QUEBEC CITY – The clouds of the financial downturn may have a silver lining for activist adjuncts hoping to make progress toward better wages and working conditions.
Though adjuncts certainly haven’t been spared by the economic storm – plenty have lost jobs or had their salaries reduced – tenured faculty, typically insulated from their institutions’ financial hardships, have suffered too. So when the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, an informal group of activists for non-tenure track faculty interests from across North America, met here this weekend, it wasn’t that life for the typical adjunct had gotten any better, it was just that the lives of tenured faculty had gotten worse.
The budget cuts, wage reductions, furloughs, layoffs and hiring freezes that have dominated since COCAL last met in the summer of 2008  have brought the dire picture of higher education that has long dominated adjuncts’ discussions to a broader population and, with that, greater will to bring about change.
As always at adjunct gatherings, there was some talk of agitating for job security, academic freedom and better compensation on their own, without the support of the major faculty unions or tenured faculty at their own institutions, but sessions here were largely dominated by notion that “solidarity” among the tenured and the nontenured (and, if possible, students and parents, too) had begun to emerge.
“We’re presuming we’re all in a ship and it’s sinking,” said Susan Michalczyk, an adjunct associate professor at Boston College who is president of the college’s fledgling chapter of the American Association of University Professors. She’s been able to attract tenured faculty to the group in part because the college has no official faculty governance structure to have a say in where administrators make cuts.
Cary Nelson, AAUP’s national president, said “it was not long ago that I would have said very little evidence exists to show that tenured faculty give a damn about anyone else.” But that, he said, is beginning to change as administrators take red ink to more than just their adjunct budgets. “The challenge of solidarity has become more acute.”
The AAUP at the University of Northern Iowa, for example, Nelson said, agreed to furloughs in exchange for pay raises for non-tenure track faculty. AAUP also distributed a report calling for institutions  to offer adjuncts conversion to tenure to restabilize the academic workforce.
Not everyone was quite as optimistic. “Full-timers still hate us,” an adjunct from California said on Sunday at a closing plenary session that was, as the conference program billed it, about “developing solidarity on all levels.” He added: “Until we change the full-time paradigm we’re still going to be struggling.” Some in the crowd nodded in agreement.
Maria Peluso, president of the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Union in Montreal, said she didn’t see much support from tenured faculty, either. “I sit at negotiating table meetings with full-time faculty fighting me,” she said. “During negotiations nobody supports us.”
But tenured faculty are becoming a smaller proportion of those who teach, at least at U.S. colleges and universities. A 2007 AAUP survey found that nearly 70 percent of teaching faculty were working off the tenure track. As tenured faculty lose their dominance in numbers – even while retaining their overall power – some may see adjuncts as a threat, others as allies, and still others may remain completely unaware of just how big a role adjuncts play in teaching American undergraduates.
Nelson said he doesn’t “encounter much hate” from tenured faculty about adjunct issues, just “a hell of a lot of indifference and … some contentment.” More solidarity between groups within higher ed, he said, “will come as a result of pressure from below.”
Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-AFT, a group that links lectures and librarians at several University of California Campuses, said it was the responsibility of adjunct activists to convince tenured faculty that non-tenure track issues were also in their self-interest. “Basically force the tenured” to support the non-tenured in their advocacy work, he said.
Some strategies that emerged over the course of the weekend: Stop by a tenured faculty friend’s office with a cup of coffee and share some of the concerns that adjuncts on campus have. Share those concerns with students. Orchestrate media campaigns that get the support of parents and the general public. Support other unions – on campus or off – in their negotiations, protests and strikes; if and when the time comes, they’ll likely reciprocate.
Ask a group of adjunct activists what they hope their work would one day achieve and their answers would be varied, at least rhetorically. Some would say tenure, others would say tenure in all but name, others would say a tenure-like structure with evaluation based primarily on teaching, others just greater job security and higher wages.
But their interests boil down to a few core objectives: Higher pay, preferably equal to that of similarly-situated tenure-track faculty. Job security, preferably a job for life. Academic freedom. Equitable representation in unions, committees, faculty senates and associations. Better access to unemployment insurance. Conversion of current adjunct positions to permanent positions.
On Saturday, New Faculty Majority released a draft of its 20-year plan toward the “normalization” of the academic workforce and the eventual elimination of the two-tiered system of the tenure-tracked and everyone else. Whether that leads to tenure or something else is up to interpretation and further revisions.
For all the goals articulated by NFM and by COCAL attendees more broadly -- some acknowledge that they may take decades to come to fruition -- many current activists are unwilling to write off themselves and their generation.
At a session on access to tenure, Holly Clarke, an adjunct at the City University of New York, said she thought current adjuncts should only “embrace versions of conversion that are conversion without competition” with other, likely younger job candidates. “Those of us who have taught for a long time … should not at the end of it have to compete.… We will lose out in most competitions.”
Plenty of people at COCAL, especially those with decades of experience as adjunct labor advocates, are unsure of whether NFM, an 18-month-old group that aims to bring together adjuncts regardless of union affiliation, will be any more successful than other short-lived groups that were founded with a determination to make waves in higher education.
Nelson said he thinks the adjunct movement can get closest to achieving its goals by working with unions and other groups that represent faculty members on and off the tenure track.
At its most essential, the argument was to make the concerns of adjuncts fit into a broader story line about the crises facing higher education. They railed against the “neoliberal” and corporate university – an institution where new classrooms are built without funding for academic programs to fill them, where a few top administrators get paid more than the entire contingent labor force, where tuition hikes don’t amount to greater instructional spending.
In Canada, where higher education is almost exclusively public, “financial privatization is setting us up for a model that is not sustainable,” said David Robinson, associate director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. He cited the introduction of public-private partnerships – especially language pathway programs  – and the emphasis on lower costs for “consumers, who we used to call students,” as examples of the privatization and corporatization of public universities.
Lawrence N. Gold, the AFT’s director of higher education, voiced concerns about the rise of for-profit higher education in the United States and the sector’s so-far successful attempts to block the unionization of their faculties, which are, by and large, composed of adjuncts. “We talk about the for-profit sector a lot in terms of organizing,” he said. “It is without a doubt the toughest nut to crack … because increasingly they’re conglomerates.”
Faculty at the Art Institutes in Seattle, owned by the publicly traded Education Management Corporation, tried unsuccessfully to form an AFT chapter this spring,  and though the national union thought the vote to unionize would be successful, “afterward we found they were all called in one by one by their supervisors and told, ‘You don’t want this.’ ”
For now, most of the union’s efforts on for-profits are focused in “the political realm,” Gold said. “The whole point is their bad behavior isn’t a matter of bad apples. It’s endemic to the whole enterprise.”
Betsy Smith, of Cape Cod Community College, said she has observed the emergence of “anti-intellectualism” that does little to differentiate education from training and, disappointingly to her, “Obama has come down on the side of training.” (Even if, in the view of the for-profit higher education sector, Obama’s Department of Education is decidedly opposed to career education.)
Vinnie Tirelli, an adjunct at Brooklyn College and one of COCAL’s founders, described higher education in the United States as “a kind of neoliberalism with a liberal face” that threatens the country.
“I don’t want to be overdramatic,” he said, “but this really is a fight for the fate of civilization.”