Avenues of Access: The 2013 Presidential Forum

The 2013 MLA convention in Boston featured the first Presidential Forum panel consisting entirely of faculty members off the tenure track. “Avenues of Access: Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members and American Higher Education” sought to put non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty issues front and center at the MLA convention, both for MLA members and for the national higher education press. The MLA had not neglected these issues beforehand—on the contrary, it had taken the lead, among scholarly organizations, in collecting data on the employment conditions of college faculty members and issuing guidelines and recommendations for their working conditions on and off the tenure track. But as we learned over the course of my presidential year, those guidelines and recommendations are still insufficiently disseminated and understood; and of course their implementation and enforcement can be undertaken only at the local level, at individual institutions. Still, the MLA believes that part of its mission is to address and try to improve the working conditions of faculty members teaching off the tenure track, not only because so many in English and the modern languages are doing so but also, and more simply, because it is the right thing to do.

Josh Boldt’s essay, “Free-Market Faculty Members,” opens with a chilling report of a contingent faculty member teaching at two institutions and learning, only one week before the start of the term, that his only assigned class at one of those institutions had been canceled. “What bothers me,” writes the anonymous faculty member, “is that no one had the decency to tell me that my only section was being cancelled.” Here, the job loss is understandable; what is inconceivable—and unforgivable—is the affront to professional dignity.

This story has become part of Boldt’s Adjunct Project, a grassroots (and social-media-driven) attempt to crowdsource information about the working conditions of contingent faculty members nationwide. Boldt began the Adjunct Project on learning of the 2012–13 MLA recommendation (which has since been updated) that NTT faculty members be paid at least $6,920 for each standard, three-credit, semester-long course, and the project went viral; it has since been picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and insofar as the project allows (or, better, encourages) all faculty members to share information (anonymously) about salary, benefits, governance, and policy, Boldt suggests that it might contribute to “a new era of strength and solidarity for university faculty members.” Together with the MLA’s Academic Workforce Data Center, which serves a similar purpose while providing national data from 1995 and 2009 for every institution of higher education in the United States, Adjunct Project 2.0 invites contingent faculty members—who usually cannot speak about their working conditions for fear of losing their jobs—to create a collective voice and become a national force.

Maria Maisto’s essay, “Addressing the Scarlet A: Adjuncts and the Academy,” offers strategies for contesting the representation of contingent faculty members as less competent and talented than their tenure-track and tenured colleagues. As Maisto acknowledges, when people find out about the staffing ratios at many colleges, they are likely to respond in ways that reinforce neoliberal student-as-consumer rhetoric: “So you mean I’m paying for steak and getting hamburger?” It is an understandable, if regrettable, reaction: for twenty years, tuition has been skyrocketing even as faculty salaries remain stagnant and the ranks of underpaid contingent faculty members expand. What am I getting for my money? seems an appropriate question, and few students or parents are pleased to hear, You are getting more administrative positions, athletic facilities, sponsored-research buildings, and student-life amenities. Maisto’s reply is deft: “No, you are getting steak, but you need to call the health department, known as accreditors in higher education, to expose colleges’ lack of safe food-handling practices.” The point, of course, is not that contingent faculty members can give you salmonella or E. coli poisoning but that the academy is not observing what should be basic industry standards for its employees. In that respect, institutions of American higher education are behaving like many other post-Fordist employers.

Maisto wittily adduces a contrasting example of a post-Fordist employer: the National Football League, which hired replacement referees during the lockout that ran from June through September 2012. That labor dispute produced the usual competing narratives: the referees insisted that the league had planned to hire replacements all along (jeopardizing the integrity of the game, as they saw it), and the league maintained that it had negotiated the collective bargaining agreement in good faith. Unlike most labor disputes, however, the NFL referee lockout was resolved partly because it became painfully obvious that the replacement referees were unable to do their jobs. That kind of manifest professional incompetence can’t be found in the work of contingent faculty members, because they are real faculty members; they’re just not treated like real faculty members. Maisto thus urges all faculty members—tenured and nontenured—to inform themselves about unemployment insurance policies at their institutions and to become literate in the distinction between exempt and nonexempt employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Additionally, all should be vigilant about the possibility that institutions may cut back the hours of contingent faculty members to avoid having to provide them with health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Beth Landers reminds us, however, drawing on experience at her former institution (she now has moved to a tenure-track position) and with the MLA Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession (CLIP), that even in the context of national politics all policy is local: treatment of contingent faculty members varies widely from institution to institution, precisely because the contingent labor markets, unlike the tenure-track system, are local. The difficulties Landers and other committee members encountered reflect my own experience with NTT issues: the well-meaning desire that contingent positions be decreased in favor of more tenure-track hires runs into the stubborn reality that the faculty members in those contingent positions will not be considered for the new tenure-track jobs and may resist the otherwise unimpeachable change in policy; the well-meaning desire that all contingent faculty members be converted to the tenure track runs into the stubborn reality that many contingent faculty members hold the MA as their highest degree and may resist the idea that they have to complete a doctoral program in order to be rehired at their current institutions; and the well-meaning desire that all part-time positions be converted to full-time positions runs into the stubborn reality of contingent faculty members who report not wanting to teach full-time.

The experience of Landers on CLIP leads her in two directions: nationally, to “make contact with accrediting agencies in hopes of encouraging them to take academic staffing practices into consideration during the accreditation process”; locally, to improve the university system in Missouri, where she taught at the time she presented her paper. Over the past ten years, the Missouri system has been reviewed and overhauled by the Interfaculty Council of the four Missouri campuses and Deborah Noble-Triplett, assistant vice president for academic affairs. That review-overhaul resulted in what I might call (with some hesitation) a new form of benevolent bureaucracy for NTT faculty members in the University of Missouri system: NTT faculty members were assigned to four promotable ranks (where none had existed before): research, teaching, clinical, and extension. In the teaching track, where most humanities NTT faculty members reside, there are protocols for promotion from assistant teaching professor to associate teaching professor to teaching professor. Landers acknowledges that “the NTT titling system re-creates the hierarchy that exists in the tenure system [and] is unattractive to some NTT faculty members, who found the former lack of hierarchy to be more collegial”; on the other hand, instituting a review process for NTT faculty members can enhance the professionalization of positions that are too often created ad hoc, without any significant institutional forms of peer review. Moreover, Landers reports, the new system had unexpected advantages with regard to benefits. “Almost immediately,” she writes, “the definition of faculty became more inclusive. When the Missouri system instituted paid family and medical leaves for faculty members in 2008, both those who were on the tenure track and those who were not were covered by the provision.”

Robert Samuels rounds off the forum with a comprehensive, ambitious proposal for American higher education. Opening with the claim that “[t]he problems facing higher education cannot be resolved in a piecemeal or institution-by-institution process,” he proceeds to set forth an overhaul of the entire funding system at the national level. The foundation of his proposal involves making all public higher education free. It sounds utopian—and, like all utopias, thoroughly unrealistic—until Samuels does the math, whereupon it becomes clear that a $128 billion federal subsidy for public higher education would actually constitute a savings compared with the $35 billion we now spend on Pell grants and the $104 billion we spend on student loans, not to mention the $40 billion in lost revenue due to tax subsidies and credits. “[R]eplacing the current mix of financial aid, institutional aid, tax subsidies, and grants with direct funding for public institutions,” Samuels argues, “would give the government a way to control costs at both public and private universities and colleges.” Of course, it would give the government a way to control costs that seems directly at odds with what the Obama administration has in mind when officials (including Obama himself) address themselves to higher education: reduction in labor costs—in other words, cuts to the faculty. Under a Samuels administration, by contrast, the University of California system would be extrapolated nationwide, not only because “this system is known to have the best contract and compensation structure for non-tenure-track faculty members in the United States” but also, and more broadly, because such a national system “would increase the pay and job security for most teachers in United States higher education—yet it would be less expensive than the current haphazard use of graduate students, part-time teachers, and research professors.” That such a system is unrealistic—it is extremely unlikely to be adopted by any administration currently conceivable in the landscape of American politics—is not a principled argument against it with regard either to justice or to efficiency. One is tempted to brush off the old Situationist slogan and conclude that Samuels’s plan asks us to be realistic and demand the affordable.

My thanks to all these colleagues for their work, in this forum and in American higher education at large.

Michael Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State University, University Park, and a past president of the Modern Language Association.

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