This is a guest post by Ron Bramhall, a contributor to the recent September-October issue of Academe. Bramhall is a senior instructor in the Charles H. Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon. He teaches business leadership and communication, and the legal environment of business. He represents the interests of approximately 950 contingent faculty as the vice president of non-tenure-track instructional affairs for United Academics of the University of Oregon and is also a member of the union’s bargaining team and implementation committee.
At the July 2014 AFT Convention in Los Angeles, a Contingent Faculty Caucus was launched to provide a cohesive national voice on contingent faculty issues. That we still haven’t agreed on an official name highlights one of the many problem this group of faculty face.
In the first meeting of that group, two issues emerged that strike me as important national conversations for contingent faculty – how we are labeled and what we are fighting for.
The conversation about labels is a charged one and evokes strong reactions. When I read one definition of adjunct, “something added to another thing but not essential to it”, I inadvertently offended some of my colleagues. They thought I was defining them that way. My point was that labels matter and we should, in every small way possible, fight back against the labels that define us in inaccurate, disparaging ways. None of the nontenure track colleagues I work with are nonessential add-ons. The University of Oregon would cease to function without those specific critical faculty. Part of reclaiming the respect and rights we should have as faculty is rejecting labels that define us otherwise. Our collective bargaining agreement at University of Oregon establishes our entire bargaining unit as “faculty” first and foremost: “United Academics…is composed of the faculty of the University of Oregon”.
The other conversation is about what contingent faculty should be fighting for. I don’t presume to know what that should be for others. I do think there are two basic positions that sometimes conflict. On the one hand, contingent faculty across the country have very real and immediate needs related to working conditions – wages, workload, health care, job security and predictability to name a few. The fight for these issues sometimes means acknowledging, in the moment, that contingency is a given so we must look for gains where we can. On the other hand, some would say we should be fighting against contingency itself – that accepting our lot as contingent faculty by scrounging for incremental gains in pay or working conditions reinforces the system of contingency.
The issue is settled for me yet. I think we have to do both but I’m not always sure one fight serves the other well. At University of Oregon, we made great strides in pay and working conditions for contingent faculty. We also strengthened their academic freedom and shared governance rights. But we are still “contingent” faculty, and contingency in an employment-at-will situation doesn’t always allow for the full exercise of those academic freedom and shared governance rights.
The issue of labels and what we are fighting for are intertwined – fighting for recognition as faculty vital to the mission of our institutions is a step in the larger battle for pay, working conditions and even the elimination of contingency as the default.