Book Review: A new (low wage) faculty majority

By Herman Benson

If you still imagine that higher education is leisurely dispensed by pipe-puffing intellectuals who leave the classroom or lecture hall for private office, or library, or lounge where, protected by tenure, they pursue academic research for publication, or exchange ideas with colleagues, or simply indulge in deep thought — forget it! Those were the days. They are an endangered species. Today, 75% of the faculty in our colleges and universities are a motley auxiliary force. You, the student, may be accumulating a lifetime of debt and paying multi-thousands for that degree and yet your teacher in front of that room could be a poorly-paid teacher’s assistant or even an unpaid graduate student. School management wants to cut costs. The education industry, like all others, looks for a lower-wage labor force. Most of all, tenured professors are being replaced by “adjuncts.”

Adjuncts, the contingent teachers discussed in this volume, are highly educated professionals with degrees, advanced degrees, even PhDs, skilled in their subject area. But they are employees-at-will, hired by the term or by the year. Their hourly pay is around 60% of tenure standard. They usually lack health insurance, pensions, sick leave and a multitude of other fringes. With contracts subject to early renewal and not protected by due process, they lack any sense of security. Without security, academic freedom is a myth. Mostly on part time, they usually get no credit for preparation time, no paid time for professional development. They have no private offices, nor could they make efficient use of any. As part timers, they usually work several jobs to make a living. They must finish one assigned teaching gig and get out promptly in time to rush to another part time job at another school. No time to hang out, meet other teachers, and engage in relaxed extracurricular intellectual exchange.

Such is the story told in this interesting collection of nine essays brought together by Keith Hoeller. The authors write from personal experience. Editor Hoeller, who contributes a long and informative piece, is himself an adjunct professor at Green River Community College in Washington State. A selected bibliography, which he prepares, reveals that there has already been a long and voluminous discussion on adjuncts, but mainly within their own community. The subject is only now leaking out into a broader arena. Hoeller has done as much as anyone, and probably more, to bring it to public attention. It was Hoeller and his close colleague, Jack Longmate, who alerted us at AUD to the issues. Longmate, who contributes a piece on academic unions, is an adjunct instructor at Olympic College in Washington, where he has taught for twenty years.

All authors call for what the book title promotes: “equality for the contingent faculty.” And they attack the “two-tier system” that distinguishes a privileged stratum of tenured faculty from a kind of throwaway stratum of contingents. Their concern is not over some minor aspect of college life. By now, a decisive majority of the faculty in higher education are contingents. By 1975, according to figures prepared by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the contingent faculty was already a slight majority in the United States. That year, when the country’s total instructional staff was 783,370, the contingency staff was 429,689. By 2011, the balance was overwhelming; the total teaching staff was estimated at 1,846, 895; of that, 1,402,215 were contingents.

The Big Fact resounds in every page of this book: Seventy-five percent of the nation’s higher education teaching staff are second-class citizens.

Don Eron makes a case, persuasive and eloquent, for academic freedom. Universities were once a fortress of academic freedom, but everything changes when the faculty majority — a big majority — lacks security and can be fired arbitrarily without recourse. “‘At will’ means you can be fired for expressing an opinion,” he writes. At will and academic freedom “by definition are mutually exclusive. “His case was bolstered by a recent faculty dispute over abortion reimbursements in health insurance policies financed by Loyola Marymount, a Catholic university. The N.Y. Times reported, “Privately, professors without tenure expressed concern that they could scuttle their careers if they spoke up; some have started looking for other jobs.”

Eron is a senior instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a member of the AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He says it will be difficult to convince faculty professors with tenure to support the right of adjuncts to job security. The case for job security for adjuncts, he emphasizes, is inseparably linked to the moral case for academic freedom. He warns those who now feel so safe in their tenure that their security is endangered in these days of universal cost-cutting. The appeal for public support of faculty tenure derives its power, not as a defense of the familiar perquisites of professorship, but as a ringing call for academic freedom, an essential element of democracy in America. Editor Keith Hoeller concludes in his chapter, “The contingent faculty movement is a civil and human rights movement. The time has come for direct action. Higher education is […] the building block of our culture and our democracy.”

Fair play for adjuncts! But how to get there? Direct action? What to do? That’s the problem.

In a letter to the New York Times, Hoeller concludes that the current two-track system “cannot be reformed; it must be abolished.” Meanwhile, however, this strong conviction has not prevented him and Jack Longmate from helping to organize the New Faculty Majority as an adjunct’s pressure group and successfully using the courts and legislature in the State of Washington to improve working conditions for adjuncts in the here and now. This book of essays continues Hoeller’s campaign of exposing the second-class citizenship of the new faculty majority in higher education. He and Longmate encourage the formation of associations of adjuncts and allies, non-union organizations that will rally support in the broad public for favorable legislation. They report some successes in Washington.

But they take a dim view of unionism. Their skepticism ranges from a suspicion that unions accomplish nothing in raising faculty pay to downright hostility. Longmate, whose piece is especially moving when he writes about adjunct discrimination, wonders whether faculty unions have helped anyone. “While some may argue that neither full-time nor part-time faculty have prospered under collective bargaining […] the fact that part-time faculty compensation is at the poverty level […] would seem to indict the collective bargaining process as particularly ineffective from the standpoint of part-time faculty. “Under the domination of tenured faculty, they argue, unions work to preserve the subservient status of adjuncts. However, they should study what others write in this book of essays; they may modify their antagonism to unions. Despite his own inclinations, the collection Hoeller has assembled here is largely a pro-union story. It records how local union activists and local leaders, organizing in their unions and through their unions, have campaigned for adjunct rights. Of the nine essays here, five are contributed by unionists.

The difficulties for anyone campaigning for the cause are implicit in the complexities and fragmentation of higher education: contingent faculty or tenured; private or public schools; regular or community colleges; teaching or research universities. Some defenders for adjuncts argue that the conflict of interests between the contingent and tenured faculty are so irreconcilable that they must be organized in separate unions. But the union activists who write in this book depend upon unity in a single union.

Elizabeth Hoffman and John Hess, who both have been adjuncts, write of their experiences as active members of the California Faculty Association, an affiliate of the AAUP. When the union first won bargaining rights in 1982 to represent the faculty at the California State University, the full-time tenured professors dominated the union and were openly contemptuous of the adjuncts. But over the years, that changed as adjuncts joined the union and turned it into a militant defender of the rights of all. In 2011 and 2012, the union led a series of campus strike votes and one day stoppages. In his chapter, Richard Moser writes, “The California Faculty Association contract is widely considered a model for job security provisions in the United States.” Moser was an associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University and is now a staff representative for the AAUP and AFT at Rutgers. The most impressive advance toward equality seems to have been achieved in Vancouver, British Columbia. Frank Cosco is president of the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association, an 800-900-member independent union loosely and indirectly affiliated with the Canadian Labor Congress. Its membership rolls cover the whole faculty, including librarians, counselors, and instructors.

The teaching staff falls into two main categories: 1. The “regular” faculty, who are “non-probationary and expected to continue working until retirement” (In British Columbia, the word “regular” is roughly equivalent to “tenured” in the United States.), and 2. The term faculty, who like adjuncts, are hired for a limited period at varying hours, from a few days up to a whole year; but they have no continuing job guarantees. Between 2001 and 2012, the percentage of term faculty has grown from 28% of the total to 46%.

Although the regular faculty enjoy superior fringe benefits, the hourly rate of pay is the same for all teaching faculty. Pay equality, according to Cosco, was traditional in BC Community Colleges even before the union.

Cosco reports in some detail on the outcome of ten rounds of collective bargaining since 1988. Like all collective bargaining, much is technical stuff, confusing to outsiders. Gains were won for all, but the main gain for term faculty is clear. In 1988-90, term faculty got the right to automatic advance to regular status after 401 days of at least half-time work in any two-year period. Two years later, that requirement was reduced to 380 days. Cosco is convinced that all faculty should be organized into a single union. “Having two faculty unions at one institution,” he writes, “would be a dream for any competent college manager.”

At this point in the United States, the contingent faculty of adjuncts, graduate students, and teachers’ aides is scattered in small groups among the Service Employees; the Auto Workers; the Steelworkers, the Communications Workers, and perhaps others. But the main unions in education are the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, which include both tenured faculty and adjuncts. For whatever reason, not evident to readers, this book lacks any contribution from AFT or NEA staff assigned to organize and represent adjuncts. In New York City, several years ago, an insurgent caucus won control of the Professional Staff Congress in part by promising to enroll adjuncts at the City University into the union. It would be interesting and informative to know how that is working out.

Interested in unions and the new faculty in colleges and universities? Read this book.

Equality for Contingent Faculty: overcoming the two-tier system, edited by Keith Hoeller, is available from Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, TN 37235, Paperback $29.95

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