For Adjuncts, Progress and Complexities

As activists gather from across North America, they point to breakthrough contracts -- but face tensions over unions' role and how to best make their case.
August 11, 2008

A few years ago, sessions at gatherings of adjunct leaders featured a sort of one-upmanship of horror stories. Activists would trade tales of the worst abuses, the most impoverished scholars and so forth. On Saturday, at a national gathering of adjunct leaders, one session almost turned into a boasting session of how successful some unions have been in winning job security and other rights for faculty members off the tenure track.

At one point, those present talked about the problem of achieving job security close enough to tenure that it might be called "tenure light" or "de facto tenure" without using language that might upset those who have tenure.

Such conversations just didn't used to happen at these meetings.

But even as participants at the biennial meeting of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, which took place over the weekend at San Diego State University, relished in these success stories, they considered real tensions in the movement.

Many of the notable successes discussed at the meeting come out of collective bargaining with national education unions. But some of the leaders of the adjunct movement are suspicious of the national unions, and in some cases downright hostile to them -- questioning whether they can have true solidarity with groups that are working to create more full-time, tenure-track jobs and aren't focused solely on those off the tenure track.

In addition to considering who best represents their interests, adjuncts are worried about how to frame arguments on their behalf. One of the most sensitive issues -- talked about both in formal sessions at the meeting and in informal hallway discussions -- was what to say about the idea that students benefit when they have full-time, tenure-track professors. The idea is sharply contested by some adjuncts, called oversimplified by others, and seen by still others as an opportunity to improve working conditions and pay for contingent faculty members.

The discussions took place against a backdrop of other realities: Even as there are more success stories than perhaps ever before for adjuncts, there remains in the academic work force a large cohort of people working without any job security, without health insurance, and without pay that would get close to middle class. And the economic downturn currently hitting most of the country can make non-tenure-track jobs even less secure and the fight for new benefits more difficult.

"We are the marginalized, unappreciated second-class citizens of the academy," said Jonathan Karpf, a lecturer in anthropology at San Jose State University, who noted that although he has taught four or five courses a semester there since 1987, he is still considered "part-time, temporary faculty." Higher education, he said, must confront the "glaring disparities and inequities between the tenured faculty and the tenuous faculty."

Successes in Bargaining

Some of the questions fielded by Robert Samuels, president of the University of California lecturers' union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, suggested that audience members thought the contract provisions his union had won were literally too good to be true. More than one person, after the session, talked about the contract as a "gold standard" for non-tenure track professors.

After six years, UC lecturers now have a presumed reappointment, and can be dismissed only for narrowly specified reasons -- criteria the university has yet to use successfully. The grievance procedure is structured so that it includes independent decision making. This, Samuels said, is a huge difference from the norm for adjunct complaints, which have historically tended to go against them because "you always got to the point where the person who screwed you over made the final decision."

In a provision that responds to the sense that at at many campuses a complaining parent or a false rumor on can ruin an adjunct's career, Samuels said that lecturers in his union cannot be dismissed or punished on the sole basis of student evaluations.

Across the University of California system, close to 1,000 lecturers (out of the 3,000 in the union) now have continuing status. Samuels, who teaches in the writing program at UCLA, described his program as one in which most decisions are made by a staff composed entirely of lecturers, who evaluate one another, manage the program's budget, and are given curricular responsibilities based on their expertise.

Samuels noted that the gains won by his union didn't come at once, but over 25 years of incremental progress. He said patience was important. "A lot of union organizers or academics want all or nothing -- the same job security or nothing," he said. But his union's success wouldn't have happened that way. "You can't get everything right off the bat," he said. But you can come back, with more ambition, time after time.

The University of California lecturers aren't the only non-tenure-track professors with more job security. Debbie Hlady, who teaches composition at Camosun College, in British Columbia, said that the province-wide union there won procedures for adjuncts to be to be "regularized" as early as after completing two years of work. (Adjuncts are called "non-regular" in the British Columbia system. The adjunct coalition features participants from Canada and Mexico and is very committed to the idea that their issues cross national borders.)

Hlady pointed to a key in British Columbia: The union won the gains by "striking while the iron was hot" and a union-friendly government was in power. She said she doubted the adjuncts could have won that gain today -- and said it was important for adjuncts to be organized enough to take advantage of windows of opportunity.

Alan Shiller, president of the non-tenure-track faculty union at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, described a process his National Education Association-affiliated union won for adjuncts to be given the status of "established" after teaching 36 credit hours.

Such faculty members get the rights, among other things, to have seniority on course assignments, and the "right of first refusal" on courses they have taught in the past. He also said that the adjuncts are protected from "the power of the department secretary." He said that until the union raised the issue, course assignments were routinely being made by secretaries, who if they couldn't reach someone after one call, just went to someone else.

He said that tackling these issues created "real job security" for members.

Concerns Despite the Gains

So with all of these union-achieved successes, why was it so easy to hear union-skepticism or union-bashing at the conference? Much of the anger comes from slights that adjunct activists continue to feel not so much from unions but from tenured professors. A part-time professor talks about a tenured union leadership at her campus that isn't interested in working on these issues, and denies her resources to do the work herself. Stories (off the record -- wouldn't want to offend the powerful tenured professors, of course) abound of ways that some tenured professors make it clear to adjuncts that they may have their sympathy, but not their respect as true colleagues.

People talk about being told that they aren't needed at department meetings, or that they lack "the latest research" when jobs open up -- even at colleges that are teaching institutions. And people talk about contracts where the tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty members receive the same percentage increases, even though one group is starting on a much higher base.

And that leads to a big policy issue that was lingering in many discussions: the campaign led by AFT for Faculty and College Excellence. The campaign has twin goals of improving adjunct pay and benefits and of adding more full-time, tenure track positions. Many of the adjuncts here -- some of whom have been working off the tenure track for 15 or more years -- doubt that they will ever get those new jobs, especially "conversion" jobs where part-time slots are combined to create full-time positions.

While union leaders have argued repeatedly that they are focused on both parts of the campaign, there are plenty of adjuncts who would prefer a focus solely on immediate gains for their job category.

Perhaps the most outspoken voice for that perspective comes from Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington State Part-Time Faculty Association and chair of the Adjunct Faculty Committee of the Washington State Conference of the American Association of University Professors.

In an interview at the conference, Hoeller argued that the gains at the University of California and elsewhere are to be applauded, but that collective bargaining can only go so far. "To solve some of these problems campus by campus will take decades, with uneven results," he said. Hoeller's focus is on legislation -- specific measures states can pass that equalize pay for adjuncts and lift caps of the percentage of a full-time load that adjuncts can teach.

Such measures, he said, will directly improve the working conditions of adjuncts in a much broader, consistent way.

Some of those at the meeting share Hoeller's view. Several people involved in campus-based adjunct groups said privately that they are somewhere in between Hoeller and the national unions -- seeing real gains for adjuncts coming from the unions, but arguing that Hoeller and those like him keep up pressure for the unions to do more. Vinny Tirelli, one of the founders of COCAL, as the coalition is called, said he sees the group playing an "outsider/insider" strategy with the unions, similar to the role played by ethnic labor councils when national unions didn't embrace the diversity of American workers, working with unions whenever possible, but prodding them when appropriate.

COCAL in fact has close ties to unions and national higher education faculty groups -- and gets plenty of attention from them. The head of the higher education division of the AFT was here. The president of the AAUP was here. Representatives of the NEA were here. The list of gold and silver sponsors of the gathering was almost entirely made up of the national unions and their affiliates -- the very groups some adjuncts like to bash.

Hoeller acknowledged tensions over the issue. "How do you have a strong, independent COCAL if it is dependent on unions for funds? It's a dilemma."

The Quality Issue

Another issue that adjunct leaders clearly are ambivalent about is the debate over the relationship between use of non-tenure-track faculty members and the quality of education. Anyone at the meeting could rattle off a list of reasons -- having nothing to do with the quality or commitment of adjuncts -- that make it difficult to compare their performance with those of tenure-track faculty members. But the quality issue is attracting some attention -- and it is cited by public colleges in pushing states to provide more full-time, tenure-track lines.

Steve Street, who teaches at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, said that the quality debate is "complex and nuanced," but is reduced in headlines to unfair characterizations of adjuncts. He said that two recent studies about the issue in fact hadn't characterized adjuncts as poor teachers, but that headlines about the studies had implied as much.

Further, he said that when his union and others lobby for full-time slots, they encourage this view. The key difference, Street said, is "that we are not around as much," because so many adjuncts work at multiple campuses or lack offices. So the focus on the issue hasn't helped adjuncts, and has created "the perception that the difference in quality is clear."

Tirelli, the COCAL co-founder, who is adjunct professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, said he was quite open to talking about quality comparisons -- and said that adjuncts could use such discussions strategically -- even though some adjuncts "get offended" by the raising the issue.

For example, he noted that the CUNY faculty union in 2002 framed the issue of paid office hours for adjuncts in terms of students' educational experience. And in that round of contract negotiations, the part timers won pay for office hours. Because there is overwhelming evidence that students gain when they have more opportunities outside of class to interact with professors, Tirelli said, advocates for adjuncts should put the issue out there -- and demand pay so that adjuncts can help their students.

At the same time, Tirelli said that the quality issue points to broader political questions. To the extent that people point out the difference in the quality of education between institutions that use many adjuncts and those that don't, Tirelli said, others must note that the "use of part-time and contingent faculty corresponds" with the demographics of higher education.

If you attend a community college or an urban public institution -- the institutions most likely to serve minority, low-income or educationally disadvantaged students -- you are more likely to be taught by adjuncts, Tirelli said.

Focusing just on so-called quality issues, he said, without asking why some colleges have the money to pay instructors who have office hours and better facilities and better support, is to miss the larger point. "This is an insidiously class-based system," he said. "The contingent academic system has its roots in politics, not economics."


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