Disposable Teachers

Cutting to the Bone on College Campuses through Reducing, Reusing, Repurposing

It’s the equal pay for equal work thing, stupid. Union strong and proud. (Bumper sticker on 1972 VW Rabbit, Vancouver, Canada).

Sure, that might be the mantra for the New Faculty Majority, but in a large sense, the fight to normalize the work, pay and benefits of part-time/contingent/temporary/migratory/irregular/at-will/auxiliary faculty, AKA “freeway fliers,” is one centered on dismantling the two-tiered system of inequitable pay and punitive treatment between tenure track faculty and non-tenure track faculty.

At one school where I recently taught, Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington, the battle for the minds and hearts of students is fought with almost 70 percent of the faculty hitched to the quasi-indentured servitude label, “adjunct.”

My fellow colleague, philosophy adjunct Keith Hoeller, lives a typical story of teaching 20 years at 10 colleges to cobble together a living. “The use of adjunct faculty is higher education’s way of outsourcing,” he recently said.

For this Puget Sound region, all 3.3 million of us, the April 20 teach-in – “The Solution to Faculty Apartheid” – was somewhat historic, so says several faculty involved in the break-away group of adjunct instructors organizing this event. A few of the GRAFA members – Green River Adjunct Faculty Association – have been teaching at GRCC for more than two decades each.

The two speakers both had global and localized perspectives on adjuncts – Frank Cosco with Vancouver Community College Faculty Association and Jack Longmate, Olympic College English instructor who is at the center of a battle with both the college and faculty union on moonlighting and academic freedom and retaliation.1

Both are the authors of “Program for Change, 2010-2030,” a manifesto festooned to the New Faculty Movement’s impetus to activate adjuncts around the North America, Mexico and other countries, to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, since the new majority is part-time and non-tenure track faculty:

The dysfunctional state of faculty employment in post-secondary education in 2010 is well documented and well known. Over the last few decades, corporatization has fragmented faculty. It has resulted in a caste-like structure with primarily two tiers. The majority of the faculty occupies the lower tier and is recognized as performing only a portion of the job, classroom instruction; these faculty tend to be compensated at a rate of pay in violation of the principle of ―equal pay for equal work, often resulting in a poverty-level income. They work in complete insecurity. They are left to draw upon the satisfaction of working with students as their chief inspiration to continue because of their dismal working conditions and the equally dismal prospects for improvement.

Cosco is a full-time VCC faculty member in ESOL and has worked with normalizing adjuncts since the 1980s. He’s also been a key official with the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL). This GRCC teach-in was made up of students, adjuncts and full-time faculty – and three faculty union folk, two TT and one PT.

We filmed it for You Tube distribution.

Union-led and Unionist-Thinking, and Proud of It.

It was clear early on in the teach-in that the Vancouver, BC, model is the pie in the sky for many US adjuncts who cannot imagine what VCC has gained through hard-fought union collective bargaining. Frank Cosco is pugnacious, diplomatic and a man with a mission – “The very point of a union and our duty as a faculty union is to fight for those who are the least able to speak, the most vulnerable. It’s about creating one community of faculty, so when one group is disregarded, the union leadership has to fight for their inclusion.”

So, “the weakest and most vulnerable,” non-tenured, have gained equal pay for equal work, and more:

  • salary and workload equity, to include immediate pay scale; pay for vacation and holidays
  • paid professional development days
  • hiring equity and reappointment rights, to include one hiring process per career and right to seniority reappointment after six months
  • evaluation transparency, to include strong grievance procedures
  • conversion right from term faculty to regular faculty, to include automatic regularization of the person, not the position
  • college health and pension benefits
  • seniority rights, pro-rated
  • maternity leave that doesn’t disadvantage faculty
  • right to participate equally in union and professional matters
  • and more.

The US national percentage of “adjuncts” teaching in all institutions of higher education, including private colleges, state universities, community/technical colleges, as well as for profits and on-line schools, is reaching the 8 out 10 mark. Twenty percent of faculty now are tenure track workers.

In Washington State, just counting the 34 community and technical colleges, 46 percent of all state-supported instruction is taught by adjuncts. I think of it this way: 8,059 PT to 3,598 FT (2010, SBCTC).

Castes, Untouchables/Two tiers, Two lives

It gets worse., according to Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at Georgetown Policy Institute in his piece, “The ‘Untouchables’ of Higher Education.”2 :

American universities and colleges are riddled with a caste system that violates our societal sense of fairness, justice, and decency. Neither the general public, nor parents, nor the large majority of students are even aware of its existence. College administrators and tenured faculty, who are acutely aware of the system, have done little or nothing to remedy the problem. It is a festering sore that threatens not only the quality of higher education but the system’s ability to recruit and retain good teachers.

Here we are, now, with a caste system, viewed as untouchables, and, for many, we are considered disposable people. Right now, more than 540,000 adjuncts fill the rosters of part-time faculties, and another 240,000 are full-time, off tenure track who are quarterly or semester by semester hired as full time, or maybe with a yearly contract.

However, the same conditions are faced both both groups of adjunct PT and FT: low pay, no or few benefits, lack of administrative support, and no academic freedom.

Three Strikes And We’re Out

We are many times systemically left out of full-time hiring processes because we are tainted: we are getting older; we are coming into job searches with “part-time” listed on work experience; we are suspect if we stay adjunct so long; we must be crazy to have cobbled together such a hand-to-mouth existence for so long.

Three typical questions: Why not get a PhD? What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you move to another state, another country, to find a full-time position?

Corporate America prop up the disposable and interchangeable workforce that now affects more than 100 million workers. This transitory nature of our lives makes for “fragmented everything”: no community roots, loss of extended family connectivity, lack of depth of knowing the political landscape of a community, and a sense of Diaspora for many workers who go from warehouse to school to low-paid job just to barely survive.

It seems the writing on the wall, written by administrators and politicians in the 1970s, has passed by the tenured faculty. Or they just ignored it.

Contingent faculty have been living the reality of the script – a world of more and more part-time jobs to put together poverty or near-poverty wages. The Homeless Adjunct project and the soon-to-be edited film, Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. In America, are reflective of some of the randy activism around collective bargaining and protesting these disposable worker conditions.3

Full-loads, Freeway Flying, One-third the Pay

I’ve taught a full load at one institution, Spokane Falls Community College, with some other college duties funded through soft money (memos of understanding). My sum total for that couple of years? Less than 50 percent of what a full-timer would have been paid. I worked on campus-wide curriculum development, served on two committees, headed up the college’s sustainability efforts, and organized one year-long series of highly public events tied to climate change and helped organize a themed year event. Oh yeah, I advised the general population of students and served as the Earth Club faculty coordinator.

Why? I love students, I love working with new focuses in cross-disciplinary communications, and I love being fully engaged in political-public-private-non-profit connections to our community colleges. Part of that motivation, too, was to try and work just at one college campus while pulling down around $28,000. The other projects I worked on included a weekly hour public affairs community radio show where I interviewed such people at Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Naomi Wolf, Amy Goodman, authors, poets, social justice advocates and dozens of actors in the climate change and sustainability arena. Then there was a paid column in the weekly alternative newspaper. Finally, I ended up working with several City- and County-wide task forces looking at Spokane’s educational needs tied to the high dropout rate. Add to that a writer in the schools gig and my advisory role status with the large literary event, Get Lit!, part of Eastern Washington University’s week-long writing festival.

The reason for inserting this brief narrative for several of my total 10 years in Spokane is that my work was part of the larger frame of why adjuncts are more than just interchangeable, underclass workers that “help” the bottom line needs of colleges to be flexible when enrollments swell or contract: we’re professionals who in the current culture of education are whipping posts for such things as the falling achievement and performance gaps, as well as the threat against tenure.

Where I went and worked outside the college, everyone knew my college association.

Forget the fact that adjuncts publish, research, carry through with massive amounts of continuing education, present at conferences, and go onto completing other graduate degrees.

It’s the economy, stupid could be replaced with, It’s the fragmentation thing. In the eyes of by the privatizers who seem to be the soldiers of the vulture and parasitic capitalists who are emboldened by a divide and conquer program pitting TT faculty against PT faculty.

For now, the goals of adjuncts and graduate students tie into developing distinct and sometimes separate union issues since Full-time Tenure Track folk supervise us, determine how many classes we get, and where and when. It’s obvious the huge faculty unions have failed at defending this attack on higher education and failed to stop the evisceration of the collective bargaining movement. The administrations are swelling their ranks, and as a cost saver, ramping up cheap-rate and insecure jobs.

This is the time to fight “fragmentation of the time and place of work” as Ulrich Beck illustrates it in his book, The Brave New World of Work (Polity Press, 2000).

  1. See Chronicle of Higher Education, April 9, 2012, “Adjunct Challenges College’s Accreditation Over Alleged Failure to Stop Union Retaliation” by Peter Schmidt. []
  2. Huffington Post, 29 June, 2010. []
  3. See Activism through Art and 2255 Films. []

Paul Kirk has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. Read other articles by Paul.