John Hess: Teacher and Faculty Leader

This morning word came via AAUP Contingent Faculty Committee member Joe Berry’s indispensable COCAL Updates of the death last week of John Hess, following a six-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease.  John has been described by many as, in Berry’s words, “one of the fathers of the contingent faculty movement.”  The description is well-merited; John’s work on behalf of those off the tenure-track is legendary.  But I prefer to remember John as a teacher and leader of all faculty.

I first met John Hess when he was serving on the staff of the AAUP-affiliated California Faculty Association (CFA), which represents faculty, tenure-track and contingent, in the California State University (CSU) system.  At the time I was becoming active in the union, but I was also serving as chair of my department during a period when our administration was compelling us to rapidly expand use of contingent, mainly part-time, faculty.  I recognized then as I do now the threat this posed to both the professionalism of the faculty and to the quality of the education we could offer our students.  So I fought as hard as I could to obtain more tenure-track positions.  We didn’t get enough, but I am proud to say that several of the lines we won went to previously part-time contingent colleagues in our department.

What I didn’t adequately recognize at the time, however, was that the press toward contingency was creating a super-exploited faculty sub-class.  I naively thought that most of the lecturers (the term in the CSU for faculty off the tenure-track) would eventually find permanent positions, if not with us then elsewhere.  It was John who patiently educated me to understand that the reality had changed dramatically and that most of our lecturers would either leave the profession or more likely be compelled to cobble together a semblance of a career from part-time work, ever vulnerable to the whims of administrators and budgets.

But John never once posed the interests of our lecturers in opposition to the interests of their more fortunate colleagues, like me.  He understood viscerally that we will only succeed if we unite.  He was a patient teacher, a diligent and dedicated CFA organizer, and through all vicissitudes — and we had our differences, as colleagues always do — an extraordinarily nice guy.

John was also quite modest and soft-spoken, which could hide sometimes not only the fire in his belly but also the strength of his determination.  Hence it was not until well after he retired from CFA that I learned of his pioneering role in organizing CSU faculty.  John taught as a lecturer at Sonoma State University and, for fourteen years, at San Francisco State, both CSU campuses.  (He also taught at American University and the University of Maryland.)  In the CSU he was a leader of the lecturers in the United Professors of California, which in the early 1980s narrowly lost a representation election to the then more cautious CFA.  John joined CFA, urging other UPC colleagues to do so as well, and along with my dear friend and colleague Elizabeth Hoffman (who would become one of the first contingent faculty members to play a national leadership role in the AAUP), organized the CFA Lecturers Council, which quickly became a powerful force not only for lecturers’ interests but, equally if not more important, for strengthening and building CFA’s membership and influence more broadly.  When new and more aggressive leadership took office in the CFA in the late ’90s they hired John, who like many contingent colleagues had been laid off during the budget cutbacks of the early ’90s, to staff the Council and to help organize both contingent and tenure-track faculty in the SF Bay Area.

According to Berry, “John is probably the single individual most responsible, though certainly not alone, for the development of what many believe (including me) is the best collective bargaining agreement covering contingent faculty in the USA, negotiated by” CFA.

Last November the New Faculty Majority chose John to receive the first Steve Street Award for contingent faculty activism.  The Award Committee noted that “John’s commitment to his teaching and scholarship has been as deep as his commitment to his activism.”  In April delegates to the 82nd CFA Assembly honored John for his decades of dedication and persistence in organizing for fairness for Lecturers teaching in the California State University.  Jonathan Karpf, CFA Associate VP-Lecturers, North, and AAUP activist, told the delegates:

John Hess’s dedication is evident in his tenacious passion in not only setting up the initial Lecturers Council in the 1980’s, but helping it —along with Elizabeth Hoffman—to become what it is today.  I attribute my own CFA activism to John’s quiet persistence when he was the field rep assigned to SJSU in the late 90’s; he was my model for what a CFA activist is and does.

I was never personally that close to John and I regret that after his retirement from CFA I failed to keep in touch with him, although I was aware of his unfortunate illness.  But I like to think that John gained some small comfort from my own growing involvement in CFA and then AAUP, for which his work with me should be given a share of credit.  As both teacher (of students and of his colleagues) and organizer, John was indeed a model for many, including me.  In honoring his memory we honor more than a legacy of contingent activism.  We recognize and should rededicate ourselves to a principle that John held dear: that despite the many distinctions that may seemingly divide us, we are all, contingent and tenured, full-time and part-time, members of a single profession.   We are One Faculty.  Thank you, John, for your activism, your dedication, and for a life truly well-lived.

2 thoughts on “John Hess: Teacher and Faculty Leader

  1. Thanks, Hank, for this eloquent testimonial. I’d like to add that, even for activists such as myself who never really knew John, he was a remarkable presence, especially through his participation on the COCAL listserv (ADJ-L), which for many years was the primary avenue of communication for the contingent faculty movement. Of course, John’s experience in helping to reform the California Faculty Association gave his voice, always probing and insightful, tremendous credibility.

    For anyone interested in a detailed account of the role that adjuncts played in the early days of that initiative, please read John’s and Elizabeth Hoffman’s chapter in Keith Hoeller’s “Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System.” As John and Elizabeth write, “[F]or us, CFA has been a place where we had the opportunity to participate in changing a union, a process that has enriched our lives and, we believe, benefited others. We have a story to tell about that process.”

  2. Thank you for this marvelous dedication to John. I have been a friend of John’s in California over only the last decade. I wish I’d met him earlier. A great man, with a gentle soul but “fire in the belly” as you accurately describe here. Please forward news of John’s death to anyone who might want to know, but may not see this blog. I have email addresses for only a handful of his former colleagues. In gratitude, Courtenay

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