Ever Vulnerable Adjuncts

Those who think the Ward Churchill controversy demonstrates the resilience of tenure's protections need to think about those without tenure, writes Dan Skinner.

June 7, 2005

That Ward Churchill has become synonymous with the cause of academic freedom is a mixed blessing for non-tenured college instructors. Churchill, an ethnic studies professor from the University of Colorado at Boulder, famously characterized some of those who died on September 11 as “little Eichmanns,” arguing that militarism abroad and fixation with capitalism at home had implicated many Americans in the attacks.

Even though many disagree with him politically, academics across the political spectrum overwhelmingly agree that Churchill should not be punished or fired for having made controversial statements. After several attempts, the Colorado Board of Regents determined that it could take no action against Churchill for his comments because he is tenured. It is little noted, however, that Churchill won a victory for the institution of tenure, but not academic freedom.

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), about 44.5% of teachers in American higher education are "contingent" -- non-tenure-track professors and adjuncts. Adjuncts, in particular (I am one), are classified as "part-time," but often teach an equivalent of full-time course loads, currently teaching about 20 percent  of courses nationally. They usually work without benefits, such as health insurance, and often outside the bounds of contracts. More often than not, they are excluded from campus decision-making bodies and faculty meetings.

In public universities, which are particularly and woefully under funded, adjuncts may constitute more than 50 percent of the faculty. At the City University of New York’s community colleges, for example, over 60 percent of classes are taught by adjuncts. As is often noted, this trend is on a sharp incline, as retiring professors are increasingly replaced by adjuncts. At CUNY, depending on how many courses adjuncts teach, as many as five or six adjuncts can be hired for the same price as one permanent faculty member.

Despite these trends, defenders of the academy seldom note that adjuncts are almost completely unprotected from charges associated with the content of their lectures. Since, as in Churchill’s case, academic freedom was defended by asserting contractual protections afforded by tenure, and not professional norms, those without the legal coverage that tenure provides are vulnerable. As a further result, the question of academic freedom has not been brought into discussions about the general labor practices of academe. With fewer professors being hired to tenure-track positions, the safeguards of academic freedom apply to an increasingly small percentage of faculty members.

Churchill’s case makes these vulnerabilities clear. Though the protections afforded by tenure have been affirmed in his defense, the University of Colorado board is now investigating whether or not Churchill was rightly awarded tenure in the first place, looking into allegations of plagiarism and the possibility that he misidentified himself as a Native American in order to benefit from affirmative action. The board recognizes that only by peeling away Churchill’s tenure can it remove him.

One can imagine how universities would likely respond to public charges against adjuncts to whom they have virtually no legal responsibility. Because of the power of alumni donations, not to mention state legislatures, it is more expedient for colleges to dismiss adjuncts and other contingent faculty than to fight and garner negative publicity. Technically, public colleges do have a legal obligation to protect the freedom of speech of their employees, but charges against professors can produce a more insidious effect: adjuncts, who are appointed on a semester-by-semester basis, are simply not invited back.

This is no mere conspiracy - such cases have occurred across the United States for reasons ranging from political affiliations to religious expression. In April, for example, as Inside Higher Ed reported, Indiana Institute of Technology forced Mark Tschaepe to apologize after two students complained that he had assigned a philosophy essay on pornography to his class. Tschaepe was not reassigned to teach the following semester. Similarly, John Jay College of CUNY decided not to reappoint Susan Rosenberg, a former member of the Weather Underground convicted of weapons possession, and pardoned by President Clinton, to its adjunct faculty after she had taught for four semesters. According to the AAUP, the decision was made without "specific academic grounds for rejecting the wish of her faculty colleagues to reappoint her" and was a response to “pressure groups that seek to dictate personnel and curricular decision.”

Many adjuncts fear that students may record lectures or take notes to trigger actions like these, and the results of laboring under these conditions are palpable. In the wake of charges of anti-Semitism at Columbia University, for example, attorney and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, told the conservative Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting that “There are some dangers, of course, in having all classes recorded, but I think on balance, the benefits outweigh the dangers.”

Such activities are not only encouraged, but are in some cases funded. David Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture, with dozens of local campus chapters called Students for Academic Freedom, have set out to document, publicize and pursue the purported indiscretions of instructors. Horowitz’s organization’s goals include fighting “the leftist, anti-American, elitist culture [and exposing] the idiocies and the viciousness of the radical leftism in universities, the media, mainstream churches, and everywhere else this modern plague is found.” This March, a Florida House committee voted 8-2 in favor of an “Academic Freedom Bill of Rights” in part based on the Horowitz model (though the bill later died in the Senate). Part of the goal of those who voted for it is to weed out “leftist totalitarianism” propagated by “dictator professors.” In addition, Web sites such as ratemyprofessor.com and campuswatch.org are rife with allegations of bias, many of which are unchecked, undocumented and posted anonymously.

These efforts turn the classroom into a potential site of surveillance, and not open engagement and discussion. Even the possibility of students reporting on their instructors changes the way adjuncts teach. It is tempting, for example, to soften the content of lectures to avoid potential accusations of bias, losing the sharpness of thought that universities pride themselves on. Paradoxically, this tension is most intense at exactly those moments when interpretive courage is most pedagogically (not to mention intellectual) valuable. This is particularly true, as I have witnessed this year, when teaching sensitive texts as the Bible or Koran as political works. While lecturing about Moses’ leadership style, for example, and considering the purely political and Machiavellian tactics of his actions in leading the Jews to the Promised Land, I found myself thinking: should I help them draw the conclusions that the text seems to suggest, or should I be more careful, and prevaricate? I opted for the former, but not without concern.

Worse still, this fear increases the division between students and teachers, and strains the trust that is essential for both teaching and learning. Many students sense intellectual dishonesty and hesitation immediately. But as most adjuncts are working toward full-time positions themselves -- reaching for the job stability and benefits that they lack -- there is a particular fear that charges against them could damage their professional reputations and chances for real employment. The institutional forces to which contingent faculty are subjected, in short, encourages trading analytic rigor for long-term career interests -- an intellectual Faustian bargain of the worst sort.

While the protection of tenure is a crucial component of the long term interests of all educators, almost 50 percent of American university instructors are vulnerable to immediate attack. This point has been lost in the wake of the Churchill affair, just as groups seeking to attack freedom of speech in the academy regard Churchill’s triumph as a glaring validation of the seriousness of their cause. These groups were steeled by Churchill’s victory, and are mobilizing with renewed energy and purpose. This reason alone should make colleges think seriously about how they will protect all of their faculty members.


Dan Skinner is an adjunct instructor of political theory at Hunter College, City University of New York, and a Ph.D. student in political science at the CUNY Graduate Center. He also has a blog, Parsing the Political.


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