Writing “Academic Freedom from Below”

This is a guest post by Jan Clausen, a co-contributor with Eva Swidler to the newest volume of the Journal of Academic Freedom. Professor Clausen teaches in the Goddard College Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program and serves as chair of the union bargaining team for the latest round of faculty contract negotiations. She is also an adjunct at NYU.

In “Academic Freedom from Below: Towards an Adjunct-Centered Struggle,” Eva Swidler and I argue that adjuncts and other contingent faculty are the new face of globalizing, corporate-style academia; widespread tenure-based employment is not coming back. This necessitates re-centering academic freedom debates around the adjunct experience. Writing from an adjunct point of view, we urge that the champions of academic freedom pursue a wide-ranging study of the ways in which adjuncts concretely experience the constraints endemic to their precarious employment.  But non-tenure track faculty are not merely disempowered tenure track faculty; as an ironic result of our marginalization, we frequently manage to create reservoirs of autonomous intellectual life from angles largely unavailable to the tenured. Faculties must unite to draw on their adjunct majorities for sources of alternative thought, activist experience, and unexpected strength in the struggle between conceptions of the university as a profit center and as a force for public good.

The writing of the article itself reflected the disjointed nature of contingent faculty jobs and the improvisations adjuncts resort to in our bids for reservoirs—or at  any rate, puddles!– of intellectual autonomy. Eva and I teach in two different low residency programs at Goddard College in Vermont, while living in Philadelphia and Brooklyn respectively.  We’re also employed as adjuncts at institutions in our local communities. At the time Eva came up with the idea for the article, we’d never met face to face, although we knew each other through our work with the Goddard faculty union. We did most of our writing over e-mail. At one point we contemplated including case studies reflecting the implications for academic freedom of institutional dynamics between contingent and tenure track faculty. I had taught at the New School and helped organize its part-time faculty union, which, for all the good it accomplished in terms of improved compensation and job security, seemed to have left part-timers even more marginalized from effective participation in academic governance than we’d been before we organized. I proposed a comparison and contrast between the experience at the New School and an epic battle at the City University of New York, where faculties at a range of colleges in the system have attempted to assert their governance authority in the face of the administration’s insistence on a controversial core curriculum known as CUNY Pathways. In the end, we didn’t have room for case studies, but the issues remain relevant. Following is a lightly edited version of one of my e-mails on the subject.

Hi, Eva,

I woke up this morning thinking the case studies of the New School and CUNY Pathways fight can be a way to pin down different iterations of the “enclosures” (my metaphor for the ongoing transformation of academic class structure) as an assault on academic freedom. It’s a nice contrast because both are in NYC and both hold aspects of a “radical” academic history–CUNY as the site of key battles over access for poor and working-class students; the New School as site of a left-leaning graduate school built by refugees from European fascism, and a night school that expanded under the GI Bill to provide undergraduate education for working adults with the vast bulk of teaching done by adjuncts, allowing the New School to become the sort of haven for undercompensated intellectual excitement that I talk about in my draft.

At the New School, part-timers did all the right things–unionized and tried to expand a foothold in governance. However, partly (only partly) in response, the university started reining in its reliance on adjuncts, extended tenure across the university (it had previously existed only in the graduate school), and in some divisions greatly increased the proportion of full-timers and non-unionized faculty with a bunch of new hires. Far from expanding academic freedom as the presence of tenure is supposed to do, this move terrorized many of the junior full-time faculty (who complained of receiving inadequate support from the institution to meet the tenure standards, which were in any case opaque), and created a further class of non-tenure track “full-time” faculty who weren’t eligible for union membership. The governance structure, always shaky, did not improve. University planning became increasingly driven by the value of real estate holdings in a pricey area of lower Manhattan! There were striking contrasts in good and bad behavior by elite faculty in relation to their unionizing adjunct colleagues; Provost Arjun Appadurai (a noted anthropologist who had recently transitioned to a career in administration) immediately took an anti-union position, while tenured Graduate Faculty political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. (now at the University of Pennsylvania) publicly defended the part-time faculty’s labor rights.

CUNY is, historically, the school of working-class access, from early in the 20th century (a book on the subject is called City College and the Jewish Poor). In the 60’s and beyond, Open Admissions and the SEEK Program (for “under-prepared” students of promise) made college available to more low-income, of-color, and immigrant students. I propose to focus on the current struggle over the general education curriculum called CUNY Pathways, which many faculty argue would weaken their programs by “dumbing down” requirements and eliminating electives and also some hours of basic instruction (all of which led to the recent [September, 2012] standoff at Queensborough Community College, where the administration threatened to fire all the adjuncts and force the college’s students to travel to other schools for their required English classes). The academic judgment of faculty about the appropriate shape and content of instruction is being overridden for an agenda would appear to decrease the value of the education received by large numbers of non-elite students. (Many eloquent analyses and arguments along these lines are available on the PSC-CUNY web site.)* At Queensborough, Pathways has been shown to involve policies that will fall hardest on working-class and low-income students, heavily students of color. The university system as a whole has six or seven thousand teaching adjuncts. Many of these stand to lose their jobs if Pathways goes forward and most have no voice in the existing mechanisms of governance. One PSC-CUNY activist who has worked in the system as an adjunct for many years told me: “What’s been happening to us (adjuncts) all along is now happening to the full-timers.” The lesson of CUNY is not so much about adjuncts per se, but rather the “adjunctification” of tenured and tenure track faculty, and the need for them to admit that “we are all adjuncts now” as a prerequisite to effective fightback. We need to recognize and name (as some of the PSC-CUNY statements have done) that this is the savaging of academic freedom–the imposition from above, by politicians and a corporate-style Board, wielding studies funded by the Gates Foundation and other purveyors of neoliberal solutions to the problems facing both primary and secondary education, of policies that fall most heavily on the most vulnerable: poorly prepared working-class and low income students, and the adjuncts who teach (or used to teach) them.


*In a May, 2013, the American Arbitration Association, acting at the request of the Professional Staff Congress, held a referendum on Pathways. With participation by more than 60% of eligible voters (full-time faculty only, after a proposal to include part-timers was voted down), 92% of those casting ballots indicated No Confidence in the new curriculum. See: http://www.psc-cuny.org/clarion/june-2013/big-vote-against-pathways-92-say-no-confidence

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