Adjunct Faculty Members Feel Left Out of White House's Community-College Summit

September 30, 2010

Days before the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges is set to take place, concerns are being raised that adjunct faculty members are not well represented at the gathering.

Adjunct faculty members and advocacy organizations say the summit cannot seriously address the nation's college-completion goals without significant and direct input from the non-tenure-track instructors who make up most of the professoriate.

Summit organizers have said that others attending the meeting, such as former community-college instructors, would represent adjuncts' issues. But that is not good enough, current adjuncts and their advocates say, because those individuals are too far removed from the everyday experience of teaching in today's classrooms.

Earlier this week, the White House sent out a list of invited participants, which included a corporate CEO, college presidents, and military leaders. There was no mention of a faculty member, other than Jill Biden, who is a community-college instructor and the summit's lead organizer.

On Thursday, the American Association of University Professors sent  an e-mail to its members questioning how the summit can have a "full discussion of the challenges and opportunities involved in reaching the nation's educational goals" without including those who actually teach community-college students.

The e-mail encourages members to contact the White House and make their voice heard.

For its part, the White House said it would never exclude faculty members from the summit, which will be held Tuesday.

Courtney O'Donnell, the communications director for Ms. Biden's office, said that "given the critical role that faculty play in the lives of students at community colleges," both the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers were invited to participate. Representatives from the two organizations are scheduled to attend the summit, she said.

Ms. O'Donnell also said that both full-time and part-time faculty members will participate in the conference. However, she would not provide an exact number of part-time faculty members attending and would not release names because of privacy concerns.

Martha J. Kanter, U.S. under secretary of education, said that space constraints limited the number of individuals who could be invited to between 100 to 150, but that faculty members would be represented and have a chance to contribute to the discussions during breakout sessions.

"The White House took special steps to reach out to all stakeholders," she said. "We will be listening to all voices."

The Front Lines

President Obama announced the summit in March, but details about the event were not released until mid-September. In the past week, it has surfaced that various individuals, including college presidents and students, received invitations to the summit.

That is also when Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for adjuncts, began to notice that adjunct faculty members were not getting invitations.

Ms. Maisto, who teaches English at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, said she is baffled over why the faculty is not playing a more-significant role in the discussion. She is especially troubled by the fact that Ms. Biden, an effusive supporter of community colleges, would leave the adjunct faculty's voice out of the summit.

"Who is at the heart of community colleges? Students and faculty," Ms. Maisto said. "Ms. Biden understands that and is eloquent on that relationship. That is why this is so puzzling."

It was clear early on that adjunct faculty members wanted to play a significant role in the event. A blog set up by the White House to elicit suggestions for the summit was quickly inundated by comments from community-college instructors. Most of the suggestions made it clear that the summit had to include their voice because they are the ones on the front lines of educating community-college students.

Adjunct faculty members said only they can convey the complexity of teaching the varied student population usually found at two-year institutions.

Numerous blog suggestions advocated for better pay and working conditions. Many adjuncts work part time, travel from campus to campus, and are paid less than full-time professors on the tenure track. Adjunct faculty members said those types of working conditions can negatively affect students (part-time instructors sometimes have a hard time meeting with students about their work), especially at a time when the Obama administration has set its sights on increasing the number of Americans with college degrees.

Nsé Ufot, government relations officer at the American Association of University Professors, said it is unlikely that anyone other than an adjunct faculty member would bring up that topic at the summit.