Confessions of a Tenured Professor
Peter D.G. Brown writes about how he ignored adjunct issues for years, and why he's now become an activist for those off the tenure track.
I must confess right off that I did not become a contingent labor activist until I turned 60, a mere six years ago. Until then, I was a fairly typical senior professor, passionately involved in teaching my students and interacting with my tenured colleagues on a variety of faculty governance committees. I have also pursued a fairly active research agenda. In addition to publishing my own scholarly articles, I have edited over a hundred books dealing with modern German literature, Jewish history and women’s studies. This year saw the publication of the third book I have written on Oskar Panizza, the 19th-century German author.
When I began teaching at Columbia and Barnard in the 1960s, almost all the positions in their German departments were tenure-track. I came to SUNY New Paltz in the 70s, when there were only a couple of virtually silent and invisible part-time adjuncts among the 35 teachers in the entire Foreign Language Division. It was not until a few years after the dawn of the new millennium that I, like Rip Van Winkle, "awoke" after decades to a brand new reality: the number of tenure-track faculty in my department had shrunk to a mere 10, while some two dozen adjuncts were now teaching the bulk of our foreign language courses. Yikes!
As everyone in academe now knows, the professoriate has experienced a radical transformation over the past few decades. These enormous changes have occurred so gradually, however, that they are only now beginning to receive attention. The general public has remained largely unaware of the staffing crisis in higher education. As contingent colleagues around the country came to outnumber the tenured faculty and as they were assigned an ever larger share of the curriculum, they became an inescapable fact of academic departmental life.
Nationally, adjuncts and contingent faculty — we call them ad-cons — include part-time/adjunct faculty; full-time, nontenure-track faculty; and graduate employees. Together these employees now make up an amazing 73 percent of the nearly 1.6 million-employee instructional workforce in higher education and teach over half of all undergraduate classes at public institutions of higher education. Their number has now swollen to more than a million teachers and growing.
I must confess that belonging to the de facto elite minority makes me very uneasy. Most tenured faculty view themselves as superior teachers with superior minds. In this view, the arduous six-year tenure process clearly proves that all of us are superior to "them" and have deservedly earned our superior jobs by our superior gifts and our superior efforts. I must also confess that we tenured faculty really do appreciate the fact that ad-cons have unburdened us from having to teach too many elementary foreign language courses, English composition and the many other tedious introductory, repetitive and highly labor-intensive classes, to which we tenured souls have such a strong aversion that it must be genetic.
As I got to know my adjunct colleagues better, I began to see these largely invisible, voiceless laborers as a hugely diverse group of amazing teachers. Some are employed at full-time jobs in education or elsewhere, some are retired or supported by wealthier others, but far too many are just barely surviving. While instances of dumpster diving are rare, adjunct shopping is typically limited to thrift stores, and decades-old cars sometimes serve as improvised offices when these "roads scholars" are not driving from campus to campus, all in a frantic attempt to cobble together a livable income. Some adjuncts rely on food stamps or selling blood to supplement their poverty-level wages, which have been declining in real terms for decades. At SUNY New Paltz, for instance, adjuncts’ compensation when adjusted for inflation has plummeted 49 percent since 1970, while the president’s salary and those of other top administrators have increased by 35 percent.
In considering the plight of ad-cons, it is noteworthy that throughout SUNY they are represented, along with their tenure track colleagues, by United University Professions (UUP), America’s largest higher education union with some 35,000 members. The union’s contract has yet to establish any salary minimum whatsoever for the many thousands of UUP members who teach as adjuncts throughout the SUNY system that serves 465,000 students. After I first learned that each campus had a Part-Time Concerns Committee, I was dismayed to discover that our UUP chapter’s “Part-Time Concerns Rep” was actually a tenured professor who was out of the country for a year doing research. I soon became convinced that our adjuncts could use a more independent organization and a stronger voice of their own.
When I sent out an e-mail with the subject line “Calling all Adjuncts” in 2004, about 10 percent of the 350 adjuncts teaching here showed up for an initial organizational meeting. This was the largest meeting of adjuncts that had ever occurred in the college’s 182-year history. At that meeting, several dozen brave adjuncts formed the Adjunct Faculty Association. Soon thereafter, the adjunct group launched a highly visible campaign to push for higher compensation, and in less than a year it had brought about the first substantive wage increase in years.
The adjunct association's leaders would later also become activists within UUP, where they broadened their struggle for contingent equity. Together with adjunct activists from other SUNY campuses, we formed a Coalition for Contingent Faculty within UUP. A recent report recommends the establishment of a new statewide officer’s position, vice president for contingent employees, as well as structural changes within the union to ensure meaningful ad-con representation on UUP’s executive board, in its delegate assembly, and on its contract negotiations team.
Five years after convening the adjuncts in New Paltz, I did something similar on a national level. I confess to having served as emergency midwife at the birth of New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity. NFM, the only national organization advocating exclusively for ad-cons fifty-two weeks of the year, is now incorporated as a nonprofit educational organization in Ohio, awaiting federal tax-exempt status. NFM’s latest project is a major national initiative to remove impediments at the state and federal level, which, since the 1970s, uniquely and systematically deny unemployment compensation to ad-cons when they become unemployed. Tenure-track faculty, ad-cons, unions, legislators and other government officials urgently need to work together to assure that unemployed college teachers can finally receive unemployment compensation, just like workers in other professions. The need is particularly acute in difficult times like these with critically high rates of unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy.
Those contingent colleagues who were unfamiliar with my previous work have easily overcome their initial hesitation and puzzlement at working with me, a member of the oppressive tenured elite that they have grown to generally mistrust, if not actually despise. They saw me invest thousands of hours and substantial financial resources to advance the cause of contingent equity, and their fear has long since dissipated. But even now, when they disapprove of a position I’m taking and want me to back off, they are quick to accuse me of acting like a typical tenured professor, their ultimate insult. And I must confess that it really hurts.
I am also asked by tenured faculty why on earth I would be spending so much time and effort advocating for a group of "others" whose fate I have never shared. I suppose this is a perfectly legitimate question, but I do find it a bit odd. Why wouldn’t I insist that these precarious colleagues be allowed equitable compensation, job security, fringe benefits and academic freedom? And why shouldn’t I want them to have equitable access to unemployment compensation, professional development and advancement?
What kind of callous person would I be if I were not profoundly disturbed by such obvious inequality? And what does it say about my entire profession when over 70 percent of those teaching in American colleges today are precarious, at-will workers? This new faculty majority, frequently and erroneously mislabeled as part-timers, are often full-time, long-term perma-temps, whose obscenely low wages and total lack of job security constitute what is only now being recognized as the "dirty little secret" in higher education.
The exploitation is indeed filthy, but for me and my tenured colleagues, this scandal is neither little nor secret: the vast majority of those well-educated, skilled professionals who daily teach millions of students in our classrooms are actually being paid far less than the workers who nightly clean them. Ad-cons are treated as chattel or as servants who can be dismissed at the will and whim of any administrator from departmental chair to dean or provost. And woe to those ad-cons who elicit the wrath of their campus presidents! They can be non-renewed without any due process whatsoever, simply zapped, either individually or by the hundreds. We all know this, but most tenured faculty colleagues choose to simply look the other way. C’est la vie. Tough luck. Life just isn’t fair. Keep on walking and change the subject.
This is such an outrageous injustice that I am embarrassed and shamed by my tenured colleagues’ widespread inaction. Even most of my union "brother and sisters" voice little concern about a two-tiered system where they make at least three times as much per course as their adjunct colleagues and enjoy all the other wonderful perks of tenure: lifetime job security and the academic freedom it provides, regular opportunities for advancement and promotion, comfortable pensions, large furnished offices, telephones, computers, sabbaticals and other generous leave opportunities — the list goes on and on. As the wine flows freely at lavish banquets during delegate assemblies, my fellow unionists sing “Solidarity Forever!” Yet the huge numbers of ad-cons are barely represented at delegate assemblies or in most union leadership councils. Even though unions focus now and then on the poorest and weakest members of their bargaining units, in my experience ad-con issues are only included, if at all, at the very bottom of organized labor’s legislative agendas. Unfortunately, across-the-board pay raises inevitably increase the gap between tenure-track and adjunct faculty.
The argument frequently cited to explain or justify the inferior status of ad-cons is that most of them lack terminal degrees. Perhaps a quarter to a third possess doctorates and other terminal degrees, but most do an excellent job in daily teaching millions of college students their courses in English, business, law, medicine, science, foreign languages, math, art, education, history, business, forestry, speech, media communication, theater, music, social sciences, anthropology, film, philosophy and just about any other field imaginable. Though less than half of the ad-cons have Ph.D.'s or other terminal degrees in their field, there is no evidence I have seen to suggest that those with terminal degrees are actually better teachers than those without them. While faculty with the most advanced degrees are likely to be pursuing more significant research, that is hardly justification for treating those focused primarily on teaching as if they were expendable, easily replaceable field hands.
I confess that I must have been overly naïve, but I was utterly dumbfounded when an administrator repeatedly told me that he saw no value whatsoever to the institution in keeping any adjunct instructors more than a couple of years, after which they ought to simply move on and find something else to do. I’m sure my tenured colleagues would find it totally unacceptable if they could be told at the end of any semester that they should simply leave, that there was no value to their accumulated expertise, thank you, because the college wished to hire a fresh young face at a lower salary.
It is time that more tenured faculty woke up to the fact that their entire professional existence, replete with their comfortable incomes, their fascinating research, their coveted sabbaticals, their agreeable teaching loads of less labor-intensive and more satisfying courses — all this is made possible by the indispensable efforts of a million ad-cons doing so much more for so much less. Equitable compensation, health and retirement benefits, opportunities for advancement and professional development: all these should be available for everyone in higher education and are long overdue. Since teachers’ working conditions equal students’ learning conditions, it is a truly deplorable message we are sending our students! With more than 70 percent of our college teachers lacking any kind of job security, academic freedom has largely disappeared from our colleges, drastically lowering the overall educational quality. It is of such grave concern to professional societies and the American Association of University Professors that they are now strongly advocating some form of tenure for contingent academic labor.
I must confess that, as a group, ad-cons often strike me as more fun to be with than many of my tenured colleagues, whose focus on research interests is typically quite narrow. It's difficult for me to hear my tenured colleagues chatting about vacation travels, car shopping or the challenges of sending their children to private schools and colleges, when so many of our contingent colleagues are trying desperately to find summer work, praying that their cars will run for another year and wondering if their children will even be able to afford college. Adjuncts typically focus on teaching, and the precarious nature of their employment drives them to excel in their classroom performance. Not surprisingly, they often have a more lively interest in developing innovative pedagogy. In my experience, most faculty meetings that exclude ad-cons tend to largely serve administrative interests. Even union meetings with my tenured colleagues, though frequently lasting five hours, often accomplish precious little. In contrast, organizational meetings with my busy contingent colleagues last half as long and are invariably dynamic, interactive and productive.
Tenured faculty members across the country need to wake up now and begin to play a crucial role in supporting equity for their contingent colleagues. This is your official wake-up call, folks, along with a cordial invitation to all ad-cons and tenure-track faculty to please join New Faculty Majority today! If more tenure-track faculty would summon the courage to speak out in support of their fourth-class colleagues, it could really make a decisive difference in college senates and governance councils, in union governing bodies and in state legislatures. Not only are tenured faculty members largely immune from retaliation; they possess widespread credibility plus significant monetary and other resources to help tip the scales in favor of equity. Slavery was not ended without the selfless support of free persons. Women could not have achieved their substantial gains over the past century without the outspoken support of more than a few men, nor would civil rights and gay rights struggles have been able to successfully advance without the sizable backing from those fortunate enough not to be victims of discrimination.
Will my tenured colleagues in higher education heed the urgent call to help restore academic freedom, solidarity in fact as well as in song, and the integrity of the profession? I must confess, I really don’t know.
Peter D.G. Brown is a Distinguished Service Professor of German at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to being a founding member of the board of directors of New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity, he serves on the executive board of United University Professions and is vice president for academics in the New Paltz UUP chapter.
- The Union Impact and Non-Impact
- The Future of the Contingent Faculty Movement
- Two Unions Court Adjuncts in Philadelphia Market
- The Adjunct's Moment of Truth
- Separate and Unequal
- Creating a National Voice for Adjuncts
- AAUP report stresses need for adjunct involvement in governance
- A New Campaign on Adjuncts
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