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Equality for Adjuncts
When it comes to the faculty, separate tracks can’t be equal. That’s the argument prominent adjunct activists make in a new anthology edited by Keith Hoeller, a longtime adjunct professor of philosophy at Green River Community College in Washington and vocal critic of the “two-tier” system of adjunct and tenure-line employment. Through historical references and rhetoric, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press) presents adjuncts’ struggle for better working conditions in what they see as an inherently unfair system as civil rights issue. It also discusses examples of and other opportunities for reform.
“[The] two-track system in academe does set up two entirely separate, but unequal, tiers in which the upper tier, the tenure track, is treated in a vastly superior manner to the lower tier, the non-tenure track, which is treated as inferior,” Hoeller says in his essay, “The Academic Labor System of Faculty Apartheid.”
He adds: “Higher education is not simply another commodity produced by American factories; it is the building block of our culture and democracy.”
Hoeller uses the term “tenurism” (drawing on Robert Fuller’s discussion of “rankism” in his book, Somebodies and Nobodies) to describe what he sees as the systematic subjugation of adjuncts – under which they’re denied the same per-course pay, benefits, job security and working conditions as their tenure-track counterparts.
Lantz Simpson, a tenured professor of English at Santa Monica College who taught for nearly 20 years off the tenure track, makes a similar argument in his essay, “The New Abolition Movement.”
“My proposal is simply this: the current, two-tiered system, mired in contingency, should be replaced with the systematic regularization of faculty — that is, contingent faculty routinely moving onto the tenure track and thereby achieving full-time tenured status throughout the country,” he says.
Hoeller said in an interview that he’s been reading everything he can about adjunct labor for more than 20 years as an activist, and has written about it, as well – including in op-eds in this publication and The New York Times. But so far, the contingent faculty movement has focused on various, specific inequities, particularly low per-course pay, compared to tenure-line professors, and called for “incremental” improvements.
In other words, it hasn’t gotten to the root of the problem.
“Time and again, it seemed clear that the source of the problem was the two-track system,” he said. “Once you divide the faculty into two, and treat the tenure track better than the non-tenure track, all the other inequities flow from this division.”
Hoeller wanted to the book to be a philosophical analysis of that division, with discussions about examples of and opportunities for “transformation,” he said. “I centered the book around the idea of equality and I looked for examples of it.”
His essay proposes the creation of an American Anti-Contingency Association, dedicated to the abolition of the two-tier system and “equality for all professors, whose teaching should be judged on merit, not on the tenure status held by the individual.” He advocates for a single salary scale for all professors and a single set of procedures for job security and grievances. Whether at professor teaches part time or full time should be at his or her discretion, he says.
One of the book’s most provocative arguments comes from Frank Donoghue in, “Do College Teachers Have to Be Scholars?” Donoghue, a tenured professor of English at Ohio State University and author of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, asks what “holds adjuncts in their places for minimum wage,” despite having nearly the same jobs as their better-compensated tenure-line counterparts. He says the pervasive “myth of meritocracy” plays a role, as does the prestige associated with the profession – scholarship, in particular (for which most adjuncts don’t have time and aren’t compensated).
Donoghue says that college teachers should be scholars but calls for a broadening of the notion of scholarship beyond articles and monographs, “the preponderance of which go... unread." (Donoghue cites Ernest Boyer, who makes the same argument but extending well beyond adjuncts in his Scholarship Reconsidered.)
In an ideal world, he says, pedagogy – including class preparation and reading groups -- also would be recognized by administrators as scholarship, leveling the playing field for adjuncts, who today do most of the teaching.
“The tradition of published scholarship would not die out; it simply would be brought into balance because it no longer would be measured as a credential, but rather as some other more idealistic aspect of our intellectual life,” Donoghue says. “And the people making use of that scholarship would be recognized as scholars themselves, as they should be.”
Don Eron, a non-tenure-track, full-time professor of writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder and member of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, argues that the playing field would best be leveled by granting adjunct instructors in good standing tenure after a similar number of years as an assistant professorship.
In “The Case for Instructor Tenure,” Eron argues that most adjuncts’ “at-will” employment status is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of academic freedom. That lack of academic freedom ultimately threatens the profession as a whole – not just adjuncts, he says. (Eron advocated unsuccessfully for this to be adopted at his institution, which he recounts.)
“Instructor tenure is a natural correction to the trend that began  years ago of replacing retired tenured faculty with less expensive contingent faculty in order to achieve a more flexible workforce in times of budgetary constraints and curricular change,” he says. “The unintended consequence of employing faculty who specialize in teaching, but do so without academic freedom protected by due process, plausible avenues for participating in shared governance, or an appreciable commitment to their professionalism, has been the corrosion of undergraduate education.”
The two-tier system hasn’t been wholly eliminated within the California State University system, but its faculty has what Hoeller called “the best union contract in the U.S.” for adjuncts. (Many others have said the same, as adjuncts in good standing there have access to health insurance and long-term contracts, among other benefits largely denied to their counterparts elsewhere). Elizabeth Hoffman, and adjunct professor of English at the California State University at Long Beach, and John Hess, a retired organizer within the California Faculty Association, wrote the book’s first essay, on just how the original, adjunct-friendly contract was won for the association, in 2002. The association, affiliated with the AAUP, National Education Association and Service Employees International Union, represents both adjuncts and tenure-line professors.
Despite initial acrimony between the two groups, the authors say, harmony seemed to follow the parity in benefits and working conditions that was achieved through an “inside-outside” organizing strategy.
“This means that we organized within the [association] with all the resources available to us and, at the same time, we went outside the traditional [association] statewide and campus-based lines of command to confront our campus administrators, to develop parallel forms of lobbying, and to reach out to other contingent faculty."
Those in the who contributed to the volume speak with pride about its result.
Eron, of Boulder, said “there’s nothing like this book” among the existing literature on adjuncts, noting its thorough overview of the adjunct labor movement and focus on the what he called the “big three” ideas or models to emerge through it: the California Faculty Association; instructor tenure; and Vancouver Community College (at which the two-track system has been eliminated; how that was achieved is the subject of another essay).
“Taken together, the essays in this book comprise a history of the first 20 years of the contingent faculty movement,” he said. “That is why I think the book has a chance to be of lasting significance."
Hoffman, of the California Faculty Association, said via email that Hoeller’s book “addresses the inequity of the two-tier system in higher education, a system which not only exploits the 70 percent of the faculty with contingent appointments but cheats the current and future generations of students in profound and long-lasting ways.” The book also offers “pragmatic and evidence-based plans for overcoming this inequity,” she said.
The association model is far from perfect, Hoffman added, but it's a start.
Hoeller said the book’s biggest takeaway is that the adjunct faculty movement is really a civil rights movement. If equality for all faculty really matters, he said, “we should be against tenurism just as much as we are against racism and sexism. Contingent faculty are not inferior. They are equal and should be treated as such.”
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