "All this is true whether or not the institution offers tenure to its faculty, though the perils of a tenureless faculty are well illustrated by this incident. The AAUP represents all faculty nationwide. Indeed the large increase in the number of contingent faculty across the country has led us to redouble our efforts to protect them. The Burlington College president should ask herself whether her actions betray her values."

 

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