Adjunct equity: everyone's issue
Editor’s note: As this newspaper went to press, adjunct higher-education faculty around the country, including at CUNY, were gearing up for Campus Equity Week, including a day of action to be held nationwide on October 31. The week, according to its website, “seeks to promote awareness of the harmful consequences of the precarious situation of faculty in higher education, to organize for action and to build solidarity among stakeholders.”
During the 11 years I made my living teaching in so-called adjunct positions in California and New York, twice I was hired perfunctorily when the instructor of record suddenly died less than a week before the class started. Once I traveled straight from the airport after a cross-country flight to be interviewed to teach a class that started the following morning at 8 a.m. At least I was interviewed first. “Just-in-time” hiring practices in higher education have resulted in plenty of people being hired over the phone or via email.
Though I was glad to get the work and such situations warranted extraordinary hiring procedures, something about them struck me as warped. I now understand more fully the far-reaching negative consequences of a system that relies so heavily on both part-time and full-time faculty who lack the due process protections of a traditional tenure-track position. The low status of contingent faculty (anyone whose ongoing employment is “contingent” on factors outside of their control, such as funding and enrollment) has led, among other things, to unprofessional treatment at the hands of administrators who aren’t held accountable – despite the fact that such employees make up about three-quarters of the academic workforce.
“So much for a terminal degree and years of experience teaching” is the mantra that drifts through the thoughts of every adjunct faculty member who lives from paycheck to paycheck as I did then, a mantra that over time can make you cynical and bitter if you don’t channel that anger into activism instead. Building mutually supportive relationships with others who are also talking and doing what they can to improve our profession is uplifting.
I am deeply grateful to the tenure-track faculty and staff colleagues who have supported my activism. Some of them remember a period of “adjunct hell” they experienced: abysmal pay, no benefits, poor working conditions and nonexistent job security; others are simply motivated by the moral and ethical dimensions of what their coworkers endure. Adjunct faculty are not the only ones moved by righteous anger about the way that dedicated professionals are treated.
Campus Equity Week (CEW) is a time to come together to do something about this demeaning treatment of the majority of faculty. The campaign has served as a landmark event in the activism calendar since 2001, and this year a grassroots effort has resulted in an arts-based approach that takes it to a new level.
Participating in CEW activities should be important to everyone who cares about higher education; contingent employment practices undermine the whole profession. Above all, CEW affords an opportunity to organize across our ranks and to cement solidarity at a time when unions are threatened more than ever. Just asking community members to sign a petition can engage them in a conversation that may lead to their further participation in union efforts.
I wish I had become an activist earlier. It would have heartened me and fortified me to be supported by sisters and brothers whom I could turn to when a semester seemed to go on forever or when the consciousness of my marginalized status overwhelmed and demoralized me. The grind of juggling obligations at multiple institutions year-round takes a toll that’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t had to do it. Just staying on top of all the administrative communications and scheduling at multiple institutions was wearing.
I am blessed with good health and physical stamina, but by the end of spring sem-ester every year, the high stress level and exhaustion broke me down. Unlike some of my less fortunate coworkers who had to resort to the proverbial ramen noodles and peanut butter diet over the summer when there was no work – and, for many, no unemployment compensation either – I was fortunate enough to have a recurrent summer session gig.
When I finally obtained one of the union-negotiated full-time non-tenure-track positions on my SUNY campus, it meant that I could remain in the profession. I had reached a point where I believed I could not continue to teach without acquiescing to lifelong poverty and oppression, not to mention compromised physical and mental health. If that full-time job had not come along I would have left the profession, as so many others had done when they could no longer cope.
The full-time position doubled my per-course salary, and after a probationary period it has provided greater job security in the form of three-year term appointments. It enabled me to take on union work. My activism in the national movement to achieve equitable terms and conditions of employment is driven by the memory of those grueling years working in exploitative part-time positions at various institutions. I am ever mindful of how privileged I am in comparison with my adjunct colleagues. Students pay the same tuition to take our courses, but I am paid a living wage, and if I were to be non-renewed, I would receive a year’s notice.
How amazing it is that there are any adjunct faculty activists at all, given the hardships they face! Because I lived that life for a decade, I empathize with the many thousands who feel too precarious, too vulnerable and too overextended to fight back. Of course it would be helpful if more of them would take heart and take part, but shouldn’t those of us who do not have to struggle to make a living from adjuncting lend a hand and do whatever we can to promote their empowerment? Their sacrifices subsidize the profession we are all a part of; without their work, academia would come to a screeching halt.