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.
Until recently, I justified adjuncting at a community college because out of the seven institutions where I’ve taught, it was in many ways the least abusive -- partly owing to the established paradigms and controls of the sector in general.
Specifically, this community college:
tolerated my public activism;
provides benefits to a small number of adjuncts and created an associate faculty tier that pays slightly better than the extremely low national average adjunct rate;
invites adjuncts to faculty meetings (despite the absurdity of this show where all faculty cannot vote);
charges tuition that is relatively fair and keeping with community college standards;
rewards innovation and provides training opportunities; and
has unionized full-time and part-time faculty, albeit under one collective bargaining agreement that should be renegotiated with a closer eye on adjunct labor (or adjunct faculty should get informed and organize a distinct agreement).
But in the end, it’s exploitative and I quit. An authentically innovative institution would pay all their workers a professional salary with benefits and prioritize job security. I quit because community colleges help perpetuate the labor crisis in higher education by shortchanging adjunct faculty at a time when community colleges are in the national spotlight and positioned to collect more taxpayer dollars through, for instance, presidential candidates’ proposed free tuition plans. I quit because I lost respect for the administrators for whom I worked and that posed a conflict of interest. I quit because they never respected me. And I quit because my energy and intellect are better spent fixing the crisis instead of contributing to it while they walk all over me.
I briefly questioned whether or not I’d lament the loss of .edu affiliation and quickly realized there’s nothing prestigious about associating with a morally bankrupt system. Indeed, doing so goes against the grain of my personality and professional aims. Another inconvenience of quitting cold turkey is that I’ll have to pay to access research databases as an alumna at another institution. I’m not too worried about losing colleagues, because the majority of mine are fellow activists and students gained through social networks and membership in disciplinary and professional organizations. Ultimately, the personal and professional impact of not quitting, in my particular situation, far outweighs the benefits of staying.
This in no way suggests that adjunct colleagues should follow suit and quit their many gigs; rather, I believe they owe it to themselves, their students and their families to fight for better working and learning conditions. It’s often said that teaching is a calling, and it’s time to question whom we are currently serving. For me, questioning the system opened new pathways to fight for the reform and revaluation of higher education, and I’m well fitted for that. So please, adjuncts: fight for your profession. I’ll be fighting hard, too. Solidarity.
Washington State is leading the charge on part-time to full-time faculty conversions at community and technical colleges, which gives hope for authentic reform. House Bill 2615 is promising, but I’m unwilling to stick it out for another six years to see if the long-term strategic plan is passed and implemented. It’s a necessary step in the right direction, however, and this type of progressive governance signals positive change. This is certain: people power pressures legislators to write effective reform bills, so, readers, please keep up the pressure and cast informed votes.
I thank Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant for giving me the final push of courage to quit. She spoke at the Seattle University Fast for Justice action organized by Washington Faculty Forward on April 14. The rally united faculty members, students and allies who fasted for justice, called out Seattle U for the apparent hypocrisy of their mission versus practice and then joined in a multisector labor march on McDonald’s, Wells Fargo and Starbucks. Sawant is a former “severely underpaid” economics adjunct at Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College, and her words resonate with me: the system is “… fundamentally unjust and unacceptable. … This is a fight against the privatization and commodification of higher education” in a rigged economy.
Here I’ll borrow a quote from my adjunct colleague Alan Trevithick, who teaches at Fordham University and is deeply invested in the movement for adjunct justice and equity: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected -- the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative” (“The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). If the supposed best of colleges won’t behave according to doctrine, it should be all too clear that the worst are flat-out robbing students and faculty members.
When I hear people talk about deregulating higher education, I wonder where their motives lie. Students are severely shafted in this century’s subprime higher ed scheme through the rising cost of tuition, textbooks and incidental fees that make it impossible for most students to pay out of pocket. Community colleges used to be affordable, but now, 78 percent of first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid. And at two-year private nonprofit institutions, it spikes to 90 percent. This means many students face a lifetime of making impossible payments on high interest loans, and they need relief, now.
All things considered, the most reasonable and ethical decision for me is to quit because I have a full-time job that pays the bills and my core beliefs aren’t valued in this academy or any number of others that minimize the labor crisis. And I’m quitting for my colleagues across the nation who aren’t in a position to up and leave for other work that shows them the dignity and respect they’ve earned the hard way: the “right” way, according to the rules of American society. Well, as the American Association of University Professors confirms in “Higher Education at a Crossroads: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16”:
The majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force and graduate teaching assistants making up almost another 13 percent (part-time tenure-track positions make up about 1 percent of the academic labor force).
Undeniably, many faculty members also struggle to keep the heat on and gas in their cars to get between jobs. That is the reality of intentional economic hardship, and once it’s ended and we are able to reflect on it and regulate it, shame on the designers of failure.
Without doubt, the college will manage in my absence and immediately hire another qualified, flexible unit to pick up teaching where I leave off, because I am replaceable in the current system: we all are. I do hope students find this explanation and understand why I chose to quit the system that isn’t working for me or them in order to collaborate more effectively in the solution.
My employment agreement states: “This memo is not a contract for employment and may be rescinded should the class(es) be canceled or for any other reason,” quid pro quo. The total appointment amount for teaching two courses was for $7,086 spread out over 10 weeks. That’s $2,362 per month before taxes, which is approximately $4,000 to $5,000 less than many of my tenured colleagues with comparable Ph.D.s are paid per month. (Rates vary.) Overall, this institution paid me a measly $24,125 per year for nigh a decade of sustained service to the community college, with minor fluctuations. It’s hard to hold my tongue when I consider the cumulative effect of being underpaid.
Of course, I wasn’t expected to serve on committees, advise students, conduct research or publish, as full-time faculty are (all of which I did on my own accord, though, without pay). Honestly, I’m sadly burned out, as are no doubt thousands of part-time instructors nationwide who are extreme adjuncting to make a living in our gig economy. The bottom line is that labor exploitation is degrading and disrespectful. I’m quitting with my dignity, however, which really is all I had left to lose in the moral vacuum of the neoliberal university.
So what now? As Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth argue in The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, the higher education labor crisis isn’t caused by a glut of Ph.D.s: “To wit, there are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of Ph.D.s isn’t one of the major ones.” The authors move on to cite hiring practices as one of the ugly problems, concluding: “… if you don’t believe that a profession should abide by professional hiring practices, you have nothing to complain about when your profession finds itself deprofessionalized.” Indeed, institutions bear a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of students (stop calling them customers), which means they ought to raise the standards, invest in instruction and put an end to dodgy business practices that cheat students and faculty members. It’s important to stress here that Bérubé and Ruth’s proposed hiring practices include the revaluation of nonterminal degree holders, too. This is not a sweep.
Obviously, any viable proposal to raise the standards and fix the crisis will court trade-offs, and those may include the evaluation of cost drivers (such as nonessential administrative staff that pose a negative net worth to the institution), shrinking the faculty and maximizing labor efficiency, along with other cuts that free up funds that should be spent on quality instruction that leads to student success. What Henry. A Giroux calls the neoliberal war on higher education isn’t sustainable, and it’s time to reclaim it ethically and just as intentionally as the CEOs who crept in and jaded it with oppressive profit-over-mission business deals.
Back to quitting my McJob: it’s unremarkable how easy the physical severance is. That is, after a decade of teaching in this particular institution, I haven’t taken up any office space or accumulated any books or stacks of papers. In fact, the only physical trace of my presence that I’m leaving behind is a Faculty Forward Network “Invest in Instruction” sign that’s pinned to a portable wall in a shared office space. In time, my digital footprint will fade from the course schedule, adjunct faculty Listserv and so on, until it’s a memory of a chapter well spent with amazing students.
Higher education desperately needs to be revalued. Everyone with a hand in it needs to stop what they are doing -- which is often just maintaining the status quo -- take inventory of the $1.3 trillion in national federal and private educational debt and do something to change it.
I am not an adjunct anymore. You’ll find me in the streets at labor rallies and marches and @TiffanySKraft, with a laser focus on higher education and the rigged economy.
Tiffany Kraft is a former adjunct and current higher education activist/organizer with Faculty Forward Network. All statements and views in this piece are her own.