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From the President

Among the Majority

The New Faculty Majority (NFM) summit Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education, held on Saturday, 28 January, at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, was full of bitter ironies. The gathering was convened in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). But when Carol Geary Schneider, president of the AAC&U, asked in the opening plenary session who had availed themselves of the “crosswalk” she had established between the AAC&U and the NFM, it became distressingly clear that for most AAC&U members “in conjunction with” apparently meant little more than “in the same hotel as.” At one end of the long hallway, NFM members talked about the challenges of keeping body and soul intact while teaching 4-4 jobs to which they had been required to reapply every year for twenty years; at the other end, university administrators browsed a book exhibit whose keywords seemed to be finance, management, outcomes, and assessment. At one point in the NFM proceedings, a faculty member from Oakland Community College held up a handbook for deans she’d purchased at the other end of the hallway and noted that adjunct faculty merited only one mention, under the heading “budgets.”

Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities. Many of them are working at or under the poverty line, without health insurance; they have no academic freedom worthy of the name, because they can be fired at will; and, when fired, many remain ineligible for unemployment benefits, because institutions routinely invoke the “reasonable assurance of continued employment” clause in federal unemployment law even for faculty members on yearly contracts who have no reasonable assurance of anything. What would it take to put these faculty members on the national radar? What would it take to make their working conditions a major issue for the higher education establishment—not only AAC&U but also, and most important, accrediting agencies? Would a national summit in Washington do the trick, perhaps?

I used to say that you could tell the difference between people inside and outside higher education by asking them if they knew what a provost is. Now I think a better metric might be to ask them if they know what adjunct or contingent means. A few weeks ago, Vice President Joe Biden startled professors everywhere by remarking that tuition increases are attributable in part to the fact that faculty salaries have “escalated significantly”; one would have hoped that Biden, whose wife, Jill, has taught for many years as an adjunct professor in community colleges, would have known better. But that strange, unfounded belief is only a symptom of a much larger phenomenon. The NFM summit was convened, according to NFM President Maria Maisto, in response to the White House Summit on Community Colleges in October 2010, which included no adjunct faculty members as participants. And today, even the NFM’s friends in Washington (few and far between, to be sure) haven’t gotten the message quite right: in a videotaped greeting to the attendees, Representative John Tierney (D-MA) spoke warmly of adjunct faculty members and the importance of the summit, noting that forty years ago, 80% of America’s college teachers enjoyed the protection of tenure, whereas now only 54% do.

At Tierney’s misstep, the entire NFM summit sighed as one. Taking the podium a few minutes later, Gary Rhoades, of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, remarked ruefully, “even Representative Tierney got it wrong: the number of tenured faculty is under thirty percent. That’s why you’re the new faculty majority.”

Rhoades proceeded to mark another bitter irony, one that goes to the heart of the enterprise: colleges promote themselves, especially to first-generation students, as a pathway to the middle class—but, increasingly, colleges do not pay middle-class wages to their own faculty members. The contradiction is deepest at the lowest tiers of the academic hierarchy, where, Rhoades said, underpaid adjunct faculty members are effectively “modeling what is acceptable as an employment practice.” It is no wonder that adjunct faculty members are so politically invisible: apparently no one wants to say to high school graduates, “Go to college, work hard, and someday you can get a job teaching college—at a salary of $20,000.” It casts a pall over the American dream.

In response to Rhoades and Schneider, a woman from the University of Cincinnati, one of the few administrators in attendance, replied that the summit needed to address the “850-pound gorilla in the room,” namely, the overproduction of PhDs. To scattered applause, she insisted that she would not be able to hire English professors at adjunct wages if there weren’t so many English PhDs glutting the market. I was sitting at a table with David Laurence, the director of research for the Modern Language Association, and I glanced over at him, since we had been discussing this topic at breakfast. The session ended before Laurence could respond, but he asked to open the following session with some useful data. To wit: according to the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, 65.2% of non-tenure-track faculty members hold the MA as their highest degree—57.3% in four-year institutions, 76.2% in two-year institutions. There are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of PhDs isn’t one of the major ones.

These numbers have implications that go far beyond the usual debates about the size of doctoral programs, because they illustrate how inadequate it is to say simply that all non-tenure-track faculty lines should be converted to the tenure track. Precisely because adjuncts are so invisible, it is not widely understood that many of them have held their jobs—at one institution or at many, on a year-by-year basis or on multiyear contracts—for ten, fifteen, or twenty years and more. I keep running into people who speak of adjuncts as bright, energetic thirty-year-olds who enliven their departments and disciplines, working in the trenches for a few years before getting their first tenure-track job. There is no shortage of bright and energetic adjuncts, but not all of them are thirty years old; the average age at the NFM summit seemed to be considerably higher, and the NFM statement “Forging a New Way Forward” closes with a proposal acknowledging that many adjunct faculty members cannot be “converted”:

Reform efforts that involve restructuring should prioritize upgrades for people rather than conversions of positions, in order to respect the value of the ongoing service that existing employees provide. All reform or restructuring efforts should build in some form of protection for currently serving faculty in order to prevent further harm to these faculty who have served in contingent appointments, without proper support or compensation, for so long.

During one of the breaks, I spoke to a participant who worried, understandably, that the summit was preaching to the choir. “To some extent, I suppose,” I said, “but then again, the choir needs to find out who’s in the choir, and it needs to figure out what it wants to sing.” It is no small thing for adjuncts to gather in Washington and try to lobby, precisely because their job security is so precarious: as one adjunct from Cape Cod Community College put it, a better designation than adjunct or contingent might be the term a Spanish-speaking colleague offered her—los precarios.

I attended the summit to listen rather than speak, and listen I did, as my colleagues off the tenure track discussed ways of addressing students, administrators, legislators, unions, parents, and the general voting and taxpaying public. Laurence and I distributed (with permission from the NFM) the MLA’s 2011 document Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members: Recommendations and Evaluative Questions, and Donald Rogers of Central Connecticut State University gave me a copy of Standards for Part-Time, Adjunct, and Contingent Faculty, from the Organization of American Historians. I talked to dozens of faculty members from institutions around the country and made a note to buy Adrianna Kezar’s Embracing Non-Tenure Track Faculty: Changing Campuses for the New Faculty Majority and Joe Berry’s Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. And after listening for six or seven hours, I did have two suggestions to offer my breakout group in the afternoon.

First, it is going to be very hard to tell people that many college faculty members are exploitatively underpaid. It’s going to be a particularly tough sell in communities already devastated by prolonged economic hardship. But it might be possible to play on the still-widespread belief that college professors are professionals and that parents who are sending their children to college should have some expectation that professors have the professional resources—offices, phones, mailboxes, e-mail and library access, meaningful performance reviews, participation in department governance—that make it possible for them to do their jobs. Let’s say you need an attorney, I suggested, and you go to a firm that fobs you off on an associate who has to consult with you in a hallway because he doesn’t have an office. Who would stand for that? Is it OK that your kid is going to a college that treats its faculty that way?

Second, it is going to be even harder to tell people that non-tenure-track faculty members need a measure of job security and academic freedom if they are going to be able to do their jobs. It amounts, I suggested, to telling parents, students, administrators, and legislators that they have to fight for the right of professors to challenge their students intellectually, free from the fear that they will be fired the moment they say something unfamiliar or upsetting about sexuality or evolution or American history or the Middle East. This argument will resonate with people who understand what higher education is all about. They are a subset of the American electorate, but they know why academic freedom is essential to an open society, and they believe in the promise of higher education. The question is whether they can be persuaded that the promise of higher education is undermined when three-quarters of the professoriat is made up of los precarios.

Some of the things non-tenure-track faculty members want—and need—won’t cost anyone a dime. This issue came up throughout the day, directly and indirectly. Time and again, NFM members spoke of those critical intangibles, respect and recognition: much of what is dehumanizing about adjunct labor has to do with the myriad ways adjuncts are treated as second-class citizens (if not ignored altogether) by their tenure-track counterparts. Faculty members with decades of teaching experience spoke of being snubbed in hallways, written out of departmental governance, and casually denigrated by people who had never bothered to learn their names. One woman, some years my senior, stopped by my table to thank me for calling non-tenure-track faculty members “colleagues” in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education. “You’re welcome,” I replied, somewhat flummoxed, “but you are my colleague.”

Changing that aspect of faculty culture will take time; non-tenure-track faculty members will have to learn, as one speaker put it, to assert themselves as faculty members, to comport themselves as if they have every right to be treated with the respect accorded the tenure-track faculty—which they most certainly do. And tenure-track faculty members, for their part, will have to learn not to be such jerks—and, more ambitiously, to learn to challenge cultures of jerkdom where they exist.

But this is a cost-free program, in the end. Ten years ago, and again in 2010, I helped rewrite the bylaws of Penn State’s English department, to ensure that non-tenure-track faculty members had a substantial review and appeals process administered by a seven-person committee, three of whose members would be drawn from the nontenured ranks, and to establish detailed criteria for the evaluation of non-tenure-track faculty members’ teaching, so that student evaluations would not become the default (or the sole) measure of teaching effectiveness. I did so at no expense to myself or to my department. Revising the bylaws was an important step, and it was cheap, involving precisely zero dollars.

Jack Longmate’s presentation at the summit made the same point in a different way: he set out a long-term agenda for the treatment of the non-tenure-track faculty that contained a daunting thirty goals—sixteen of which, from human rights to governance, didn’t involve any expenditure of funds. But at some point, I thought, the other fourteen goals have to be on the table as well. Because even in that happy world where non-tenure-track faculty members have adequate due process and participation in departmental governance, their labor will still be dehumanizing if it doesn’t garner a living wage with health benefits. The MLA’s recommendations on per-course compensation (we say “for part-time faculty members,” but the principle holds for full-time non-tenure-track faculty members as well) read as follows:

Following a review of best practices in various institutions, the MLA recommends minimum compensation for 2011–12 of $6,800 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course or $4,530 for a standard 3-credit-hour quarter or trimester course. These recommendations are based on a full-time load of 3 courses per semester (6 per year) or 3 courses per quarter or trimester (9 per year); annual full-time equivalent thus falls in a range of $40,770 to $40,800.

As far as we can tell from the data we have collected thus far, only 7% of departments in the modern languages are meeting or exceeding this recommendation (yes, some are exceeding it). If institutions are going to do anything to improve the working conditions of non-tenure-track faculty members, then sooner or later (and preferably sooner) they will have to show that they respect those employees not simply by including them in departmental governance and inviting them to departmental functions but also by paying them a salary commensurate with a decent level of professional respect and dignity.

Late in the afternoon, after the subject of respect had come up for the nth time, I asked my non-tenure-track colleagues whether they were suggesting that the intangible, cost-free changes in their working conditions should be urged first, on the grounds that such changes would be met with less strenuous opposition. Absolutely not, they replied—everything has to be on the table at once. It was the answer I expected (and hoped for), but it seemed to me at odds with something I’d heard earlier in the day from Joe Berry. A labor historian and activist, Berry had insisted in his presentation that “money is tough, but money isn’t the hardest thing—the tough one on the list is power.” I wonder. I can imagine departments, colleges, and universities sharing some measure of power with their non-tenure-track employees more readily than their sharing the wealth. The real challenge for non-tenure-track faculty members thus seems to me the one laid out by Kezar in her presentation, when she spoke of increasing non-tenure-track pay scales to the point at which contingency would be “less attractive to administrators.” When that day finally comes, then, perhaps, we’ll know that non-tenure-track faculty members are getting the respect they deserve.

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Michael Bérubé
2012–13 MLA President Michael Bérubé
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© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.