This past summer, members of the Organization of American Historians received an email titled “An easy way to protect yourself and your job.” A targeted advertisement, the email offered OAH members the chance to join K-12 teachers and affiliates of other academic associations in applying for professional liability insurance at a discounted rate.
As a news article published by Inside Higher Ed described, this type of solicitation raises a number of important questions. Is such coverage necessary? Are policies like the ones advertised a good investment? Why do organizations like the OAH sponsor these plans?
Those are important questions, but as historians of insurance, risk, labor and capitalism, we believe we must also think critically about the risks that professional liability plans are designed to manage and the political dimensions associated with the sale of such policies. In particular, we have found that private liability coverage shifts the burden of managing risk from the institution to individuals. Moreover, the privatization of on-the-job protections can threaten collective organizing and shared governance in higher education.
The Problem of Precarity
The state of faculty members at colleges and universities is clearly precarious. At best, tenure-track positions offer the possibility of long-term job security, a reasonable teaching load and contracts that guarantee certain rights and benefits. For adjuncts, postdoctoral fellows and visiting professors, however, where the next paycheck will come from is an uncertainty that must be navigated on a term-to-term or year-to-year basis.
As temporary employees, faculty members have good reason to be afraid. Their jobs are insecure, they have access to limited resources and they cannot trust the institutions they work for to protect them. Nor can they trust their own students -- at least according to insurance marketing -- since each one is a potential legal adversary. Regardless of whether or not a hyperlitigious environment prevails in higher education, private insurance sold on an individual basis is a palliative to such concerns.
If faculty members do indeed face systematic liability problems, then these problems deserve a systematic response. Taking out insurance policies as individuals will not eradicate precarity in higher education. In fact, the expansion of privatized security mechanisms might even make such problems worse. Professional liability insurance implicitly asserts that individual instructors should be treated as isolated defendants in workplace matters.
The Politics of Private Insurance
We must assert a basic premise: all insurance is political. Insurance redistributes resources, dictates responsibility and creates and determines the collective bodies through which risk is managed. Americans have become accustomed to thinking about Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act as programs that have social impacts and are thus worthy of public discussion and debate. Private insurance should demand similar political attention.
Private insurance in the United States has always coexisted with other sources of security. These have included extended kinship networks, mutual aid organizations, fraternal societies, unions and, more recently, federal and state governments. While private insurance can work in partnership with those institutions, insurance companies’ pursuit of profit means that the issuers of private policies have different motives than those of more representative, noncommercial security providers.
Many Americans imagine insurance as a highly technical industry that deals rationally with objective facts and statistical data. When it comes to marketing, however, insurers regularly appeal to our subjective selves. They invoke fear and depict the world as uncertain and unsafe. For the past half century, insurance companies in America have sold their product as a means to self-sufficiency and independence, and an option that responsible individuals choose in order to demonstrate foresight.
In that context, it should come as no surprise that the uninsured and those covered by public security programs are depicted as dependent and irresponsible. Those who are capable of purchasing private insurance are seen as deserving of security, while those who cannot afford such luxuries (those most in need of security) are not.
Advertisements like the one in question sell an easy route to “peace of mind.” But they also sell a vision of a prudent self who takes control of an uncertain environment by capably managing her own risks. The individualization of risk -- the notion that we are each responsible for ourselves and not to each other -- is a central tenet of neoliberal cost-cutting. In respect to preserving academic freedom, shared governance and the right to collective organization, academics have understandably resisted policies that would isolate them as employees. Private liability insurance that encourages educators to go it alone should be viewed with like-minded suspicion.
Our point here is not to accuse the OAH and other professional academic associations that offer members similar plans of perpetrating a scam. But questions of intention and transparency should accompany any solicitation that bears what appears to be the tacit endorsement of a private, commercial product.
The OAH, in numerous other forums, has rightfully endeavored to facilitate discussions among faculty members, graduate students and adjuncts concerning what can be done to better the situation of historians who are the most vulnerable workers. Participants in those conversations have emphasized the role that self-governance can play, whether through unions or other means, in allowing faculty members to determine what protections and rights they need and deserve.
Whether or not the OAH is heartened by the recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate students are indeed workers, and therefore allowed to organize and engage in collective bargaining, is unclear. No email was sent to members articulating this one way or the other. That is in line with the OAH’s general stance that it is an association dedicated to professionalization, access to resources and advocacy for history as a discipline and field of inquiry. If OAH members want to take this stance they can vote to do so as a body, or issue such a statement on the level of committee.
But that is the very point about which we hope to raise critical awareness. Personal liability insurance is political, even if it comes in a commercial guise. It conditions educators to identify risk as something that needs to be managed individually. It encourages employees, consonant with other trends, to accept that “employment at will” means they cannot rely on colleges and universities to stand by them in circumstances where they are held liable for performing their jobs.
Finally, there is something ironic about an association like the OAH sponsoring insurance for supplemental purchase, as a service to be potentially rendered, in order to contend with problems that stem from the increased tendency of students to view their education as coming with consumer rights. One of the instances that Forrest T. Jones and Company, the policy provider, cites as an example of a paid-out claim involves a civil suit that a student brought against a professor after being placed on academic probation, resulting in the student’s dismissal. All parties involved might have been better served by an arrangement where such disputes are governed first and foremost by review boards comprised of students, faculty members, administrators and other stakeholders. If contractualism must prevail, let it be on the level of arbitration clauses that operate as preconditions of enrollment and employment. Let both plaintiffs and defendants be responsible to their peers.
Better Paths to Security
All instructors should feel entitled to seek out protections from the institutions that employ them, and, in the language of the advertisement in question, aim to obtain a “relaxed” state of mind. But we would certainly advocate for a path to security that travels through collective measures like unions and other efforts to achieve shared governance. Even in the absence of union representation, employers should take the lead in managing liability, if for no other reason than to ensure that their instructors do not sacrifice critical teaching practices out of fear of being sued. Asking individual faculty members to go it alone, and to assess their own professional liability on a case-by-case basis, is at best a Band-Aid to the current state of precarity. No educator should have to purchase from a private company protections that they should be guaranteed through employment.
Caley Horan is an assistant professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Andy Urban is an assistant professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University New Brunswick.
Everyone knows how hard it is for new Ph.D.s, especially for new Ph.D.s in the humanities, to find tenure-track jobs, and everyone knows about the outrageous working conditions faced by contingent faculty. The problem with these problems, however, is that they are one problem we have come to think of as two. It is a labor problem of epic proportions -- at a time when labor is having its own problems.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone proclaim that there are “no jobs” in the humanities, I’d be able to buy every graduate student in my department a hot meal. Just this month, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published the latest addition to the literature on the decline in jobs for faculty in the humanities. Yet the truth is that there are jobs: lots and lots of jobs. The prevalence of MOOCs notwithstanding, classrooms across the nation still need to be staffed by instructors. The problem is that most of these are per-course assignments that pay horribly and offer few benefits, if any. Demand for instructors remains high. It is the egregious working conditions and compensation for those who instruct the majority of our students at the majority of our universities and colleges that are at the heart of the matter.
The consequences of thinking about the plights of graduate students and adjuncts as if they were separate problems are many and insidious. Because there are “no jobs,” many people advise their brightest undergraduates not to enter academe. It is actually considered irresponsible not to try to dissuade the young and talented from following in our footsteps. Some people applaud the shutdown of graduate programs in the humanities at institutions of lesser prestige and the downsizing of elite programs because there are “too many Ph.D.s.”
While I do understand the desire to protect students from the anguish of not finding tenure-track jobs, culling the competition is a mistaken and destructive approach to the problem of perceived scarcity. Instead, we need to turn our attention to the ways our institutions hire, compensate and retain educators. This is a labor problem that can be resolved -- but it will not be resolved by thinning our own ranks.
The consequences of our bifurcated thinking about graduate students and contingent faculty can be subtle, as long as you are not an adjunct instructor, in which case they are toxic. Adjunct faculty members, for example, are generally hired in a completely different manner than the full-time faculty members whom we groom our graduate students to aspire to be. Whereas the hiring process for tenure-stream faculty most commonly calls for the input of several or all members of a department as well as the approval of umpteen levels of an administration, it is customary for department heads alone to hire adjunct instructors, sometimes sight unseen. By conducting our adjunct hiring sub rosa, as it were, we reinforce the split between the “real” jobs we prepare our students to compete for and the invisible (but all-too-real) jobs of people who are often teaching alongside them.
The message these vastly divergent hiring practices send to graduate students and contingent faculty alike is that much of the teaching performed in their midst is somehow something to be ashamed of (and that teaching doesn’t really matter). Everything about the manner in which we select adjunct faculty suggests that they occupy the status of a necessary evil -- the less spoken of, the better.
The Normalization of a Two-Tiered System
This rotten system arose on our watch. How did we let it happen? Speaking for myself, I was so busy trying to find a job after completing my doctorate in 1997 that I didn’t pay much attention to the bigger picture. All I could think about was my own situation. Even though I understood that the odds of getting a tenure-track position were against me, I spent my time trying everything I could think of to improve my chances. Getting a job was up to me, I told myself. Oblivious to the highly individualistic ethos implanted in me in graduate school, I figured that if I was good enough, I would succeed. I did not think of the many other graduates who were also desperate to find tenure-track jobs -- except for when I wanted to make myself feel better about the jobs I didn’t get.
I found a job -- a three-year term position that turned into a six-year term position -- whereupon I devoted myself to becoming even more irresistible as a job candidate the next time I had to go on the market. When I finally got an assistant professorship at the institution that employs me today, my thoughts turned to getting tenure.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but even though I disapproved of the treatment of contingent faculty, I just wasn’t paying attention to the way the naturalization of their exploitation was taking place concurrently with my own professionalization. I never thought of myself as having any say in the matter: without a stable position from which to voice my opposition, I just looked on as administrations chipped and hacked away at humanities programs across the country, cutting costs by depleting programs of their tenure lines and replacing them with adjunct slots. Like most people I knew in the humanities, I felt helpless to do anything about the seemingly irreversible decline of the profession.
No one asked me or my fellow graduates how we felt about the adjunctification of the professoriate as we were trying to claw our way into permanent positions. But no one ever does ask you about such things. The normalization of the two-tiered system just manages to steal up on you, and suddenly, you’ve got tenure in an industry dominated by massive exploitation, denial, resurgent elitism and magical thinking. I am pretty sure that most tenured and tenure-track faculty do not approve of the current condition of adjunct workers, but I am absolutely certain that even those who don’t think about adjunctification do feel terrible about the lack of decent employment prospects for their own graduate students. Relinking these problems will allow us to see clearly this dilemma for what it is: a labor problem.
Of late, adjunct faculty members have bravely come together in unions and affinity groups that are creative and ambitious in character. Such organizations as the New Faculty Majority have formed nonprofit and lobbying entities to unite adjuncts and broadcast their plight to the public at large. Graduate students have united to form unions and political action groups of their own. And yet tenure-track, and more significantly, tenured faculty have yet to form a national organization dedicated to resolving this problem. Why is that the case? Why is it that those of us who occupy relatively privileged positions are the readiest to accept that this is just the way things are?
Calling on Tenured Faculty
The American Association of University Professors has focused valiantly on these issues for a long time, but the AAUP cannot do it alone. It’s time for those of us who have relatively secure positions to speak out in our communities and on a national level. Tenured professors have considerably more leverage than graduate students or adjunct instructors in our institutions; it’s up to us to come together to put pressure on our administrations to make the many invisible positions we fill under the table into “real” jobs. We need to do it for all of our students, present and future, undergraduate and graduate, academe bound and otherwise. If many of us are already working under austerity conditions at our institutions and feel our own jobs imperiled, so much the more reason to act now to secure a living wage for all who teach at the university level. It is in the interest of all faculty members to band together to demand a future for higher education.
So how can we begin to change this situation? Unionization is an obvious answer and an important part of the solution, but when the interests of the full-time faculty are pitted against those of the part-time faculty, with each group represented by a different union, it is hard to reach any sort of common ground. When the full-time and adjunct faculty are represented by the same bargaining unit, adjunct faculty do not have an easy time getting support from their tenure-stream colleagues, in large part because of the great difference in the modes of hiring and reviewing that I discussed above. As long as we continue to accept this two-tiered labor model, there is only so much that unions can do. (A rare exception was the strike two years ago at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where full-time faculty walked out in solidarity with their adjunct colleagues.)
The labor movement we will need to assure the future of higher education requires action on the local and national fronts. Tenured faculty must get involved, and vocally involved, at every level of governance at our institutions. We must vigilantly attend and participate in every kind of meeting open to us that bears any relation whatsoever to mission, staffing, funding and budgeting priorities -- and demand representation when such meetings are closed to us. We must insist, loudly and incessantly, on full-time positions in our departments. We might want to experiment with the establishment of a more rigorous screening procedure for hiring contingent faculty so as to draw attention to the need for higher pay to draw and keep the most qualified applicants. We need to write letters, articles, emails, blogs -- anything we can -- about this problem. We need to get creative.
And we need to lobby our elected representatives at the local, state and national levels to address this systemic labor problem. Tuition rates have been skyrocketing across the country at the same time as full-time positions have been slashed; wherever this money is going, it is not being spent on full-time positions. Like increased tuition and student debt, this two-tiered system plays a role in the dynamics of income inequality. Legislators need to reverse the decades-long retreat of state and federal governments from the funding of higher education. Colleges and universities are not going to change their practices unless we put pressure on them from without and from within.
Some people will say it’s too late to do anything about this trend. But do we really believe so little in ourselves and in what we do as educators to give up on the future so easily? As long as we keep thinking about the fate of our graduate students as if it were separate from the condition of adjunct labor, we will continue to be complicit in the dismantling of higher education. And this would be tantamount to collective professional suicide. Have we really given this battle our all?
Carolyn Betensky is an associate professor of English at the University of Rhode Island.