The 45 comments posted on The Chronicle's February 22 article about the new National Coalition for Adjunct Equity covered the usual spectrum of opinion on this contentious, multifaceted issue. There were expressions of support for the nascent coalition, which seeks to become the "national voice for adjunct faculty members," and expressions of contempt, as well as remarks about the many related issues: unions, gender, nomenclature and job description, tenure, academic freedom, and so on.
The posters addressed one another by name and/or comment number, they made and refuted generalizations, and they used multiple exclamation points. Sometimes the debate got personal with words like "stupidity" and "complacency."
But the most unsettling comment was one of the soberest and most empathetic to the plight of adjuncts, who now account for almost 70 percent of the nation's faculty members:
"This is indeed a serious problem, but the time is precisely wrong to expect much change," wrote a poster who described himself as a dean at a private university. He noted that about 20 percent of his campus course offerings were taught by adjuncts because, he said, "they cost less than tenure-stream faculty." He added: "I don't argue the morality and I support both reducing my reliance on adjuncts and also raising their pay. But I can't get blood from a turnip and I can't convince my provost that now is a good time to raise tuition in order to come up with the very large budget increases to make this moral move one that is financially viable."
Of course, that's the reasoning of a cigarette smoker or any other addict who knows all the good reasons for quitting but can never find the right time to do it. And a moral argument can't be deflected much less refuted with numbers, even indisputable ones. Some in academe actually do try to justify treating contingent faculty members unfairly on the grounds that adjuncts sign their own contracts, don't do as much work as tenure-track faculty members, and/or often have other jobs anyway.
Sure, those claims are all accurate enough. But they are to the essential conditions of adjunct inequity what the arguments of free choice and individual rights are to the link between cigarettes and cancer.
Such reasoning is precisely the opposite of that espoused by our country's new president. Into the teeth of the recession he's now thrown education, along with health care and energy. President Obama's call for every American to commit to at least a year of higher education or job training beyond high school, followed by his restructured budget proposals on student loans, represents a vision that is qualitatively different from the quantitative budget calculations that are causing colleges and universities across the country to either lay off their non-tenure-track faculty members or apologize for having to hire more of them.
The blog comment by that anonymous dean, and many similar pronouncements, tell the same old story that has for three decades been the tacit operating assumption of institutions that employ contingent faculty members on less-than-equitable terms: The practice is wrong but necessary.
The earnestness, soberness, and even compassion with which such "reasoning" is offered is precisely why the new adjunct coalition, and other similar efforts under way, are so valuable, precisely now. Our efforts are vital not only for the changes they might help effect but for the psychological boost they can offer those caught in academe's vast gap between ethics and figures, morality and wealth, the nobility of higher education and the indignity of scrambling for piecemeal work.
Expect the coalition's new mission statement to be posted soon on http://thenewfacultymajority.blogspot.com. (While I am not on the new coalition's organizing committee, I set up this blog and run it with others as a clearinghouse for adjunct information.) Also look to that site for other links — for facts and figures on contingency from recent documents produced by the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors. Such data are always good for psychological balance and well-being, especially for those adjuncts working in states and on campuses where organizing is illegal or pointedly discouraged. And national data can support local data for contingent instructors who are active already.
Join the discussion by adding a comment to our new blog or to the many other blogs, forums, and news organizations that write about the faculty labor system. Just two comments start a dialogue. To replace the same old story, share your own.
Another group to watch is the venerable Coalition for Contingent Academic Labor (Cocal), which has convened biannually at eight international conferences. It sponsored Campus Equity Week and founded an e-mail discussion group (for information on how to subscribe, click here). Now it's planning to create a regular e-mail newsletter and develop its own national Web site. (A Google search turns up regional Cocal sites, including one for the international conference held in San Diego last August, with links to yet more sources of information on contingency.) The aim of the group's new national Web site will be "to create a vibrant center to which contingent faculty [can] turn for help and useful advice."
Adjuncts elsewhere are taking action on their own: The February 9 "Funeral for Higher Education" held in the wake of the chancellor's budget-cutting recommendation at the University of Tennessee to "hire more adjunct teachers, and put full-time faculty members in an 'oversight' role" (The Chronicle, February 6); a protest by an AAUP chapter at the University of Rhode Island over its discontinued contract negotiations with part-time faculty members; a March 11 panel on "Adjuncts and Allies" at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication; a call for outdoor teach-ins across the country on April 30 to raise national awareness about how many undergraduate courses are taught by adjuncts (nearly half of those offered, according to the AFT). And the list goes on.
Even if you're not in a position to organize or take part in such actions, the knowledge that they're happening can do your heart good, and online information or expressions of support can do other hearts the same kind of good. We all need something to counteract the news, rumors, and fears of hiring freezes, contract nonrenewals, furloughs, increased class sizes, and worse. At least one institution, Weber State University, has actually proposed reducing adjunct pay to help resolve its budget problems (tenure-track faculty members there would only be affected if they teach courses above their regular load).
As John Richard Schrock said on University World News, "the severe economic downturn threatens to accelerate the outsourcing of university teaching."
But it doesn't have to: If two wars and a credit crisis can propel America through a race barrier and toward the end of at least one of those wars, the current economic turmoil can occasion a more equitable academe — one where heart, ethics, and concern for teaching missions and working conditions provide the balance that budget numbers can't.