Contingent Faculty Organize for Educational Fairness and Social Change

Three quarters of US college faculty are “contingent.” But they aren’t taking it lying down. 

Review of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education, by Joe Berry and Helena Worthen (Pluto Press, 2021).

Capitalism and neoliberalism have really socked it to college professors. What up through the 1950’s was a prestigious and well-paid profession has become, for most faculty, an unstable rat race, with mediocre pay and benefits and virtually no job security. Authors Joe Berry and Helena Worthen walk us through this painful situation in their new book Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty, and it is an eye opener. But what’s particularly great about this book is that the authors focus not so much on the negative as on the silver lining of this debacle: the growth of union activity among non-tenure track faculty. In the same way that Marx says in the Communist Manifesto “what the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers,” the degradation of the teaching profession has produced over 411,000 pissed off faculty members, contingent and tenure/tenure track (T/TT), who have joined unions and are building a movement.

Both Berry and Worthen have worked as contingent faculty at several colleges and adult extension programs and have endured the emotional and financial consequences of precarity themselves. Berry’s 2005 book, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education, is viewed by many as the seminal progressive work on this topic. With this new book he and Worthen can look both backward and forward at the movement they have studied and been part of for years. To them, the movement of contingent faculty is part of the struggle to radically restructure our political and economic systems and has the potential to enter into struggles beyond the scope of conventional bargaining. And they bring an eloquent sense of urgency to the task that makes for compelling reading.

What is the difference between tenured/tenure track (T/TT) faculty and contingent faculty?

It’s important to understand the distinctions between T/TT faculty and contingent faculty. Once someone is granted tenure “they have the right to continued employment which can only be abrogated on the basis of due process just cause, or layoff for financial exigency or the closure of an entire program.”

In the academic context, this is not only a job security issue, but also an academic freedom issue, since tenure protects one’s ability to promulgate controversial ideas and/or speak truth to power without threat of job loss. Up through the early 1970’s, seventy to eighty per cent of college faculty were T/TT.  Today it’s the mirror image. Approximately three-quarters of college faculty are contingent, not on the tenure track and unlikely to ever get on it. There are many terms used to describe this status: adjunct, temporary, part-time, lecturer, contingent, and probably others. Berry and Worthen prefer “contingent” because the term itself describes the problem. “Contingent names the common condition that makes good teaching impossible: lack of security and therefore lack of academic freedom.” Their salaries are usually significantly lower than their T/TT colleagues, even on a per class basis. They usually work on one-year contracts, or sometimes semester by semester. With the pandemic thousands have been laid off, and the accelerated move to online education makes their employment even more unstable.

Yet the prerequisite of a terminal degree (PhD or Masters, depending on the discipline) is still very much in place, costing the perspective professor tens of thousands of dollars as the price of admission to even be considered for a faculty position. Many new faculty arrive with student debt equivalent to several years of their annual salary (see the NEA’s “Student Loan Debt among Educators: a National Crisis”).

What changed after the fifties and why?

As good socialists, the authors present us with a material analysis of how we got to this sad state of affairs. After World War II, the US economy exploded, and the bourgeoisie needed workers and managers for their new and expanding enterprises. The government aided this expansion with the GI bill, covering tuition costs for most colleges plus a cost-of-living stipend. 49% of college admissions in 1947 were veterans.

From the point of view of academic employment this was a boom time, especially for white males. The demand for faculty was so great that basically anyone with an advanced degree could get a faculty position. Sometimes colleges hired people even before they completed their degrees. Unfortunately, people of color and women, who had made real inroads during the war, were often squeezed out when it came to college admission and faculty employment. Some colleges still had quotas for Blacks and Jews, and women were often shunted into particular disciplines.

These contradictions came to the fore in the 1960s, which Berry and Worthen refer to as the “movement” phase.  As part of the general campus upsurge against the Vietnam War and racism, students and faculty demanded more diverse admissions, more faculty of color and Ethnic Studies classes. At San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley, students and faculty struck over these issues.

Then came the 1970’s, the beginning of the “neoliberal contraction phase,” a phase which, unfortunately, continues to this day. Per pupil funding for most public universities decreased, and both public and private colleges started to impose significant annual tuition increases. Surviving this double whammy has required massive borrowing on the part of the students guaranteeing for many a lifetime of debt. After World War II, the system supported prospective college students. Now, in many ways, it exploits them.

Simultaneously, to save money, universities turned to contingent faculty to perform the bulk of instruction. Not only were contingents cheaper, but the administration could hire and get rid of them easily, depending on finances and enrollment. And, with such a precarious position, they were much less likely to rock the boat. As Berry and Worthen observe:

“The answer, first for the short term and then in the longer term, was a flexible, contingent faculty that could be hired on a per-class basis and laid off (“de-scheduled”) when not needed. They would be in no position to complain about the gradually increasing class size. Somehow this seemed ironically appropriate: a just-in-time faculty for just-in-time students.”

Contingents Start to Organize

As contingents began to realize that a huge hammer had fallen on them, and that they could not solve it on an individual basis, they turned to unions. Referring to the work of Australian Marxist Andy Blunden and his book Hegel for Social Movements, the authors describe the arc of movement building. Someone gets hired in a contingent position. The job is alienating, poorly paid and unstable. They keep looking for a tenure track position but can’t find one. At first, they blame themselves.“Why if I did all the right things – went to a good university, got an advanced degree, won grants, published research — why am I getting older and older and still don’t have a TT job?”

Then something happens on campus or the broader community. Lots of contingents start sharing their stories. They move from blaming themselves for not succeeding, to vocalizing their situation, to establishing relations with others in the same situation, and eventually to forming a collective identity and a social movement. Faculty had to realize they had been proletarianized and that they had better start acting like proletarians, i.e. collectively.

The authors apply this analysis to their in-depth case study on the early days of the California Faculty Association (CFA), the union that represents both T/TT and contingent faculty at the California State University (CSU). The CSU is the largest public university system in the country with over 485 thousand students at 23 campuses. In the early 1990s the union was weak, and contingent faculty (called Lecturers in the CSU, a term which the faculty themselves still prefer) had no seat at the table. A new crop of leaders, many of them Lecturers, emerged. One of the main organizing heroes in this story is John Hess, a Lecturer at San Francisco State, who eventually became one of CFA’s Lecturer leaders. John was a teacher of Joe Berry, and the two developed a close friendship. Part of the strength of the book is the authors’ love and respect for John and the other CFA leaders.

At the time the union was led by T/TT faculty, mostly white men, who did not believe in aggressive bargaining, especially for Lecturers.  “They made no secret of looking down on Lecturers and hoping to split them off into a separate bargaining unit.”

By this time Lecturers had become increasingly diverse due, among other things, to the social movements of the 1960s, and there were growing racial and gender contradictions as well. Lecturer activists were able to unite with progressive T/TT leaders to form a diverse network of militants focused on strengthening the union and challenging the administration. In 1995 the incumbent officers negotiated a disastrous contract, including the elimination of two-year contracts for Lecturers, one of their few “perks.”  Faculty were furious. After another bad contract in 1998, Susan Meisenhelder, from CSU San Bernardino, was elected to the union presidency along with a new slate of officers, including Lecturers. The new slate wasn’t hesitant to confront the gender, racial, and “T/TT vs. Lecturer” issues that faculty faced, and it ushered in an unprecedented sense of unity.  Berry and Worthen refer to the slate’s victory as “the revolution,” and it started the wave of building power that CFA has maintained up to the present (for an update of CFA today, please see the coda below).

But even as the union grew in strength there were still contradictions between the interests of T/TT and Lecturer faculty. The Lecturer leaders had to figure out the best way to increase their power within the union while still maintaining unity with the T/TT faculty and supporting them. The authors attribute their success to their use of the Inside Outside Strategy (I/OS) as developed by Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, although they agree that Gramsci never used that precise term. Quoting John Hess:

“The people with the power in the union are able to get what they want at the expense of what the less powerful want. It seems that two things tend to happen in our situation: if full and part timers are in separate units or even unions, the administration is able to whipsaw them – divide and conquer. If they are the same unit/union, the Lecturers disappear, (they) don’t participate in the union and are generally ignored. The only way we can avoid this if we have a strong Lecturers group, an independent power base that is able to function with a certain cohesiveness within the union to keep people honest and to defend our interests.”

This is the I/OS in a nutshell.

Nationwide contingent organizing

As the numbers of contingent faculty grew, you would have thought that the big national education unions would have been eager to organize them. Eventually they came around to that point of view, but in the 2000s “the national unions – the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors — were all resistant, even hostile to paying attention to contingents.”

Unfazed, contingent faculty started to organize themselves within the US, Mexico and Canada. In 1997 the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) was born. Members saw themselves not just as workers but as workers whose issues crossed international borders. This in itself is extraordinary. It has taken most of the US labor movement 150 years to develop that vision and understanding, and many unions haven’t gotten there yet. Other contingent faculty organizations have formed as well. These organizations keep the issue of contingency in the forefront and exemplify the I/OS strategy on a national level.

But contingency is still with us…

Berry and Worthen sum up the ultimate aim: “Our overarching goal is to abolish contingency and precarious work as a condition of our lives and the lives of all workers. Socially useful work, including our work, should carry with it security of employment commensurate to the social need for our work.”

In truth the movement has made some progress towards that goal, but nowhere near enough. What the movement has done is to improve conditions for contingents and build organizations that have the power to accelerate the fight. More contingent faculty are joining unions. From 2013 to 2019, 188 new faculty collective bargaining units came into being, the majority of which were in the private, non-profit sector where virtually all union-eligible faculty are contingent.  This is a big step forward. But still, unionized or not, the vast majority of faculty remain contingent and when cutbacks occur, they are the first to go. In the recession of 2008 CFA, with all of its clout, could not prevent Lecturers from losing classes left and right. At the CSU the ratio of tenure track to Lecturers is still lopsided. Clearly administrations everywhere could give contingent faculty tenure; there is no reason to associate tenure with rank. Their refusal to do so is simply based on their desire to maintain management control and constrain academic freedom.

Within the main education unions organizing contingents has become a much higher priority, but there is still no national strategy to deal with the issue of contingency itself. And although there has been proposed legislation to make community colleges free and to reduce student debt (thank you Bernie Sanders) there is at this time no national push for an overall increase in funding for higher education sufficient to undo the huge cuts over the last few decades.  The growth in graduate student unionization and the growing militancy of K-12 unions, particularly in red states, will be a boon to all education organizing, and perhaps the issue of contingency will rise to the forefront. In the meantime contingent faculty at the grass roots need to maintain their organizations and fight for their issues, without assuming others will take care of them. Power Despite Precarity has a wealth of information about the history and strategy of contingent organizing and is chock full of valuable information and tools for unions and would-be organizers. But its main message is that while contingents should reach out to unions and other organizations, they need to continue to build self-reliance and organize from the ground up. It’s not just a question of having faculty paying dues to one union or another. It’s about building a movement.  As Bertolt Brecht says In Praise of Learning:

What you don’t know yourself, you don’t know.
Add up the reckoning.
It’s you who must pay it.
Put your finger on each item
ask how did it get here?
You must take over the leadership.

Coda: Has CFA stayed true to its progressive stances since “the revolution?”

Having been Northern Organizing Director for CFA from 2008 through 2017, in my opinion the answer to that question is absolutely yes. It continues to be run by the rank and file, with Lecturers playing major roles at all levels of the organization. The contract for Lecturers remains arguably among the best in the country. In 2011 the union pulled off two highly successful one-day strikes at Cal State East Bay and Cal State Dominguez Hills, and in 2017 was poised to go out for five days on all 23 campuses, forcing a very successful eleventh-hour settlement. Had the strike occurred, it would have been the largest higher education strike in the country. In concert with its student intern program, the union continues to make free tuition a primary demand. CFA has made a major commitment to racial justice work, recently establishing a Council for Racial and Social Justice whose mission is to promote and support anti-racism and social justice within the CSU and the CFA. The union was the moving force in persuading the legislature to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement. The “revolution” was twenty-three years ago, but due to continual agitation by the members and their leaders, the union has not given up its fighting posture. Unfortunately, as stated earlier, the issue of contingency itself remains. But they continue to work at it. John Hess, who passed away in 2015, would be proud.