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Essay on the summit of adjunct leaders

Among the Majority

February 1, 2012

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.
 

Bio

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.

 

 

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