I scanned the list of signers, and recognized many of the names. Good, hardworking people. Well-intentioned people. I’ve met many of them at conferences over the years. Interviewed several of them for Adjunct Advocate magazine and AdjunctNation.com. These people had signed in support of a national call to ” ensure educational quality, fairness and equity by improving the wages and working conditions of all contingent faculty in higher education.” The campaign is called the Mayday Manifesto.
The Manifesto itself is full of the requisite hyperbole and calls to action one expects from such documents. It also outlines seven steps to “reverse this disastrous trend” of “funding education on the cheap.” Many of the steps are reasonable: a call for academic freedom, through the use of longer contracts. Interestingly, there was not a call for due process, which in many important ways would protect non-tenured faculty more profoundly than longer contracts. There is a call to provide health insurance to all non-tenured faculty, and to guarantee access to unemployment benefits.
It was, however, the first step that tripped me up: “Increase the starting salary for a three-credit semester course to a minimum of $5,000 for all instructors in higher education.” Seriously? $5,000? In the Manifesto we read that, “Most adjuncts make $10,000 to $20,000 a year, often working more than 40 hours per week.” The academics who prepared the Manifesto didn’t include any documentation, alas, and this statement is a generalization that would get a chide from the instructor of just about any Research Writing or Argumentative Writing course. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this fact is correct.
AdjunctNation conducted a survey of readers in 2010, and asked them, on average, how many courses they taught per year. Over 60 percent responded that they taught 2-4 courses per year. Naturally, a small percentage of the 654 people who participated in the survey responded that they taught a ridiculously high number of courses, 9 per year, and more. The results of that survey turned out to be a Bell Curve, with the majority of respondents teaching 2-5 courses per year, and a smaller number of people saying they taught fewer and more than 2-5 courses per year.
Given this information, the Mayday Manifesto and its strident call to “increase the starting salary for a three-credit semester course to a minimum of $5,000 for all instructors in higher education” is decidedly bougie. In fact, if it’s true that the majority of adjuncts earn $10,000-$20,000 per year, at $5,000 per course, teaching four courses would earn an adjunct $20,000—assuming every college president in American suddenly woke up and smelled the espresso. The pay gap between non-tenured temporary faculty and tenured faculty is one of the largest in higher education. As I’ve written elsewhere, pay gaps are commonplace within Academe between women and men who hold the same qualifications and teach the same courses. According to a 2011 study by the American Education Research Association, “women faculty earn on average 18 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education.” If you’re a woman who is “lucky” enough to land a tenure-line position, you’ll be lucky to earn 80 cents for every dollar a man on the tenure-line earns in your department.
I wrote that in response to a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that suggested a two-tier system to “solve” the employment crisis in higher education. The author wrote his essay in response to comments by MLA President Michael Bérubé. CHE author Rob Jenkins writes:
After all, as Bérubé acknowledges, we already have a two-tier system—it’s just not a very satisfactory one for the people on the second tier, most of whom aren’t there by choice. It’s a system based not on rational criteria, such as qualifications, but on the whims of the labor market and, often, on luck. It’s a system of haves (those who have permanent, relatively secure positions) and have-nots (those who don’t, often regardless of their degrees and qualifications).
But what if we could create an equitable two-tier system? One that acknowledges the worthwhile contributions of those on both tiers? A system in which people on the second tier are there by choice, with an opportunity to earn a decent living in their profession?
I wrote in response:
The “opportunity to earn a decent living” under the auspices of a two-tier system? That’s mighty white of Mr. Jenkins. First of all, who will define “decent” wages? Does earning 50 percent of what a fellow faculty member earns qualify as “decent?” The American Federation of Teachers thinks so, and has shamefully pushed pay “equity” for part-timers since 2007. Meanwhile, many of the AFT officials selling the “pay equity” load of composted horse manure sit in DC and rake in six-figure salaries, according to financial documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
In fact, many of the people who signed the Manifesto are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, as well as the UUP in New York. The UUP is up to its neck in the issue because of the work of Dr. Peter D.G. Brown, who has taken on SUNY and spoken up for the school’s 8,000 adjuncts for years. You can read a 2005 profile AdjunctNation did of Dr. Brown here. You can also listen to a 2008 podcast interview I did with Dr. Brown here. I’ve followed Peter’s advocacy work since it was knee-high to a grasshopper.
In 2011, I wrote a piece in which I mulled over the question of why mainstream America is relatively unaware of the staffing crisis in higher education. Here’s what I wrote:
The final reason that faculty off the tenure track haven’t managed to capture the spotlight and shine it onto their issues has to do with the fact that since the early 90s, tenure-line faculty have spoken out on behalf of their non-tenured colleagues. For example, SUNY’s Dr. Peter D.G. Brown, has taken on both the union and the institution on behalf of the college’s 8,000 part timers. Dr. Eileen Schell, Associate Professor of Writing and Writing Program Director at Syracuse University, has focused her research and writing on labor issues that impact faculty off the tenure-track for over a decade. Dr. Cary Nelson stepped into the spotlight on behalf of adjunct faculty when he published Manifesto of a Tenured Radical in 1997. This reliance on the tenured consiglieri has been a double-edged sword.
Why? When tenured faculty frame the national discussion of what it is faculty off the tenure-track want and need, part-time faculty end up disempowered. Then, what happens when adjunct activists disagree with the advice of their tenured consiglieri? Adjunct activists have been attacked in print and online by their tenured friends for suggesting faculty off the tenure-track need to chart a course different than that suggested by some of the current tenured consiglieri.
In fact, of the 35 signers of the Mayday Manifesto, 23 are UUP-affiliated, including Peter Brown, who is now the SUNY New Paltz UUP Chapter president. Most are full-time faculty. So how come I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth? It’s all about that $5,000, you see. The time has come for adjunct activists to stop thinking small, to stop relying on full-time faculty to be allies, and to start clawing their way up the Academic food chain. The college general fund budget is a very simple concept; it’s where money for staff compensation comes from.
In June 2012, University of Michigan officials announced that 65 percent of the college’s $1.65 billion dollar general fund would go toward staff compensation. That includes compensation for the members of the LEO, the Lecturers Employee Organization that represents about 1,600 non-tenure track faculty who teach on three campuses. There, where part-timer Bonnie Halloran serves as one of just a handful of part-timers who are union presidents in unified locals, the unionized AC/Refrigeration mechanics earn $70,491 per year, exponentially more than of Halloran’s non-tenured full-time Lecturer I’s, who pull down $25,000 to $29,000 per year. The unionized painters at U of M earn $58,926 per year. Meanwhile, non-tenured full-time faculty, assistant and associate professors, earn between $70,000 and $100,000 per year at the University of Michigan.
The lesson is simple: $5,000 per course “minimum” for non-tenured faculty is a full-time faculty member’s dream come true. It requires no real realignment of significant amounts of money, no real change. In reality, the only way non-tenured faculty are going to achieve pay parity, not the “equity” called for the Manifesto, is to force the reallocation of college general fund dollars away from full-time faculty and other staff and into the pockets of non-tenured faculty. The money is there for pay parity; $1.07 billion dollars at the University of Michigan, for instance, or about $164,000 for every one of the college’s 40,000 employees. Most colleges spend between 60 and 70 percent of general fund money on staff compensation. It’s all about who gets how much.
One way to achieve pay parity would be to lobby state governments to pass legislation requiring colleges that receive state funding to pay all faculty who work less than full-time pro-rata salaries (pay parity). The same arguments used against part-time faculty could be used by them to push this change: from the Manifesto: “The conditions under which contingent teachers are forced to work undermine the quality of higher education. Their miserable working conditions adversely affect student learning conditions, thus short-changing our students and threatening the future of our nation. This is no way to prepare the next generation for an increasingly competitive global economy! Funding education on the cheap has resulted in most American students no longer being competitive with those in dozens of other countries.”
In Ireland, a court recently ruled that contract faculty are entitled to the same pay-off as full-time regular academics when laid off. The college’s position, writes the judge, would “foster discrimination by encouraging employers to select fixed-term employees for redundancy ahead of permanent employees, thereby avoiding the creation of any form of precedent of enhanced redundancy payments against which fixed-term employees could measure their own payments.”
It’s unlikely that full-time faculty, even the ones who signed the Mayday Manifesto, are prepared to see their college’s general fund divided in order to achieve pay parity. It would surely mean less money for full-time faculty who, frankly, are doing less undergraduate teaching. So, we end up with a Manifesto that calls a $5,000 per course minimum. Just about what adjuncts are earning now, per year. That’s not a Manifesto; it’s an effort to prop up the status quo and does little for people whom the same Manifesto passionately argues are “paid poverty wages.” Two-tier employment systems and “minimum” per course salaries that still amount to poverty wages aren’t radical ideas. They’re tried and true methods used by minority-majorities throughout history to protect their power.
As for the adjuncts and representatives of organizations that advocate for non-tenured faculty who signed the Manifesto, I don’t want to call them Uncle Toms. Instead, I would urge them to realize that higher education is not being “funded on the cheap.” On the contrary, higher education is a trillion dollar industry. It’s an industry that is coming to a crossroads, and real change for the Adjunct Nation is only going to be possible when adjunct activists and advocates reach high, dream big and shape the public message without “help” from tenured faculty. Why? Because adjunct activists need to take advantage of every possible opportunity, tool and strategy to claw money, power and perks out of the hands of the new faculty minority, the full-time professorate.