Our Common Interest: Defending Higher Education and Changing the World (A Reply)


by Joseph G. Ramsey, Ph.D.

Having now re-read AdjunctNation‘s response to my essay “The Invisible Faculty,”  [Please note: this essay is behind a paywall.] and having had a chance to digest a range of responses to both the AdjunctNation piece and mine, I’m prepared to offer some thoughts.  (Thank you to all the folks out there who contributed to my thinking.) 

1) First, I want to say that I feel considerable solidarity with the work of AdjunctNation (hereafter AN), for at least three reasons: because I sympathize with the daily struggles, inequities, and abuse that so many adjuncts and NTT faculty face; because I am grateful for the work of anyone who helps to keep NTT issues front and center; and because I am sympathetic to the “revolutionary” aspirations of AN (from what I have gathered so far). I agree that resolving the inequities and reversing the injustices that are so rampant across higher education is likely to require some quite radical social change–both within the university and beyond it. 

2) So then, the observations, reflections, and differences I articulate below are to be understood as offered in a spirit of comradely debate, as we seek clarity about the concepts, methods, and strategies that can potentially lead towards the radical change we seek. For both AN and myself the *abolition* of the caste-class line dividing TT from NTT faculty is part of the horizon we are aspiring to: Equal pay, respect, job security, and working conditions for all those who teach in higher ed (and elsewhere too)! Down with arbitrary distinctions that degrade some and artificially hoist others! 

3) Considering that we share that quite transformative, abolitionist horizon, it is disappointing that the tone and approach of the AN article tends to be dismissive and even insulting towards what I wrote, at times mostly missing the main points for which I am arguing. I want to emphasize that there is considerable common ground between our views (I think!), and so it would be good to be clear about that, before we proceed to discussing–respectfully, if forcefully–the points where we disagree with one another. And there are places where we do disagree, I think (see below). I’m not going to go “tit for tat” here, but just hope folks reading AdjunctNation will actually read what I wrote in The Chronicle, since what I tried to do in “The Invisible Faculty” is rather different from how it was characterized here. 

4) Before proceeding to an elaboration of those differences, I want to acknowledge that I wrote The Chronicle piece reflecting on personal experiences at UMass Boston, where I am a full-time (4/4), unionized Non-Tenure track faculty member, on a continuing contract that grants me more job security, and better pay and benefits than the vast majority of contingent faculty working in the US (though not as much as someone with full tenure). 

I guess you could say that within the ranks of NTT, I sit in a relatively ‘privileged’ or ‘lucky’ position, and I want to acknowledge that, because there are many other NTT across academia–including here at UMB–who are struggling and scrambling to survive much harder than I have to day-to-day (shout out to the comrades struggling at CUNY right now!). 

5) Beyond that though, I raise this point of personal situation to ask: Is there room in “Adjunct Nation” for NTT’s like me? After all, we multi-year full-time NTTs are a growing percentage of those locked out of the tenure-track. According to a recent AAUP report cited in Inside Higher Ed, the current ranks of NTTs, which now make up 73% of all college instructors, are distinctly *split* between positions somewhat like mine, and even more short terms and precarious “adjunct” positions. How do us *full-time* NTTs fit into the Adjunct Revolution?

It seems to me that AN paints a rather polarized view of the higher ed labor force, and that this risks creating some blind spots–rendering the ‘middle-strata’ invisible–and on that distorted basis, totalizing the relationship between TT and NTT in a way that underestimates the basis for winning many (though not all) TT faculty over to the Adjunct Abolitionist view. The outpouring of support I have received since publishing “The Invisible Faculty,” from TT and NTT folks alike, suggests to me that many faculty do care very much much about these issues–and that makes me think there is a basis to build on.

6) A third reason I clarify my own position and status here though is to recognize that frankly, if I didn’t have the protection of both a full-time continuing contract, and a union, it’s possible I would not have had the guts to publish such a piece in The Chronicle in the first place (Who knows, maybe I would have, but probably not in its present form, calling out my Interim Chancellor publicly and all.)

And this point reminds me of one key reason why the adjunctification of higher ed represents a broader social crisis that should speak to *all faculty*: the precarity of the system suppresses intellectual freedom and expression about issues that matter, to our campuses, our professions, and to society at large. Too many faculty members must live in fear that something they say or do or write, inside or outside the classroom, on or off campus could jeopardize their livelihood if it somehow brushes a chair or administrator or trustee the wrong way. The precarity of most faculty jobs these days makes a mockery of the idea of academic freedom, enforcing a stifling conformity within institutions that should be the hubs of critical inquiry, public debate, and principled dissent. (Venues like Adjunct Nation are all the more important in this context.)

7) I hasten to add here that the repressive force of the pervasive precarity characterizing adjunctdom in the US today extends beyond the ranks of NTTs themselves, exerting significant pull on even those working the tenure track, in particular, say: Assistant Professors. (I briefly allude to this in my Chronicle piece, but now it is striking me that the point needs to be developed more.) 

Often when I see Asst. Prof’s on my own campus, they seem to be in a rush, stressed out, ever so well-dressed, but utterly exhausted. Their anxiety is palpable–all that service and committee work and expectations for research..oh yes, and teaching too! Observing them, hearing their stories and learning of their worries, I often get the sense that these Asst. Profs. folks are filled with fear, reluctant to really speak out publicly about issues they care about. And it makes sense. Why wouldn’t they be afraid? If they speak out too boldly about a grave but controversial social injustice, or even a petty departmental dispute, they risk being labelled “uncollegial” and disqualified for tenure–back to the ranks of the invisible adjunct for you! Best to keep your mouth shut.  Their privilege relative to adjuncts is real, yes.  But this privilege functions as a leash and a muzzle, not only a “benefit.”

A colleague of mine at UMB once said that in fact we continuing contract “Lecturers” and “Senior Lecturers” often have more job security in practice than pre-tenure track folks on the tenure track. And it’s a point worth pausing over. I do not envy Assistant Profs their positions, even if I’d like to have a reduced teaching load. 

8) But again, imagine (yes Imagine!) if adjunctdom were abolished–so that all higher ed teaching positions came with adequate salary, benefits, office space, and job security. Adjuncts everywhere would celebrate of course, but Asst. Profs should celebrate too. For such a transformation would evaporate much of the fear that stifles the voice of this, admittedly, relatively “privileged” class of profs. Wouldn’t Asst. Profs suddenly find it easier to say “No” to ridiculous service overloads, and to speak out more boldly on committees and even in their own writing? Wouldn’t this unleashing of Junior Faculty set loose a ripple effect over time among the tenured profs, as they would no longer be subjected to a seven-year apprenticeship in biting their tongues? 

9 )Indeed, it is increasingly the case that we have in the U.S. not just a “two-tier” system dividing NTT and TT faculty, and not just a three-tier faculty system as AdjunctNation suggests (NTT, Pre-Tenure, and Tenured), but in many respects a *four-tier* faculty system. TT’s split over the tenure line, and NTTs themselves split between non-tenured but relatively secure and reasonably well-paid positions (often multi-year appointments), and those NTT “adjuncts” hired simply per course and per semester, often at outrageously low pay, without benefits, job security, or office space. 

10) As I have noted, I am not confined to the fourth tier of “adjuncts.” I have the freedom from fear to write a piece like “The Invisible Faculty” in a prominent place like The Chronicle, because at UMass Boston, we have a union, a union in which I am actively involved (serving as an elected Representative for NTT faculty).  Our union, FSU/MTA, represents both NTT and TT faculty, and its collective work–extending back decades before I was hired full-time six years ago– has helped to dramatically improve working conditions of the majority of NTT faculty. We still have much work to do on our campus–as my Chronicle piece highlights, and I am committed to advancing that work. However, the struggle for faculty equity at UMB is, I think I can safely say, more advanced than many places across the U.S. 

11) I do not suggest that a joint faculty union bringing together all NTT and TT folks is always the best way forward, and would not suggest that even within such unions there is not a need for “Non tenure track caucuses” and the like, to assert specifically NTT needs and interests within the larger union. But I would caution against summarily dismissing joint TT-NTT unionization either as if it has “never worked.”  There is plenty of evidence that this strategy can work, precisely because it provides NTTs with a concrete way to pressure TT folks into action, as well as a forum in which relationships of understanding, solidarity, and even friendship can grow across ranks. 

12) I can understand that those who are concerned primarily with the fourth tier of “adjunct” faculty could feel so disenfranchised and disheartened, so outraged and sickened by the immense inequities and the decades-long complicity of tenured silence so as to feel the need or desire to be dismissive towards any notion that tenure-track or tenured faculty could be allies in the NTT cause. Dismissing the very idea that TT folks could be won over through means of persuasion, through writing and public discussion and principled struggle. I can see why AdjunctNation might calculate that they are likely to die holding their breath for most TT folks to come to their aid. I can understand the anger, the cynicism, the desire to lump all TT in the same hostile camp. 

I can understand it, and I will even admit to moments in my life when I have felt the tug of this tendency, but here’s the thing: I refuse to succumb to such cynicism, because I think it is a strategic dead end, and because it underestimates the potential for political organizing to transform people’s sense of themselves and others. I posit that Ideas and arguments actually matter to professors, and that when these folks are challenged, they can be made to change their ways. 

13) Ultimately, AN’s cynicism seems to me based on a sweeping, one-sided characterization of privilege and power in higher ed. today. Inherited complicity is not necessarily destiny. Unequal privilege within a system does not necessarily equate to a fundamental antagonism; politics here need not be seen as a zero sum game.  Most TT faculty are not “the enemy,” they too have inherited an unjust system that they didn’t themselves create.  Where TT folks do act in ways that reproduce the injustice, they should be called on it, and their actions resisted by NTTs in what ways we can.  But really most TT profs today are not the ones holding the power when it comes to resource allocation in higher education, are they? Let’s not forget the role here played by university administrations, Boards of Trustees, Legislatures and Governors, etc. I propose a United Front Across Ranks to Defend and Fund Higher Education, with NTTs (as well as staff, students, and community members) at the heart of the leadership.

14) A stubborn fact: Tenure-track and tenured faculty do at times speak up, and even sometimes take action, to support NTT faculty, and other vulnerable groups, too. I have seen it on my campus with my own eyes. It happens both within the context of existing joint NTT/TT unions (such as the FSU at UMB) and outside of the union. Don’t get me wrong: It does not happen often enough!–and I have seen plenty of the flip side too (inside and outside the union both)! But it does happen, and to suggest otherwise paints an incomplete and misleading portrait of the situation we are in.

15) It might be more accurate and productive to acknowledge that there are TT faculty who speak up and stand up for NTT interests, who see increasing equity as an ethical or political priority, and then, to study those examples, asking such questions as: 

What is it that enabled this solidarity to occur?  

What did NTT do to push TT to this new place?  

What role did leadership play in helping to create this culture of solidarity?

How many other TT folks would like to or would be open to such speech/action if given the chance to, and what would be necessary to move them to that place?

Crucially we might ask: 

Where are the areas where TT and NTT interests and concerns overlap in such a way that TT folks can be more likely convinced to stand up for and with NTT as equal colleagues and comrades?  

Also we need to ask: 

How can we work to scale up these individual or occasional group actions of solidarity into larger, mass forms (including, yes, nationwide organizing!)?

How can we encourage and build on the best examples of principled TT solidarity so as to exert moral and political pressure that can get other layers of TT folks to roll with a new and more egalitarian tide?

16) I do not dispute AdjunctNation‘s characterization of the often gigantic gaps in pay, benefits, rights, respect, and much else across the different tiers. And I don’t dispute that in some cases there are areas where in an immediate sense there *is* (or can *appear to be*) an antagonism between TT and NTT interests. For instance, consider the allocation of office space (assuming a building that does not have enough offices for all), or consider the question of how upper level courses are allocated (assuming courses are not offered enough for all qualified folks to have a chance), or access to scarce travel or research grant funding. (I admit I would like to see TT folks be more proactive about “sharing the wealth” on all these fronts.) 

If we assume a condition of scarcity–assume no new buildings can be built, no new sections created (by decreasing class size, say), assume the pot of research money cannot be expanded…yes, if we assume this scarcity is set in stone, then it may be the case that it will be very difficult to impossible to persuade TT folks to give up hard earned (relative) privileges that they have come to see as needs and just desserts. Yes, if we in the labor movement come to internalize the assumptions of scarcity that neoliberal and conservative politicians would foist on us, the prospects for NTT/TT alliance for equity are dimmed indeed.

17) But my point would be that we should not accept these assumptions of scarcity. In a world where trillion$$ in speculative capital slosh through the mutual funds of the top 0.1 percent? Where the top 1 percent (which includes very few professors of any rank) has more wealth than the bottom half of the population?  Rather, we should fight hard and collectively–across ranks, and linked with staff, students, and community–for a massive expansion of public funds to enable *every* faculty member to have a fair and reasonable salary, benefits, adequate office space, access to professional development funds, etc.–so that every student or wannabe student in this country can get a full and well-rounded higher education. In this spirit, we should be fighting together for the creation of new progressive income and wealth taxes so that all the people’s basic needs can be met: physical needs as well as intellectual ad cultural ones–including higher education. 

18) There is a great political opportunity here to foreground the ways that our particular needs as faculty and as NTT faculty align with the common good more broadly–with the needs of our students, our communities, and the society at large. And there is a great challenge too, for while invoking the demands of the common good, and working to expand the pie, we also need to make the case in every way possible that the resources from this expanded pie be prioritized so that those at the ‘bottom’ get the lions share of the new investment, bringing NTT faculty closer to equity at every level (and also improving equity between the conditions of our community college, state college, and public university students). 

19). Along these lines, one thing I plan to fight for in our next union contract bargaining is progressive raises that give folks at the bottom a bigger boost than those at the top–while still making sure to get everyone something. Folks don’t often comment on it, but a 2 or 3 percent across the board raise, for a faculty with wide salary disparity, actually increases absolute economic inequality in the union, rather than decreasing it. Absolute dollar amount raises would be fairer, though still not progressive enough. This is a small example, I realize, but it can serve as a kind of model for NTT/TT joint action more broadly: We can fight for things that benefit us all, while also fighting to make sure that the distribution of those new resources are allocated in the most progressive way possible, with the goal of ultimately abolishing the unjust inequities altogether–whether in terms of pay, office space, support for research, etc.  We can do this by bringing up the “floor” rather than tearing down the “ceiling.”

20). But really, the interests at play here–for all us faculty I believe– are larger than our own pay and benefits, larger than access to research pools, or even basic respect in the hallway or the boardroom. (Important as all of those are.) At stake is nothing less than the power of our professions and of academia as a whole, our ability to support and enable our students  to flourish and to develop intellectually to the best of their abilities, our ability to exert influence that extends into society at large–as scholars, teachers and public intellectuals–to influence popular opinion, to support the communities we are a part of, and to help shift the policies of the state. I believe that faculty as a whole can only reach our full collective potential as a force for the common good, radiating reason, critical thinking, and a commitment to social justice, if we make the leap to assure that there is no black hole of adjunctdom swirling beneath us. In this sense when I appeal to TT faculty interests, I am referring to this larger interest:  the interest in defending the profession, defending higher education, and changing the world.  You have my back, I’ll have yours. And maybe together we can help our students make that revolution we need.  

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