Essay on the summit of adjunct leaders

The New Faculty Majority (NFM) summit, "Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education," held on Saturday, 28 January, at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, was full of bitter ironies. The gathering was convened in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). But when Carol Geary Schneider, president of the AAC&U, asked in the opening plenary session who had availed themselves of the "crosswalk" she had established between the AAC&U and the NFM, it became distressingly clear that for most AAC&U members "in conjunction with" apparently meant little more than "in the same hotel as." At one end of the long hallway, NFM members talked about the challenges of keeping body and soul intact while teaching 4-4 jobs to which they had been required to reapply every year for 20 years; at the other end, university administrators browsed a book exhibit whose keywords seemed to be finance, management, outcomes, and assessment. At one point in the NFM proceedings, a faculty member from Oakland Community College held up a handbook for deans she'd purchased at the other end of the hallway and noted that adjunct faculty merited only one mention, under the heading "budgets."

Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities. Many of them are working at or under the poverty line, without health insurance; they have no academic freedom worthy of the name, because they can be fired at will; and, when fired, many remain ineligible for unemployment benefits, because institutions routinely invoke the "reasonable assurance of continued employment" clause in federal unemployment law even for faculty members on yearly contracts who have no reasonable assurance of anything. What would it take to put these faculty members on the national radar? What would it take to make their working conditions a major issue for the higher education establishment — not only AAC&U but also, and most important, accrediting agencies? Would a national summit in Washington do the trick, perhaps?

I used to say that you could tell the difference between people inside and outside higher education by asking them if they knew what a provost was. Now I think a better metric might be to ask them if they know what adjunct or contingent means. A few weeks ago, Vice President Joe Biden startled professors everywhere by remarking that tuition increases are attributable in part to the fact that faculty salaries have "escalated significantly"; one would have hoped that Biden, whose wife, Jill, has taught for many years as an adjunct professor in community colleges, would have known better. But that strange, unfounded belief is only a symptom of a much larger phenomenon. The NFM summit was convened, according to NFM President Maria Maisto, in response to the White House Summit on Community Colleges in October 2010, which included no adjunct faculty members as participants. And today, even the NFM’s friends in Washington (few and far between, to be sure) haven’t gotten the message quite right: in a videotaped greeting to the attendees, Representative John Tierney (D-MA) spoke warmly of adjunct faculty members and the importance of the summit, noting that 40 years ago, 80 percent of America’s college teachers enjoyed the protection of tenure, whereas now only 54 percent do.

At Tierney’s misstep, the entire NFM summit sighed as one. Taking the podium a few minutes later, Gary Rhoades, of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, remarked ruefully, "even Representative Tierney got it wrong: the number of tenured faculty is under 30 percent. That's why you're the new faculty majority."

Rhoades proceeded to mark another bitter irony, one that goes to the heart of the enterprise: colleges promote themselves, especially to first-generation students, as a pathway to the middle class — but, increasingly, colleges do not pay middle-class wages to their own faculty members. The contradiction is deepest at the lowest tiers of the academic hierarchy, where, Rhoades said, underpaid adjunct faculty members are effectively "modeling what is acceptable as an employment practice." It is no wonder that adjunct faculty members are so politically invisible: apparently no one wants to say to high school graduates, "Go to college, work hard, and someday you can get a job teaching college — at a salary of $20,000." It casts a pall over the American dream.

In response to Rhoades and Schneider, a woman from the University of Cincinnati, one of the few administrators in attendance, replied that the summit needed to address the “850-pound gorilla in the room,” namely, the overproduction of Ph.D.s. To scattered applause, she insisted that she would not be able to hire English professors at adjunct wages if there weren’t so many English Ph.D.s glutting the market. I was sitting at a table with David Laurence, the director of research for the Modern Language Association, and I glanced over at him, since we had been discussing this topic at breakfast. The session ended before Laurence could respond, but he asked to open the following session with some useful data. To wit: according to the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, 65.2 percent of non-tenure-track faculty members hold the M.A. as their highest degree — 57.3 percent in four-year institutions, 76.2 percent in two-year institutions. There are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of Ph.D.s isn’t one of the major ones.

These numbers have implications that go far beyond the usual debates about the size of doctoral programs, because they illustrate how inadequate it is to say simply that all non-tenure-track faculty lines should be converted to the tenure track. Precisely because adjuncts are so invisible, it is not widely understood that many of them have held their jobs — at one institution or at many, on a year-by-year basis or on multiyear contracts — for 10, 15 or 20 years and more. I keep running into people who speak of adjuncts as bright, energetic 30-year-olds who enliven their departments and disciplines, working in the trenches for a few years before getting their first tenure-track job. There is no shortage of bright and energetic adjuncts, but not all of them are 30 years old; the average age at the NFM summit seemed to be considerably higher, and the NFM statement "Forging a New Way Forward" closes with a proposal acknowledging that many adjunct faculty members cannot be "converted": 

Reform efforts that involve restructuring should prioritize upgrades for people rather than conversions of positions, in order to respect the value of the ongoing service that existing employees provide. All reform or restructuring efforts should build in some form of protection for currently serving faculty in order to prevent further harm to these faculty who have served in contingent appointments, without proper support or compensation, for so long.

During one of the breaks, I spoke to a participant who worried, understandably, that the summit was preaching to the choir. "To some extent, I suppose," I said, "but then again, the choir needs to find out who’s in the choir, and it needs to figure out what it wants to sing." It is no small thing for adjuncts to gather in Washington and try to lobby, precisely because their job security is so precarious: as one adjunct from Cape Cod Community College put it, a better designation than adjunct or contingent might be the term a Spanish-speaking colleague offered her — los precarios.

I attended the summit to listen rather than speak, and listen I did, as my colleagues off the tenure track discussed ways of addressing students, administrators, legislators, unions, parents, and the general voting and taxpaying public. Laurence and I distributed (with permission from the NFM) the MLA’s 2011 document Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members: Recommendations and Evaluative Questions, and Donald Rogers of Central Connecticut State University gave me a copy of  Standards for Part-Time, Adjunct, and Contingent Faculty, from the Organization of American Historians. I talked to dozens of faculty members from institutions around the country and made a note to buy Adrianna Kezar’s Embracing Non-Tenure Track Faculty: Changing Campuses for the New Faculty Majority and Joe Berry’s Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. And after listening for six or seven hours, I did have two suggestions to offer my breakout group in the afternoon.

First, it is going to be very hard to tell people that many college faculty members are exploitatively underpaid. It's going to be a particularly tough sell in communities already devastated by prolonged economic hardship. But it might be possible to play on the still-widespread belief that college professors are professionals and that parents who are sending their children to college should have some expectation that professors have the professional resources — offices, phones, mailboxes, e-mail and library access, meaningful performance reviews, participation in department governance — that make it possible for them to do their jobs. Let's say you need an attorney, I suggested, and you go to a firm that fobs you off on an associate who has to consult with you in a hallway because he doesn’t have an office. Who would stand for that? Is it O.K. that your kid is going to a college that treats its faculty that way?

Second, it is going to be even harder to tell people that non-tenure-track faculty members need a measure of job security and academic freedom if they are going to be able to do their jobs. It amounts, I suggested, to telling parents, students, administrators, and legislators that they have to fight for the right of professors to challenge their students intellectually, free from the fear that they will be fired the moment they say something unfamiliar or upsetting about sexuality or evolution or American history or the Middle East. This argument will resonate with people who understand what higher education is all about. They are a subset of the American electorate, but they know why academic freedom is essential to an open society, and they believe in the promise of higher education. The question is whether they can be persuaded that the promise of higher education is undermined when three-quarters of the professoriate is made up of los precarios.

Michael Bérubé is president of the Modern Language Association and the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University. A longer version of this essay is available here.

Essay on why candidates for academic jobs can't just be themselves

To get hired, you need to master the six elements of a professional persona, writes Karen Kelsky.

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Could digital humanities to undergraduates could boost information literacy?

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Could weaving the digital humanities into undergraduate education help improve students' information literacy?

Essay calling for faculty offices to no longer be grouped by discipline

A number of years ago, at a reception for chairs in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I  struck up a conversation with a guy I'd seen around campus for  a long time, but had never really met. Tongues loosened by drink, we had a nice chat. As it turned out, he was a highly distinguished scholar, who at the time was chairing the department of political science, housed in the same building as my own department, history, but a floor down. We found that we had a lot to talk about — including some common intellectual interests — and joked about the fact that though we had both been at UNC for a long time, working in close proximity, we had never really crossed paths.

Before leaving the get-together, we effected the hail-fellow-well-met routine, and promised to keep in touch. We even made noises about touching base with the chair of sociology, also housed in our building -- on the two floors beneath political science -- to see if he might be interested  in co-hosting a building-wide party of some sort so that faculty from our three departments could get to know each other a bit better.

Unfortunately, that was the last time I had a sustained conversation with that political scientist. His term as chair ended the following spring, and he went on leave. Chairing a large department kept me busy, and neither of us ever got around to talking to the chair of sociology about a building-wide get -together.

Whenever I’ve thought about this -- admittedly only sporadically, since I’ve moved on to other administrative posts -- I've sensed lost opportunities. All three of the departments housed in our building are highly ranked in the social sciences, and a quick look at faculty CVs suggests that many members in the units share research interests. Alas, there is little contact between and among units, a kind of vertical segregation informing Hamilton Hall.

The lack of interaction among excellent scholars with similar interests raises some organizational  questions with important implications: Why cluster faculty members into departmental ghettos any longer? Why not allow voluntary mixing and matching -- especially in cognate disciplines? Electronic communications via departmental listservs can provide the unit-specific information needed to keep the trains running on time, and the idea of promoting casual, often spontaneous interaction among scholars with similar research interests, but different methods is at once liberating and exhilarating.

Moreover, because scholars from different disciplines possess different strengths and different forms of proprietary knowledge, chances for the kind of intellectual arbitrage and cross-disciplinary collaborations that make for innovative breakthroughs would be enhanced. Few of the world’s major problems are best approached from a single disciplinary perspective, yet research universities generally sequester their best talent along departmental lines.

In this regard, it is telling that of all the academic conferences I regularly attend, the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association is the one that most gets my creative juices flowing. Why? Because that meeting -- at its best -- represents a true cross-disciplinary conversation, with panels comprising members from mixes of the social sciences approaching common problems via different research protocols and formal methodologies. One panel may feature a geographer, a criminologist, a sociologist, and an economist looking at crime in early modern Europe, while another may consist of a historian, an anthropologist, a demographer, and a political scientist dealing with changes in fertility levels in sub-Saharan African since World War II. 

While panelists sometimes talk past one another, they more frequently open up everyone’s eyes and expand people’s brains. In either case, the panels are almost always better than listening to four overly specialized historians drone on about one or another obscure topic at a dreary panel at a meeting of a historical association. With this in mind, why not encourage cross-disciplinary commingling by situating faculty members from different disciplines in the same corridor?

To be sure, there are other ways to accomplish the same cross-disciplinary ends. GE has long tasked research teams in various parts of the world with the same engineering problems, periodically bringing together the disparate groups -- each from a different research culture and each with a different M.O. — to share ideas and learn from one another. Stanford’s highly acclaimed Bio-X complex, which brought together into one setting chemists, physicists, engineers, and medical doctors to work on complex interdisciplinary problems, famously sacrificed laboratories rather than a shared cafeteria during a funding shortfall in order to make sure that possibilities for intellectual trespassing and boundary crossing — the whole idea behind Bio-X — would be facilitated.

And, of course, one can take up the ideas of people such as Michael Crow and Mark Taylor and radically reconfigure departmental units, but I’m not willing to go that far. Traditional departments -- and disciplinary cultures -- still have their virtues. By mixing up the offices of smart people at large, complex research universities -- by changing institutional arrangements  in other words — we can at the margin help nudge faculty members into creative realms they might otherwise not know to explore.

The faculty locker room at the university gym -- where lockers are assigned randomly -- shouldn’t be the only place at a research university to converse regularly with a colleague from another discipline.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Essay on what a professor can learn from playing an all-campus game


Nate Kreuter reflects on what he learned playing an all-campus game in which he was the only faculty member.

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Colleges award tenure

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The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:

Buffalo State College of the State University of New York

Essay on preparing for Skype or telephone interviews

Cheryl Reed and Dawn M. Formo offer advice on how to prepare for Skype and telephone interviews.

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Essay urges academics to admit to being a little weird

Tyro Tracts

Don't let the tight job market scare you from making sure your professional quirks can fit into departments to which you are applying, writes Nate Kreuter.

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