Alternative Approach for Adjuncts

Contingent labor is here to stay, Bob Zemsky argues, but instead of organizing, part timers should incorporate.
April 18, 2007

Robert Zemsky is, as he himself puts it, "one hell of a dinosaur throwback." He attended one college, went right to grad school, got a Ph.D. and spent a lifetime working for one and only one university. Forty years later, professors like Zemsky -- full time, tenured -- are on their way to extinction, making up only 30 percent of all college instructors.

Like many of the faculty members, union organizers and others who attended the annual meeting of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, held at City University of New York's Baruch College this week, Zemsky, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is widely recognized as one of the country's best thinkers about higher education, doesn't like that trend line. While academic unions are increasingly trying to rally part-time instructors to organize, partly for better part-time benefits but almost always with the goal of restoring more full-time faculty lines -- seeking a "revolution," as Zemsky termed it in the keynote speech he gave Tuesday -- that horse has left the barn, he argued.

"Our world has been made more contingent by the simple economics of our business," said Zemsky, who noted that adjunct issues -- hell, faculty issues generally -- got little or no attention from the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, of which he was a member. The academic research enterprise has been built for decades on the backs of postdoctoral researchers, many of whom get burnt out as they accumulate two or even three appointments without gaining a permanent job. In search of potential cash machines, he argued, colleges and universities have turned with growing frequency to postbacclaureaute certificate and master's degree programs in high-demand fields, which are typically staffed with adjuncts with specialized knowledge who can be dropped when demand shifts to the next big thing.

And is it at all surprising that a student body that itself is increasingly transient, filled with students who might change institutions three or four times, doesn't seem to get too worked up that the professors, too, are "swirling" from one institution to another? "When you've got contingent students, the notion that 'I was Professor Zemsky's student' loses some of its reality," he said.

Given those realities, Zemsky argued, "how can [we] expect a singular, older labor model to work?" Rather than trying to turn back the clock, which is an unwinnable proposition, he suggested, "the slogan in the world we're talking about ought not to be a call to organize -- it ought to be a call to incorporate."

Incorporate? Adjuncts? You could almost read those words in the quizzical looks on the faces of the audience members.

The contingent academic work force "has real skills and fulfills real needs," Zemsky explained, particularly in high-demand fields such as foreign languages, math,  and science for non-scientists. Instead of organizing one employer at a time, he said, what would happen if groups of adjunct instructors formed a cooperative in which they marketed and sold their services to all institutions in a city or area (instructors of Chinese and Russian in Chicago, say, or math instructors in the Bay Area). "I'm amazed that there hasn't been this sort of market impulse to take advantage of the phenomenon that actually benefits those who provide the services," he argued.

Zemsky acknowledged that he didn't know exactly how such an arrangement would work, mechanically, or even if it would work; "I'm just a guy who makes the speeches," he said self-deprecatingly. But given that we now have the "worst of all worlds," where the number of adjuncts is growing and they feel "unloved" and "disposable," doesn't it make sense to be "thinking of alternate ways of making this system work?" he asked the assembled.

The labor leaders and others in the crowd seemed not quite sure what to make of Zemsky's idea. One -- responding to a suggestion Zemsky made at one point that perhaps colleges themselves could create such cooperatives, to help them respond better to their collective, shifting curricular needs -- said she didn't think instructors could trust administrators "not to look just at the bottom line." She envisioned a "union hiring hall" approach like that used in craft unions, "where we negotiate with administrators who pay to ensure that we get the benefits we really need."

As he was running out the door at the end of the speech, Zemsky said, he was approached by one adjunct instructor who said he was two years away from retirement. The instructor said he had an idea for making the cooperative approach work, Zemsky said with a smile.


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