Poetry News

"Among the Majority": the MLA President on the working conditions of adjunct faculty

By Harriet Staff

MLA President Michael Bérubé recently attended a New Faculty Majority (NFM) conference called "Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education" and he's published a long essay detailing all the "bitter ironies" of the gathering.

Among them? The NFM summit convened in the same hotel as the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and, as Bérubé writes:

At one end of the long hallway, NFM members talked about the challenges of keeping body and soul intact while teaching 4-4 jobs to which they had been required to reapply every year for twenty years; at the other end, university administrators browsed a book exhibit whose keywords seemed to be finance, management, outcomes, and assessment. At one point in the NFM proceedings, a faculty member from Oakland Community College held up a handbook for deans she’d purchased at the other end of the hallway and noted that adjunct faculty merited only one mention, under the heading “budgets.”

Bérubé's essay is full of grim details about the working conditions of non-tenure-track faculty. Stuff like this: adjunct and contingent faculty make up 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American college and universities, and many work at or below the poverty line. Most don't have health insurance or much academic freedom to speak of. Only 7% of departments in the modern languages are meeting the MLA's recommendations on per-course compensation.

It's going to be a tough problem to fix, Bérubé says:

First, it is going to be very hard to tell people that many college faculty members are exploitatively underpaid. It’s going to be a particularly tough sell in communities already devastated by prolonged economic hardship. But it might be possible to play on the still-widespread belief that college professors are professionals and that parents who are sending their children to college should have some expectation that professors have the professional resources—offices, phones, mailboxes, e-mail and library access, meaningful performance reviews, participation in department governance—that make it possible for them to do their jobs. Let’s say you need an attorney, I suggested, and you go to a firm that fobs you off on an associate who has to consult with you in a hallway because he doesn’t have an office. Who would stand for that? Is it OK that your kid is going to a college that treats its faculty that way?

Second, it is going to be even harder to tell people that non-tenure-track faculty members need a measure of job security and academic freedom if they are going to be able to do their jobs. It amounts, I suggested, to telling parents, students, administrators, and legislators that they have to fight for the right of professors to challenge their students intellectually, free from the fear that they will be fired the moment they say something unfamiliar or upsetting about sexuality or evolution or American history or the Middle East. This argument will resonate with people who understand what higher education is all about. They are a subset of the American electorate, but they know why academic freedom is essential to an open society, and they believe in the promise of higher education. The question is whether they can be persuaded that the promise of higher education is undermined when three-quarters of the professoriat is made up of los precarios.

Pretty sobering. Read Bérubé's whole essay here.

Originally Published: February 8th, 2012