Creating a National Voice for Adjuncts

Leaders from a variety of institutions and organizations hope to establish advocacy group with sole focus on those off the tenure track.
February 20, 2009

Some of the leading activists on behalf of adjuncts are planning Sunday to formally create an organization that would speak solely on behalf of those off the tenure track.

The new group -- currently with the working name of the National Coalition for Adjunct Equity -- would seek to perform a role that its organizers feel existing groups do not. In recent years, all three national faculty unions as well as some disciplinary associations have focused increased attention on those off the tenure track. But these organizations also represent full-time faculty members, and many adjuncts feel that full-time perspectives dominate. And while there is a Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, known as COCAL, that group has largely focused on periodic national and regional meetings, not day-to-day advocacy on behalf of adjuncts.

At the COCAL meeting last year in San Diego, some adjuncts pushed to turn that group into a more structured organization, but the idea didn't take off.

While the new group is still being defined, those involved with the effort say that they anticipate a group that would create a forum and platform to advocate solely for those who are adjuncts. Organizers see the group as an important addition to existing organizations, but say that they aren't trying to replace the unions or to engage in collective bargaining. Several of those involved in the new effort are involved in the unions; others involved have been critics of unions, while still others are in states where unionizing isn't much of an option.

Those involved with the discussions to create the group note several conditions facing non-tenure-track faculty today. First, many of them are losing jobs, as colleges and universities are dealing with budget cuts in part by eliminating their slots. Even if, as many expect, some of these adjuncts are hired back later, they are receiving non-renewal notices now -- in many cases after years of stable employment. Second, many say that while they appreciate the increased attention of unions and academic organizations, they want an organization that they run. And third, some of those involved say that they do not view their adjunct status as temporary (even if they would like to), but as permanent.

A common theme among those calling for the new group is the idea that adjuncts must take the lead on their own treatment, and not rely on others -- an idea expressed in a recent column in Inside Higher Ed by Gregory Zobel, a California adjunct who is among those organizing the new group.

Deborah Louis, one of those involved in organizing the group, said her career has been as an adjunct and she currently teaches online for Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, in North Carolina, and Eastern Kentucky University. "My notion of this group is as a national umbrella organization that can be a voice for adjuncts," she said. When she and her colleagues are working on adjunct issues at a particular campus, she said, she would like a group to provide national perspective, public relations help and research.

"We need more support so those of us in the field aren't easily dismissed," she said.

Ross Borden, a lecturer in English at the State University of New York at Cortland, said he hopes that a national group would pave the way for "national employment practices" that might highlight how "really disgraceful" the treatment of some adjuncts has become. "The appalling inequities need attention," he said.

Borden has attended COCAL conferences and found them valuable, but said he wants "a permanent structure." And Borden serves on the part-timers committee of the United University Professions, the State University of New York's faculty union, which is part of the American Federation of Teachers. While Borden praised his union for backing adjunct rights, he said most leaders of the group are tenure-track faculty members with a certain perspective as a result. "I support tenure and the organizations that support tenure," he said. But those without tenure need to be pushing models to protect their rights, he said.

The new organization "is not a substitute" for the unions, he said.

Others involved in the group are more critical of the unions. Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and one of those involved in the new organization, said that when discussions started, he articulated his views on why a national adjunct group is needed in a statement. "Despite the past 12 years of adjunct activism in North America, the two-tiered apartheid system is firmly ensconced in academe. At every turn, it advantages the tenure stream faculty, while leaving adjuncts among the seriously disadvantaged," he wrote.

He went on to say that progress has been too slow, showing the need for an adjunct-led movement. "As I write this, thousands of adjunct faculty have already lost their jobs in this recession, and tens of thousands face dismissal as the recession worsens," he said. "When they lose their jobs, they lose their health care (if they ever had it), and they are hassled at the unemployment office where the colleges seek to deny them aid on the grounds that they have a kind of job security they never had, and certainly do not have now. Contingent faculty do not have the luxury of taking small incremental steps; major change now is a necessity for us if our young movement is to survive."


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