Solidarity vs. Contingency
The single most important structural change in higher education over the last two generations has been the massively increased reliance on faculty teaching intensively in contingent positions — 33 percent in 1975, 66 percent 30 years later in 2005, roughly 70 percent now. No other reform means anything unless we can obtain job security and academic freedom for the majority of college teachers. It will require solidarity from tenured faculty.
The only true solidarity among current faculty members requires granting tenure to all long-term contingent faculty members. All. One hundred tenured slots for 9,500 contingent faculty members is not solidarity. It’s a mud-wrestling contest with tenure as a prize. Nor does a tiered division between two classes of faculty — 50 percent tenured and 50 percent expendable, or 75 percent tenured and 25 percent contingent — constitute the principled structural change we need. What do we gain if we set as our ideal the permanent diminishment of most of our colleagues’ lives? What good is a compromised ideal? Why congratulate ourselves for selling out?
The only goal worth fighting for is full justice for all who teach. No solution that throws most existing faculty serving in contingent positions under the bus is acceptable. Solidarity is not a weasel word. It’s not about compromising with power. It’s about reaching out to the disempowered and offering them hope. Every other year some two hundred contingent, sessional, or precarious faculty from North America — the titles vary by country — gather together at a COCAL meeting to share their strategies for reform. Most have spent their working lives being eaten alive by the higher education industry. And yet they have held onto their humor, their charm, and their pedagogical passions. I cannot betray them. Nor will the American Association of University Professors do so. In its new policy paper — "Tenure and Teaching Intensive Appointments" — the AAUP recommends that all long-term contingent faculty members be granted tenure.
Since tenure can be awarded to both part-time and full-time faculty members — a person could have tenure at a less than full-time percentage appointment -- the AAUP’s proposal carries no necessary cost. It does not, in all honesty, guarantee faculty members a living wage. But it does give them the job security they need to advocate for better working conditions without fear of reprisal, and it eliminates the sometimes crippling stress accompanying at-will employment. It gives all faculty access to shared governance, including the ability at most institutions to serve on curriculum committees, so that the folks who do the teaching will actually have a say in course planning and development, something that has always been a fundamental AAUP principle. It goes a tremendous distance toward unifying the faculty and reinvigorating faculty solidarity. And because -- unlike conversion proposals that call for full-time appointments for all -- it does not cost money, tenure-for-all can be promoted on the basis of principle alone.
Some administrators will no doubt respond with calls for flexibility in hiring, but the adjunct army that teaches composition, math, and introductory foreign language courses is not providing services likely to prove unnecessary in any imaginable future. Administrators may come and go, but the adjunct army persists. The AAUP’s new statement, it is important to note, supports a traditional probationary period before tenure is awarded. That probationary period provides sufficient time to decide whether a given set of teaching responsibilities will be fleeting or permanent. Meanwhile, thousands of faculty members serving in contingent positions — some of them for a decade or two or more — have effectively "passed" their tenure review by virtue of being hired back year after year. Future part-time hires would undergo appropriate peer review during their probationary period.
Would administrators simply terminate their adjunct army, rather than tenure them? The very size of the long-term adjunct cohort in many systems makes that impractical. The practical educational and administrative consequences of suddenly jettisoning many of an institution’s experienced faculty members would be considerable. Demands for comprehensive conversion to full-time positions would be another matter, which once again demonstrates why the alternative demand for tenure is more realistic. The AAUP’s proposal, paradoxically, is at once modest and revolutionary. Of course its implementation would still benefit from solidarity with tenured faculty.
"Solidarity" is the original rallying cry of worker-empowered union organizing. Its invocation recalls generations of consciousness-raising, of group identification, of class interest recognition, of bodies risked and bodies broken. There were times when the call for solidarity could not overcome racial divisions, when the discourse of solidarity could not link black and white bodies arm in arm. And there were times when it could. Solidarity encompasses the ideological glue that held groups together. It is the concept that gave courage and meaning to imperiled, solitary souls on those most lonely of union nights. Here is Sterling Brown’s “Sharecroppers,” first published in 1939 in Get Organized: Stories and Poems about Trade Union People:
When they rode up at first dark and called his name,
He came out like a man from his little shack.
He saw his landlord, and he saw the sheriff,
And some well-armed riff-raff in the pack.
When they fired questions about the meeting,
He stood like a man gone deaf and dumb,
But when the leaders left their saddles,
He knew then that his time had come.
In the light of the lanterns the long cuts fell,
And his wife’s weak moans and the children's wails
Mixed with the sobs he could not hold.
But he wouldn’t tell, he would not tell,
The Union was his friend, and he was Union,
And there was nothing a man could say.
So they trussed him up with stout ploughlines,
Hitched up a mule, dragged him far away
Into the dark woods that tell no tales,
Where he kept his secrets as well as they.
He would not give away the place,
Not who they were, neither white nor black,
Nor tell what his brothers were about.
They lashed him, and they clubbed his head;
One time he parted his bloody lips
Out of great pain and greater pride,
One time, to laugh in his landlord’s face;
Then his landlord shot him in the side.
He toppled, and the blood gushed out.
But he didn’t mumble ever a word,
And cursing, they left him there for dead.
He lay waiting quiet, until he heard
The growls and the mutters dwindle away;
“Didn’t tell a single thing,” he said,
Then to the dark woods and the moon
He gave up one secret before he died:
“We gonna clean out dis brushwood round here soon,
Plant de white-oak and de black-oak side by side.”
If we take Brown’s poem as a fable for our own time, we know well who our landlords are and why their will and their power must be resisted. We know what brushwood must be cleared. And we know that on campus it is contingent and tenured teachers who must flourish side by side. These are the values we take on when we dare to speak the name of solidarity. It signifies a history and a tradition we would do well not to betray.
There is nothing, to be sure, that limits solidarity to union organizing. Historically it has been used to describe kinship bonding in preindustrial societies. All of us will recall it as the graphic and verbal emblem of the Polish struggle to free themselves from Soviet domination. The Polish struggle began as a trade union movement in 1980 and then became something more. Solidarity unionism — a concept translated into action in the United States by the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW after its1905 founding — promoted the idea that workers should take direct action against a company without paid union representation. Solidarity may thus very well refer to exactly what faculty serving in contingent positions need — direct action unmediated by union hierarchy.
For the immediate question for those of us in academe is clear: Will the call for solidarity link temporary and tenured bodies? Will it link the academic workforce behind principles of job security, fair wages, and necessary benefits for all? Are there examples of solidarity in action powerful enough to hail all of us?
Contingency has been the most gradual of the changes shaping higher education. Faculty members serving in contingent positions had slowly but inexorably come to dominate higher education's teaching workforce over 40 years. Not that they dominate anything else, for their authority anywhere in the industry -- from the classroom to administration to governing boards -- could hardly be less. For half a century tenure had been the key guarantor of academic freedom. Now tenure is available only to a minority of faculty members.
It was not long ago that I would have said very little evidence exists to show that tenured faculty members gave a damn about anyone else. But then I visited an AFT local in southern Illinois, and the tenured faculty talked proudly about making salary increases for contingent faculty the first priority in their most recent contract negotiations. It wasn’t an altogether popular plan at first. But once it succeeded, everyone became an advocate. No one ever said solidarity was easy.
The challenge of solidarity became still more acute over the last year, as real or imagined budget crises gave administrators the will to cut positions and salaries. Forced with a furlough demand, the AAUP local at the University of Northern Iowa reopened its contract negotiations. The union accepted furloughs, but only on condition no adjunct positions be cut. Faced with similar demands, California Faculty Association activists in the 24-campus California State University system confronted a bloody-minded administration that would not guarantee that furloughs could be traded for job security. Tenured CFA members agonized, then voted for the furloughs in solidarity with their contingent brothers and sisters. In the end, the Cal State administration cut thousands of lecturer positions anyway, thereby assuring that the union will not settle for good faith negotiations again.
In the version of late capitalism that prevails in the United States, do not expect to find such workplace solidarity outside unionized settings. The self-interested careerism that has shaped tenured faculty identity for two generations does not hold much hope for solidarity. Most tenured faculty literally do not understand the culture of contingent faculty -- the interests, priorities, values, work patterns, or social and professional relations that shape their daily lives. Thus "You are not us," the implicit rebuke of the tenured faculty to their contingent colleagues, has evolved into "we are not you," the rallying cry of part-timers themselves. In the world of part-time employment, your transient "colleagues" pass unnoticed, like ships blind to each others' passage beneath the noonday sun. Yet even that blunt metaphor is inadequate, since it entails potential daytime visibility. Some departments concentrate part-timers in evening courses. Since those faculty members only feed on the curriculum at night, they are sometimes nervously referred to as "vampires." Perhaps that is a useful provocation. If it triggers a moment of recognition, tenured faculty may realize they are our vampires. We called them up and assigned them to our darkness. They are us, the faculty.
As I argue in No University is an Island (New York University Press), at institutions relying primarily on faculty serving in contingent positions, the appearance of new faculty or disappearance of continuing faculty is often unmarked. No sense of community obtains. The college is literally not a meeting place, a space of interaction, for its faculty, many of whom may retreat to the parking lot immediately after class to travel to another teaching job. A department in an institution staffed with contingent faculty is often essentially a structure filled with nameless bodies. The campus is recognizable only through its buildings and its students. In institutions without tenure, academic freedom and shared governance are often nonexistent.
Despite all this, the AAUP believes the solution is not to abandon tenure but to grant it to everyone who has taught full-time or part-time for a standard probationary period. We’re not talking about making a few tenured slots available to faculty serving in contingent positions. We are talking about granting full-time or part-time tenure to everyone with more than six years of local teaching experience. We are urging ending contingency as we know it. The solution is to find the solidarity necessary to achieve that goal.
At many institutions, of course, the tenured and contingent faculty already have largely identical responsibilities. Major research universities may, however, respond that they hire adjuncts for one skill set (teaching) and award tenure on a much broader skill set (including research). That said, at COCAL IX in Quebec in 2010 I talked to a long-term University of California lecturer who was told his several books in his field amounted — as far as the university was concerned — to “nothing more than a hobby, like gardening.” Writing books was not part of his UC job description. So the “skill set” argument is sometimes dishonorable. My personal recommendation to serious research universities is this: Give long-term adjuncts tenure and then stop hiring additional faculty not tasked with the full range of faculty responsibilities.
Along with tenure must come all the components of a traditional faculty role — control over the curriculum, control over faculty hiring, authority over due process and peer review, and a structural role in budget decisions. Otherwise the corporate university still wins. It will be no good for higher education long term if contingent faculty have job security and academic freedom in the classroom without full participation in shared governance. Indeed the only reason faculty serving contingently have some classroom rights now is that the instructional workforce is too difficult to police, but forces like the assessment movement may yet change that. We need to seek comprehensive professional status for teaching intensive faculty. Anything less will create a deprofessionalized proletariat higher education workforce once called faculty members. What I once scandalously called “Comp Droids,” dedicated robotic deliverers of prepackaged, sanitized content, will become the norm not only for introductory courses but for higher education as a whole. For the slow march of contingent demographics will prevail unless we find the will to resist.
Can the existing faculty unions — dominated either by tenured faculty or by K-12 teachers who have no academic freedom — fuel the will to resistance? Not without pressure from below. That’s not to say that the AAUP, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association have not begun to address the problem. Even flawed solutions have helped put the issues on the table, and modest goals like small-scale conversion programs can productively coexist with comprehensive tenure. The AAUP is steadily ramping up its enforcement of our 2006 revision of our Recommended Institutional Regulations No. 13, which grants long-term part-timers expectation of continued employment. But nonrenewal without due process remains the norm throughout much of the industry, and union contracts for part-time faculty have a long way to go before meaningful job security and full participation in shared governance, let alone adequate wages and benefits, are obtained. As for full-time faculty teaching contingently, the AAUP’s 1940 statement, endorsed by over 200 higher education organizations, has yet to secure for them the tenured status it guarantees. Permit me to say that seventy years of non-enforcement does not fill me with confidence. What is missing is the pressure from below that might wake everyone to the need for solidarity. We cannot look to the majority of tenured faculty for solidarity unless faculty serving in contingent positions are willing to make daily life difficult for everyone on campus, to make business as usual impossible.
If administrators are able either to increase the percentage of contingent faculty members in the wake of the recession or to fire long-term contingent faculty members en masse, we will leave the current crisis in much worse shape as a profession than we are now. We were already at the tipping point; the current crisis can easily take us irretrievably beyond it.
The only real solution — tenure for all who teach — would also benefit from serious collaboration, rather than competition, among existing unions representing faculty members. We would do well to see interorganizational solidarity in the form of coordinated national efforts by the AAUP, the AFT, and the NEA to organize contingent faculty.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.