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Reporting from the New Faculty Majority Summit

picture of a mountain summitHere at ProfHacker we like to talk about things in academia that “everyone just knows.” It turns out that many people don’t know these things because they go unspoken for one reason or another. And among those things is the role that non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty play in higher education. It’s not the readers of ProfHacker that don’t know about adjunct labor, however, so much as the general public. On Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend an event that is looking to change that.

I was at the first national summit—Reclaiming Academic Democracy—called by the New Faculty Majority (NFM). NFM is a three-year old group that seeks to (1) highlight the extent of NTT faculty (hint: they teach the majority of classes and students across the country) and (2) the conditions under which many of these NTT faculty labor (hint: it ain’t pretty). The goals of the summit were to bring together a coalition of NTT faculty, tenure-track faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, administrators, and more to learn from one another and to discuss concrete steps for moving forward.

The NFM is not alone in this mission of trying to articulate the issues facing NTT faculty. Indeed, as Adrianna Kezar, Associate Professor of Higher Education at University of Southern California, mentioned in her address, many different groups have proposed many different solutions to the problem, running from equitable pay to creating a required ratio of tenure-track to NTT faculty to rethinking the pathways to tenure. The intractability of the NTT problem is not just related to the number of possible solutions but also to institutional and state-government specificities idiosyncrasies. What the NFM summit did, then, was to bring a coalition of the concerned together to articulate principles that could be part of any particular solution Simultaneously, they invited participants to see that NTT faculty need not feel isolated and to acknowledge the reality of their majority.

One might expect a gathering of NTT faculty to quickly turn into a litany of grievances. Gary Rhoades, Professor of Higher Education at University of Arizona and former General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), for example, pointed out the irony that higher education claims to be the pathway to a middle class livelihood while denying that to those who teach therein. Maria Maisto, the president of NFM, dedicated the summit in memory of Doug Wright, an NTT faculty member who was passed over for a tenure-track position where he taught, subsequently saw his course load cut, lost his health insurance, and then was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Debra Leigh Scott spoke about some of the people featured in her and Chris LaBree’s documentary ‘Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America.

But while the problems of adjuncting were acknowledged, then, the NFM has wisely chosen to focus not on how NTT faculty are treated but on how the treatment of NTT faculty affects student learning. This message is much more likely to find a wide audience that includes students, parents, and even legislators. (The NFM apparently invited every Congressional representative and Senator; Massachusetts Representative John Tierney sent a recorded message since he wasn’t able to attend.) Not only is this a great approach for tackling NTT issues, it’s an ace move for ProfHackers who are looking to build support in their community, college, or department for change. Showing how your issue relates to the goals of higher education helps people understand why they should be on your side. While I’ve previously written about six ways to make adjunction more effective and fulfilling, I think this approach is perhaps the best tip that I’ve ever heard and will affect how I talk about adjuncting in the future. Another point, which John A. Casey Jr. covers in his summary of the event, is that NTT faculty need remember to act “as if” they are stable members of a department. Get a hold of that faculty handbook and bring it along with you to meetings; you are, after all, faculty. Talk to your tenure-track colleagues and, in John’s words, “tell them what you are working on in and outside of the classroom.”

The program wasn’t perfect, of course. I got the feeling that the speakers were preaching to the choir and we seemed to be speaking more about generalities than about specific measures we could enact at our own institutions. Granted, there are those local idiosyncrasies again, but I would have at least liked to try to formulate a plan of attack. But perhaps this view is too short-sighted given the long-range goals of the NFM, as suggested by this fabulous and equally skeptical reflection from Josh Boldt, a NTT faculty member at University of Georgia. (Full disclosure: The NFM invited me to the summit as part of their “social media team” and paid for my airfare and hotel.)

Again, the NFM isn’t the only group that is working to draw attention to NTT faculty. Other important players in this space include the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), and the AAUP, which Jason has contractually obligated me to mention. The Modern Language Association is another group who are working to improve working conditions of everyone who teaches at colleges and universities. The new MLA president, Michael Bérubé, attended the summit building on his recent announcement that a key focus for his presidency will be NTT faculty and the organization also has an Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit, which I’ve found useful for explaining to non-academics the realities of faculty labor.

If you want to know what happened during the summit, blow by blow, you can search its Twitter hashtag: #newfac12. And while Lee Skallerup Bessette created a Twitter archive for the event, she provided most of her coverage by live blogging the summit at Inside Higher Ed. I suspect that you’ll see articles in The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, to say nothing of blog posts from more participants in short order. Finally, the NFM provided a host of resources for the summit, which are well worth perusing.

If you’re concerned about the effect of casualized labor in the academy and on students (as well as on the NTT faculty), you could do far worse than joining the NFM. It’s a great way to stay in the loop on issues that matter for all of us. While there’s a suggested $15 annual dues, membership is free for those who can’t afford those dues. I’ve joined; why don’t you consider it?

Did you participate in the NFM Summit in person or from afar? What were the highlights for you?

Lead image: the summit / Dave Young / CC BY 2.0

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