Adjunct Professors Discuss Labor Issues and College ‘Corporatization’ at Biennial Conference

by E Wayne Ross on August 14, 2006

The Chronicle: Adjunct Professors Discuss Labor Issues and College ‘Corporatization’ at Biennial Conference

The biennial conference of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor brought more than 200 non-tenure-track professors, activists, and union leaders together here this weekend to discuss the precarious employment situation of more than half the people who teach college courses.

Over three days of workshops and panels, the participants traded ideas about organizing strategies, legislative efforts, and threats to academic freedom for adjuncts.

The attendees came from all over Canada, the United States, and Mexico — many of them paying their own way. Conference-travel budgets, after all, are one of the many perks that tenure-track professors have and adjuncts lack.

“We have no institutional support other than what comes out of our own pockets,” said Flo Hatcher, a member of the executive committee of the American Association of University Professors, who is an adjunct professor of art at Southern Connecticut State University.The conference began with “state of the nation” reports delivered by speakers from the countries in attendance.

In Canada and in the United States, the delegates reported, the challenges are much the same: Decreases in public spending on higher education have led to tuition increases for students and to the erosion of tenure protections for professors.

Although all professors once performed a mix of research, teaching, and service duties, those roles have been progressively “unbundled,” creating a two-tiered professoriate, said Greg Allain, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

More and more, he said, tenure is the preserve of the elite research professor. For everyone else, short-term contracts are the rule, because of administrators who place a high priority on “flexibility,” he said.

Mr. Allain said his association had gained several victories in bargaining for adjuncts, winning things like Internet access and personal offices on many campuses. But, he said, those victories have not been enough. He said the group had started arguing for a “pro rata” model of employment for adjuncts, in which an adjunct’s pay and benefits, as well as his or her research and governance responsibilities, would be directly proportional to the adjunct’s share of a full-timer’s load.

Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, delivered the report for the United States. He said he hoped that the large numbers of adjuncts at American institutions would assert themselves in their local unions because adjuncts are more sensitive to the crises affecting higher education. “I urge contingent faculty to take over every union that they can,” he said.

“We are all in the same boat,” he went on. “Only you can teach all of us the boat is leaking.”

Lawrence Gold, director of the higher-education division of the American Federation of Teachers, told the meeting that his union was planning a campaign to push legislation in a number of states that would “address all aspects of the academic staffing crisis.”

“We have to work at the policy level as well as at the bargaining level,” said Mr. Gold.

If “corporatization” was the name most American speakers gave to the evil they perceived to be threatening higher education, “neoliberalism” was what those from Mexico called it. One speaker, Maria Teresa Lechuga, a 30-year-old contract professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, described the conditions of her employment in a tone of mordant humor.

She began her academic career, she said, after getting a graduate degree in educational sciences. But her teaching responsibilities expanded quickly. “They asked me if I knew anything about art or linguistics,” she said through a translator. “I said yes, and I got the job.”

“I worked for six months,” she said, “and then they asked me if I knew anything about teaching history. I said yes.”

Five years into her career, Ms. Lechuga said, she was teaching mathematics, art, history, and Italian — just to make ends meet. “We no longer have contracts for full time or part time,” she said. “We only have contracts for hours.”

She suggested that her situation — which has her teaching a grab bag of liberal-arts courses with little qualifications and low pay — was the result of a system that places little value on the “humanist project” of education. Instead, she said, the system cares most about producing a reliable work force.

Mr. Nelson, of the AAUP, echoed that concern. “The less academic freedom there is, the less job security there is, the easier it is for universities to become a place just for job training,” he said.

Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education