Tenured professor takes up the cause of adjuncts
Source Louis Proyect
Date 10/05/11/15:47
Confessions of a Tenured Professor
By Peter D.G. Brown

I MUST CONFESS RIGHT off that I did not become a contingent labor
activist until I turned 60, a mere six years ago. Until then, I
was a fairly typical senior professor, passionately involved in
teaching my students and interacting with my tenured colleagues on
a variety of faculty governance committees. I have also pursued a
fairly active research agenda. In addition to publishing my own
scholarly articles, I have edited over a hundred books dealing
with modern German literature, Jewish history and women’s studies.
This year saw the publication of the third book I have written on
Oskar Panizza, the 19th-century German author.

When I began teaching at Columbia and Barnard in the 1960s, almost
all the positions in their German departments were tenure-track. I
came to SUNY New Paltz in the 70s, when there were only a couple
of virtually silent and invisible part-time adjuncts among the 35
teachers in the entire Foreign Language Division. It was not until
a few years after the dawn of the new millennium that I, like Rip
Van Winkle, "awoke" after decades to a brand new reality: the
number of tenure-track faculty in my department had shrunk to a
mere 10, while some two dozen adjuncts were now teaching the bulk
of our foreign language courses. Yikes!

As everyone in academe now knows, the professoriate has
experienced a radical transformation over the past few decades.
These enormous changes have occurred so gradually, however, that
they are only now beginning to receive attention. The general
public has remained largely unaware of the staffing crisis in
higher education. As contingent colleagues around the country came
to outnumber the tenured faculty and as they were assigned an ever
larger share of the curriculum, they became an inescapable fact of
academic departmental life.

Nationally, adjuncts and contingent faculty — we call them ad-cons
— include part-time/adjunct faculty; full-time, nontenure-track
faculty; and graduate employees. Together these employees now make
up an amazing 73 percent of the nearly 1.6 million-employee
instructional workforce in higher education and teach over half of
all undergraduate classes at public institutions of higher
education. Their number has now swollen to more than a million
teachers and growing.

I must confess that belonging to the de facto elite minority makes
me very uneasy. Most tenured faculty view themselves as superior
teachers with superior minds. In this view, the arduous six-year
tenure process clearly proves that all of us are superior to
"them" and have deservedly earned our superior jobs by our
superior gifts and our superior efforts. I must also confess that
we tenured faculty really do appreciate the fact that ad-cons have
unburdened us from having to teach too many elementary foreign
language courses, English composition and the many other tedious
introductory, repetitive and highly labor-intensive classes, to
which we tenured souls have such a strong aversion that it must be

As I got to know my adjunct colleagues better, I began to see
these largely invisible, voiceless laborers as a hugely diverse
group of amazing teachers. Some are employed at full-time jobs in
education or elsewhere, some are retired or supported by wealthier
others, but far too many are just barely surviving. While
instances of dumpster diving are rare, adjunct shopping is
typically limited to thrift stores, and decades-old cars sometimes
serve as improvised offices when these "roads scholars" are not
driving from campus to campus, all in a frantic attempt to cobble
together a livable income. Some adjuncts rely on food stamps or
selling blood to supplement their poverty-level wages, which have
been declining in real terms for decades. At SUNY New Paltz, for
instance, adjuncts’ compensation when adjusted for inflation has
plummeted 49 percent since 1970, while the president’s salary and
those of other top administrators have increased by 35 percent.

In considering the plight of ad-cons, it is noteworthy that
throughout SUNY they are represented, along with their tenure
track colleagues, by United University Professions (UUP),
America’s largest higher education union with some 35,000 members.
The union’s contract has yet to establish any salary minimum
whatsoever for the many thousands of UUP members who teach as
adjuncts throughout the SUNY system that serves 465,000 students.
After I first learned that each campus had a Part-Time Concerns
Committee, I was dismayed to discover that our UUP chapter’s
“Part-Time Concerns Rep” was actually a tenured professor who was
out of the country for a year doing research. I soon became
convinced that our adjuncts could use a more independent
organization and a stronger voice of their own.

When I sent out an e-mail with the subject line “Calling all
Adjuncts” in 2004, about 10 percent of the 350 adjuncts teaching
here showed up for an initial organizational meeting. This was the
largest meeting of adjuncts that had ever occurred in the
college’s 182-year history. At that meeting, several dozen brave
adjuncts formed the Adjunct Faculty Association. Soon thereafter,
the adjunct group launched a highly visible campaign to push for
higher compensation, and in less than a year it had brought about
the first substantive wage increase in years.

The adjunct association's leaders would later also become
activists within UUP, where they broadened their struggle for
contingent equity. Together with adjunct activists from other SUNY
campuses, we formed a Coalition for Contingent Faculty within UUP.
A recent report recommends the establishment of a new statewide
officer’s position, vice president for contingent employees, as
well as structural changes within the union to ensure meaningful
ad-con representation on UUP’s executive board, in its delegate
assembly, and on its contract negotiations team.

Five years after convening the adjuncts in New Paltz, I did
something similar on a national level. I confess to having served
as emergency midwife at the birth of New Faculty Majority: The
National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity. NFM, the
only national organization advocating exclusively for ad-cons
fifty-two weeks of the year, is now incorporated as a nonprofit
educational organization in Ohio, awaiting federal tax-exempt
status. NFM’s latest project is a major national initiative to
remove impediments at the state and federal level, which, since
the 1970s, uniquely and systematically deny unemployment
compensation to ad-cons when they become unemployed. Tenure-track
faculty, ad-cons, unions, legislators and other government
officials urgently need to work together to assure that unemployed
college teachers can finally receive unemployment compensation,
just like workers in other professions. The need is particularly
acute in difficult times like these with critically high rates of
unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy.

Those contingent colleagues who were unfamiliar with my previous
work have easily overcome their initial hesitation and puzzlement
at working with me, a member of the oppressive tenured elite that
they have grown to generally mistrust, if not actually despise.
They saw me invest thousands of hours and substantial financial
resources to advance the cause of contingent equity, and their
fear has long since dissipated. But even now, when they disapprove
of a position I’m taking and want me to back off, they are quick
to accuse me of acting like a typical tenured professor, their
ultimate insult. And I must confess that it really hurts.

I am also asked by tenured faculty why on earth I would be
spending so much time and effort advocating for a group of
"others" whose fate I have never shared. I suppose this is a
perfectly legitimate question, but I do find it a bit odd. Why
wouldn’t I insist that these precarious colleagues be allowed
equitable compensation, job security, fringe benefits and academic
freedom? And why shouldn’t I want them to have equitable access to
unemployment compensation, professional development and advancement?

What kind of callous person would I be if I were not profoundly
disturbed by such obvious inequality? And what does it say about
my entire profession when over 70 percent of those teaching in
American colleges today are precarious, at-will workers? This new
faculty majority, frequently and erroneously mislabeled as
part-timers, are often full-time, long-term perma-temps, whose
obscenely low wages and total lack of job security constitute what
is only now being recognized as the "dirty little secret" in
higher education.

The exploitation is indeed filthy, but for me and my tenured
colleagues, this scandal is neither little nor secret: the vast
majority of those well-educated, skilled professionals who daily
teach millions of students in our classrooms are actually being
paid far less than the workers who nightly clean them. Ad-cons are
treated as chattel or as servants who can be dismissed at the will
and whim of any administrator from departmental chair to dean or
provost. And woe to those ad-cons who elicit the wrath of their
campus presidents! They can be non-renewed without any due process
whatsoever, simply zapped, either individually or by the hundreds.
We all know this, but most tenured faculty colleagues choose to
simply look the other way. C’est la vie. Tough luck. Life just
isn’t fair. Keep on walking and change the subject.

This is such an outrageous injustice that I am embarrassed and
shamed by my tenured colleagues’ widespread inaction. Even most of
my union "brother and sisters" voice little concern about a
two-tiered system where they make at least three times as much per
course as their adjunct colleagues and enjoy all the other
wonderful perks of tenure: lifetime job security and the academic
freedom it provides, regular opportunities for advancement and
promotion, comfortable pensions, large furnished offices,
telephones, computers, sabbaticals and other generous leave
opportunities — the list goes on and on. As the wine flows freely
at lavish banquets during delegate assemblies, my fellow unionists
sing “Solidarity Forever!” Yet the huge numbers of ad-cons are
barely represented at delegate assemblies or in most union
leadership councils. Even though unions focus now and then on the
poorest and weakest members of their bargaining units, in my
experience ad-con issues are only included, if at all, at the very
bottom of organized labor’s legislative agendas. Unfortunately,
across-the-board pay raises inevitably increase the gap between
tenure-track and adjunct faculty.

The argument frequently cited to explain or justify the inferior
status of ad-cons is that most of them lack terminal degrees.
Perhaps a quarter to a third possess doctorates and other terminal
degrees, but most do an excellent job in daily teaching millions
of college students their courses in English, business, law,
medicine, science, foreign languages, math, art, education,
history, business, forestry, speech, media communication, theater,
music, social sciences, anthropology, film, philosophy and just
about any other field imaginable. Though less than half of the
ad-cons have Ph.D.'s or other terminal degrees in their field,
there is no evidence I have seen to suggest that those with
terminal degrees are actually better teachers than those without
them. While faculty with the most advanced degrees are likely to
be pursuing more significant research, that is hardly
justification for treating those focused primarily on teaching as
if they were expendable, easily replaceable field hands.

I confess that I must have been overly naďve, but I was utterly
dumbfounded when an administrator repeatedly told me that he saw
no value whatsoever to the institution in keeping any adjunct
instructors more than a couple of years, after which they ought to
simply move on and find something else to do. I’m sure my tenured
colleagues would find it totally unacceptable if they could be
told at the end of any semester that they should simply leave,
that there was no value to their accumulated expertise, thank you,
because the college wished to hire a fresh young face at a lower

It is time that more tenured faculty woke up to the fact that
their entire professional existence, replete with their
comfortable incomes, their fascinating research, their coveted
sabbaticals, their agreeable teaching loads of less
labor-intensive and more satisfying courses — all this is made
possible by the indispensable efforts of a million ad-cons doing
so much more for so much less. Equitable compensation, health and
retirement benefits, opportunities for advancement and
professional development: all these should be available for
everyone in higher education and are long overdue. Since teachers’
working conditions equal students’ learning conditions, it is a
truly deplorable message we are sending our students! With more
than 70 percent of our college teachers lacking any kind of job
security, academic freedom has largely disappeared from our
colleges, drastically lowering the overall educational quality. It
is of such grave concern to professional societies and the
American Association of University Professors that they are now
strongly advocating some form of tenure for contingent academic labor.

I must confess that, as a group, ad-cons often strike me as more
fun to be with than many of my tenured colleagues, whose focus on
research interests is typically quite narrow. It's difficult for
me to hear my tenured colleagues chatting about vacation travels,
car shopping or the challenges of sending their children to
private schools and colleges, when so many of our contingent
colleagues are trying desperately to find summer work, praying
that their cars will run for another year and wondering if their
children will even be able to afford college. Adjuncts typically
focus on teaching, and the precarious nature of their employment
drives them to excel in their classroom performance. Not
surprisingly, they often have a more lively interest in developing
innovative pedagogy. In my experience, most faculty meetings that
exclude ad-cons tend to largely serve administrative interests.
Even union meetings with my tenured colleagues, though frequently
lasting five hours, often accomplish precious little. In contrast,
organizational meetings with my busy contingent colleagues last
half as long and are invariably dynamic, interactive and productive.

Tenured faculty members across the country need to wake up now and
begin to play a crucial role in supporting equity for their
contingent colleagues. This is your official wake-up call, folks,
along with a cordial invitation to all ad-cons and tenure-track
faculty to please join New Faculty Majority today! If more
tenure-track faculty would summon the courage to speak out in
support of their fourth-class colleagues, it could really make a
decisive difference in college senates and governance councils, in
union governing bodies and in state legislatures. Not only are
tenured faculty members largely immune from retaliation; they
possess widespread credibility plus significant monetary and other
resources to help tip the scales in favor of equity. Slavery was
not ended without the selfless support of free persons. Women
could not have achieved their substantial gains over the past
century without the outspoken support of more than a few men, nor
would civil rights and gay rights struggles have been able to
successfully advance without the sizable backing from those
fortunate enough not to be victims of discrimination.

Will my tenured colleagues in higher education heed the urgent
call to help restore academic freedom, solidarity in fact as well
as in song, and the integrity of the profession? I must confess, I
really don’t know.

Peter D.G. Brown is a Distinguished Service Professor of German at
the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to
being a founding member of the board of directors of New Faculty
Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent
Equity, he serves on the executive board of United University
Professions and is vice president for academics in the New Paltz
UUP chapter.

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