Addendum to Aaron Barlow’s “To My Tenured Colleagues”: To My Adjunct Colleagues

I initially was going to post this as a comment to Aaron’s post, but it became too lengthy to seem a reasonable “comment.”

Like Aaron, I myself and many others among us who now hold tenure-track positions have had some experience as adjunct faculty. I taught at four institutions for six years while finishing my dissertation–or, more precisely, while eventually trying to time my application for the degree to any sign of even a modest improvement in what was then a terrible job market. (I wonder how old one has to be to remember the last time that the higher-ed job market was actually “good.” In 1978, when I started my graduate studies, the bottom must have fallen out, for there were 29 new Ph.D’s for every tenure-track opening.) I calculated that being slow to finish the degree would be less a liability than having an “old” degree. As it turned out, I was very, very lucky to be offered a position just before the 1990 recession caused yet another round of hiring freezes.

I recount my own background, here, because I think that many tenured faculty have some firsthand experience with the impossibility of trying to make a living in any professionally satisfying way as an adjunct faculty member, and some of us are actually taking concrete (if sometimes maddeningly incremental) steps to try to change things for the adjuncts at our own institutions and even beyond.

So, although I very much agree that the situation for adjunct faculty will not improve until their full-time colleagues become much more fully committed to making such changes, I think that characterizing most tenured faculty as generally resistant to such changes may ultimately be counterproductive, if only because it actually reinforces the institutional practices that have focused on distinctions rather than on common interests and common cause. More to the point, there is a danger that a characterization of tenured faculty as both a disinterested privileged class and as a necessary ally may constitute such a mixed message that it will actually confuse issues and delay much-needed change.

At all but the most elite institutions, the increase in the exploitation of adjunct faculty has been concurrent with increased demands on tenured faculty. Anyone in leadership positions in AAUP chapters can testify to how difficult it often is to get tenured faculty to act collectively in response to any issue of institutional concern. So, while I am not at all arguing that adjunct faculty need to be somehow more sympathetic to their tenured colleagues–that would be absolutely ludicrous–I don’t think that most tenured faculty are singularly disinterested in, never mind hostile to, the concerns and needs of the adjunct faculty at their institutions.

Therefore, it would be a better strategy, I think, for adjunct faculty to work with those of us who are already committed to changing things and, with us, to try to engage more of those tenured faculty by demonstrating the specific, concrete ways in which the exploitation of adjunct faculty is inherently connected to the core issues facing our institutions.

For, ultimately, if one were to make a list of the groups most responsible for the exploitation of adjunct faculty, I don’t think that tenured faculty would be at or even near the top of the list. We may not yet be as much a part of the solution as we certainly should be, but we are not as much of the problem as we might have been 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

Going after tenured faculty in this context makes me very uneasy because it coincidentally reinforces attacks on tenure. It seems very close to the favorite tactic of the proponents of “right to work” when they ask non-unionized workers why unionized workers so be so much more “privileged.” Of course, eliminating unions does mean that everyone is more equal–by bringing everyone down to a much lower common denominator.

The goal should be to get more adjunct faculty into more full-time positions and to make more of the full-time positions tenure-track positions. Again, it should not be to attack tenure as if that is the problem. For a faculty that is entirely contingent and largely part-time is very central to the vision of the most ardent corporatizers of higher education. The most extreme indicator of where we may be headed is Western Governors University, which has no faculty at all because Pearson and McGraw-Hill supply any needed “contracted evaluators.”

Surely, that is no solution that any of us would find acceptable or desirable.

11 thoughts on “Addendum to Aaron Barlow’s “To My Tenured Colleagues”: To My Adjunct Colleagues

  1. [It would be more than interesting to survey all of those who advanced from adjunct positions to tenure track and tenured positions to learn the gender, etc. demographics of those who were accepted into the full-time ranks. I have my suspicions, of course, but without data, I’ll keep them to myself. I will, however, point to the anecdote recounted in blogger Barlow’s post where he was asked by a female adjunct directly if he knew why he was chosen….]

    Tenured/tenure-track faculty continue to actively present and aggravate serious problems for adjunct faculty. In many institutions, they are permitted to take “overloads” for extra pay, displacing long-time adjuncts, and they are often willing and eager to have adjuncts take over their service responsibilities (clubs, committees, etc.) for which contingent faculty receive no compensation. Indeed, sometimes adjuncts have actually been asked to teach “independent studies” — i.e. full courses for just a handful of students — for no extra pay simply because they were teaching one or two courses that same semester.

    Additionally, as department chairs, tenured/tenure track faculty have supervisory authority over adjuncts and have been known to abuse that authority or to fail to exercise it appropriately — and they dominate the many unions in which adjuncts are included along with full-time “regular” employees. Finally, like former AAUP President Nelson, after retirement these same faculty often opt for “adjunct” positions which put them in competition for the courses needed by the truly contingent faculty — while, as retirees, drawing their full pensions at the same time.

    No, administrations and tenured faculty share the blame for the evolution of the current predicament — even though the economic advantages have been doled out more generously to administrative positions, which the tenured aspire to and rotate into regularly. Therefore, it is only when governing boards and senates work collectively with alumni and the public to reduce the bloated hegemony of administration — and when the tenured faculty in unions are willing to give up, for example, their “claim” to across-the-board percentage salary increases in favor of more equitable salaries for adjuncts — only then will the organizing which the AAUP now touts as a priority have any transformative power.

    As things stand, AAUP and its organizing partner AFT are targeting the large public universities (like the U of Oregon) where they hope to “cash in” on the one or two percent of salary dues/agency fees that their new union locals impose as the “cost” of defending the [tenured] faculty — and at U Oregon they do not even include the law faculty. What is not well-known is the fact that one-half or more of all of those agency fee dollars are sent up the ladder to the statewide and national AFT and to the national AAUP to support their own bloated bureaucracies (AFT’s moreso than AAUP’s but AAUP has shown a penchant in the past decade for hiring former college presidents and maintaining their salaries more in the style to which they had become accustomed: e.g., Roger Bowen and Martin Snyder).

    Follow the money…and the hypocrisy of administrations — as well as the tenured/tenure-track faculty and the organizations which in their current incarnations exist primarily for their benefit — is clearly revealed.

  2. Let’s say that I agree with every observation and complaint in this e-mail, where does that leave us?

    The bottom line is this: if adjunct faculty want to denounce the unions that represent mostly tenured faculty and to go in some completely different direction, then adjunct faculty have the right to make that choice–and perhaps much justification for making that choice; but if adjunct faculty do want those unions representing tenured faculty to be more responsive to adjunct issues and needs and to begin to advocate much more strongly and effectively for needed changes, denouncing those unions is a self-defeating way to make that case.

    At some point, a premise for working together constructively has to be that we look primarily forward and not backward.

    That’s trite, I know, but truisms often contain basic truths.

    • Adjunct faculty in public university systems often do not have the choice to form their own unions; they are usually by law forced to be included in the union with the tenure stream faculty and sometimes even with non-teaching professionals.

      Adjunct faculty have every right to demand that tenure-stream faculty cease and desist their abusive practices, their participation in the demise of the university as the former home of academic freedom in the search for truth in pursuit of the common good.

      Thus, in response I will simply cite Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

      • I cannot speak for other state conferences or other chapters, but I can say, as someone who has been in the Ohio Conference leadership and my chapter leadership for some time, that although we are trying to put up a good fight, we do not feel powerful. Even the victory that we won in repealing Senate Bill 5 was defensive. What we won was the right to continue to be unionized. Although I am not at all downplaying the significance of that victory, it was undeniably reactive. And no organization wants to be where we are–continually trying to anticipate the next attempt to eliminate its right to exist.

        So, my feeling is that a great deal has changed in just the last five years. I cannot say that those of us who are trying to be much more inclusive are even a majority, but I can tell you that we are very convinced that the only way to prevent the dismantling of what is best about higher education–and especially public higher education–is to address the full spectrum of issues facing all categories of faculty and, in fact, to move beyond the premise that the interests of those categories are fundamentally distinct.

  3. The problem with the way the new higher education labor “inclusiveness” has evolved is that the adjunct faculty are being increasingly asked to do more and more for less compensation — a situation which clearly benefits the “regular” tenure-stream faculty and the administration far more than the exploited contingent faculty.

    Adjunct faculty should be treated like full-time faculty in senates, on committees, etc. says AAUP — while all the while the matter of compensation has not been resolved, nor are there even serious attempts being made on record by these unions to resolve them. The sticking point? The full-time tenure stream faculty, like the administration, will not consider any concessions on their compensation. If adjuncts are to be paid properly, then the administration and “regular” faculty want the money to come from somewhere else and not their future compensation with precious across-the-board salary raises — even though the latter, by the way, also further widen the gap in salaries for women and minorities, as well. Above all, the unions want the percentage of salary agency fee to give them the highest return, so they gladly abandon justice for adjuncts and continue to ask for and receive across-the-board negotiated raises, etc., etc. for the “regular” faculty.

    These “inclusive” unions do not have the interests of the adjunct faculty on their radar screen because, for example, in the public universities, the state legislatures will likely not increase their allocations for salary for this demographic, especially because the overall salary pool — albeit dramatically inflated by bloated administration — is already very large. Legislators also know that the other operating costs are being driven high by the “country club” mentality of administrators and non-teaching professionals who view the classroom as secondary to the physical plant for residency and recreation. So a conspiracy of silence continues: the unions and the administration, both bolstered by the tenure-stream faculty, ignore the contingent faculty compensation issue almost entirely.

    Further, we have bizarre, shameless, sham situations where unions like SUNY’s UUP pass delegate assembly resolutions supporting the $5K per course movement for adjuncts, fresh off the heels of a new four-year contract with management where the union leadership could have bargained for that $5K minimum in the first place. Instead, the SUNY union, dominated by tenured faculty and professionals, pays hollow lip service to adjuncts right after having formally agreed with management to condemn them to four additional years of indentured servitude.

    Surely, it is more than obvious that there is only so much hypocrisy that contingent faculty can take before the urge to “speak truth to power” becomes truly overpowering….

    Again, from Frederick Douglass:

    “Those who profess to favor freedom yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

    • Just a brief look from another angle:

      At Saint Louis University, there is, of course, no union. The AAUP chapter is pure advocacy; our impact is multiplied enormously by a large body of non-members of equal commitment to campus advocacy and united representative bodies of colleges and the university.

      The two largest service departments–English and Mathematics–make strong efforts to teach all courses (English) or 2/3 of courses (Math) by full-time faculty or grad students. As far as I have heard, there is no poaching of long-term adjunct courses by tenure-stream faculty. (Retirees don’t get adjunct status, for instance.)

      None of which means that adjuncts are paid decently (they’re not), nor that they have any job security even after many years (they don’t). Nor do part-time faculty have representation in any college or university bodies. That’s one of the battles on my list to put before the chapter; but organizing that effort is daunting: As chapter president, I don’t even have any clear idea how to get email addresses for the adjuncts, who have no organization of their own–and that is maybe the most important point.

      Steve (Stacey) Harris

  4. Indeed, all efforts by tenure stream faculty to ensure any of the basics of fair working conditions are to be applauded and the points made above are of interest.

    On organizing adjuncts: One suggestion would be to write/visit the secretaries and chairs in each of the departments at the university to request the names and contact information of each department’s adjuncts in order to invite them and their chairs to a series of special receptions to be hosted by the AAUP Chapter on “adjunct appreciation.” (Obviously more than one reception will better accommodate teaching schedules which often cluster MWF and TR, right?) In other words, a non-threatening and collaborative event as the spur for the collection of the information necessary for true organizing.

    One note of caution however: given the current state of the implementation of the Yeshiva decision, pace AAUP, it might not be a good idea to try to involve adjuncts in yet one more uncompensated activity: senate governance — especially because such involvement might be used to undermine their potential for a union by giving the illusion that they, like the tenured faculty, are “managers” participating in decision-making. There are enough problems with the varied legal positions being taken by religious-affiliated institutions against adjunct organizing that adding the irony of a tenure-stream governance-sanctioned illusion of “managerial status” for adjuncts could truly be counter-productive to the struggle for better compensation and terms and conditions of employment.

  5. Pingback: Dear “Whining Adjuncts,” Just for the Record Even I Think That This Is Tone Deaf | The Academe Blog

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