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Colorado Community College System AAUP Chapters

By Kelly Hand

The Colorado Community College System (CCCS) is the largest higher education system in the state, with thirteen colleges and thirty-nine campuses serving more than 144,000 students. Across the system, 75 percent of faculty—approximately 4,600 individuals—are in adjunct positions, earning an average of less than $1,900 per course with no benefits, according to data compiled by the Colorado state legislature and local faculty. In 2012, after more than a decade of scraping by as an adjunct instructor of English at Front Range Community College and hoping for a full-time position that never materialized, Caprice Lawless, now the AAUP’s second vice president, began working with colleagues on her campus to build an AAUP chapter. Today there are active AAUP chapters at four of the colleges in the CCCS: Front Range Community College, Community College of Denver, Red Rocks Community College, and Community College of Aurora.

The CCCS chapters collaborated with the AAUP’s Colorado conference, which played a crucial role in supporting their formation, on two state legislative initiatives calling for equal pay for adjunct faculty in 2014 and 2015: House Bill 14-1154 and Senate Bill 15- 094. Although those bills were defeated with the help of lobbyists hired by the CCCS administration and the administrations of other Colorado institutions, they helped to highlight the injustices of a system dependent on poverty-level compensation for adjunct faculty.

Economic injustice is a constant theme in the CCCS chapters’ outreach and organizing activities, and the chapters take an especially creative approach to recruiting and mobilizing members and educating the public. They published The Adjunct Cookbook, which uses “food-bank friendly” recipes to dramatize the daily challenges of surviving as an adjunct. On the CCCS AAUP chapters’ shared website, a clever graphic, titled “What can campus employees purchase this winter with their 2016 raises?,” illustrates the disparities between pay raises for adjunct faculty, administrative assistants, and full-time faculty. It is just one example of how the chapters entertain while educating.

Resisting CCCS restrictions on distributing fliers in mailboxes and posting them on campus, chapter leaders instead place them in microwaves or refrigerators in faculty kitchens or glue them to tissue boxes in classrooms. They embrace the concept of “beautiful trouble” popularized by an international network of artist-activists and are constantly generating new ideas for engaging members and prospective members. Caprice Lawless has shared many of those ideas, easily adaptable to other institutions, through posts on Academe Blog.

We asked Lawless (Front Range Community College AAUP chapter past president), Mark DuCharme (Front Range Community College AAUP chapter copresident), Carrie Chapman (Community College of Denver AAUP chapter vice president), Natasha McConnahie (Red Rocks Community College AAUP chapter copresident), and Nate Bork (Community College of Aurora AAUP chapter president) to answer some questions about their chapters and their important work on behalf of adjunct faculty at community colleges.

Tell us about the decision to organize chapters across the system. What are the benefits and challenges of this approach, and what are your goals for involving more colleges and campuses?

Geographic distance and finding time for members to gather and talk face to face can pose real challenges when it comes to organizing across the system. But the combined efforts of Colorado’s AAUP chapters can often have a greater impact than any single chapter might on its own.

The biggest challenge is getting people to show up and stand up, since having to juggle three, four, or five part-time jobs means that a lot of people don’t have any time or energy to engage in advocacy work.

Your chapters have worked closely with the Colorado conference. Are there other allies that have helped you build your chapters? If so, how have you forged those alliances?

Our alliances with other chapters have formed organically. We strengthen our ties with one another through e-mail, by sharing information on our website, and through social events such as our midwinter Snowflake Summit, our end-of-the-semester Damn It! Summit, and a new series of monthly pub meet-ups. The alienation we experience semester in, semester out is a tremendous opportunity for AAUP organizing. Our AAUP chapters keep us connected to one another. Some of us had no circle of friends at work until we formed our chapters.

Adjunct faculty are vulnerable and can be reluctant to speak out because they lack job security, academic freedom protections, and, often, a formal role in shared governance. How do you address those concerns in your advocacy and recruitment efforts?

Certainly, this is always a concern. It helps to highlight the AAUP’s long-standing tradition as a professional organization that has been instrumental in developing the standards that maintain quality in education across the country’s colleges and universities. We also try to focus on academic freedom and shared governance as integral to a healthy democracy.

Are there drawbacks to your creative approach to organizing? To what extent has that approach affected the relationships between CCCS administrators, students, AAUP chapter members, and other faculty?

The creative approach to organizing is one of our strengths. We don’t see any drawbacks to it. It’s part of what brings us together as chapter members, both in terms of our individual colleges and across the CCCS chapters as a whole. Most full-time faculty are afraid to get involved even if they’re sympathetic; many are not sympathetic. Other adjunct faculty often labor under the delusion that if they just keep their mouths shut and work hard, they might get hired full time. The reality is that the number of adjunct faculty members is vastly greater than the number of full-time positions the college is willing to create in any given discipline. When there are openings, current adjuncts who apply are not always considered for them. It has been several years since an adjunct was hired full-time in some departments. The term “academic apartheid” accurately describes our workplace.

Community colleges play a vital role in providing affordable access to higher education. How do you envision a future in which the CCCS compensates all faculty fairly while meeting the needs of low-income students?

The premise of that question is that the CCCS currently meets the needs of low-income students. That assumption is problematic at best. At Front Range Community College, the tutoring program has all but been eliminated, despite the fact that it has a high ESL population and a significant portion of new students who arrive unprepared for the challenges of higher education. Even dedicated adjuncts often have difficulty meeting with students at a mutually convenient time because we are so overworked and often have to have other jobs to sustain us.

Research conducted by AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum and AAUP-CBC chair Howard Bunsis shows that the CCCS can well afford to pay its adjunct faculty equitably and meet the needs of low-income students. The administration likes to spread misinformation, claiming that these things are mutually exclusive. This is patently not the case.

What did you learn from your experiences with advancing legislation on behalf of adjunct faculty? Is this a viable path to reform in Colorado and other states? We learned not to be afraid—or when we do feel afraid, to trust that it’s part of the process of making change. As a result of the laws in Colorado and the faculty climate in the CCCS colleges, the legislative path is the most likely to produce results. We cannot speak to the laws in other states or the faculty culture at other institutions. To those who are considering this path, we would say that it requires lobbying and getting to know sympathetic elected officials. The Colorado conference has provided invaluable assistance toward that end.

Unfortunately, the situation for adjunct faculty in the CCCS is not unique. How can the national AAUP best utilize its resources to address the needs of community college and adjunct faculty? AAUP national has been passing light to us since we began asking questions. The community college–focused institute, or “Mini- Innie,” that we held following the 2015 AAUP/AAUP-CBC Summer Institute in Denver was a game changer for us, as was the Colorado conference’s decision to send as many people as possible to the institute for training. Hearing from Howard Bunsis about labor laws was fantastic, and Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure chair Henry Reichman answered a lot of questions about academic freedom and shared governance.

Community college adjunct faculty, especially, have many questions. Answer them. They are isolated. Help them form chapters to make friends. They are made to feel like nobodies. Remind them they are professionals. They work alone and unseen, forgotten in forgotten classrooms. Befriend them. See them. Remember them.

Does your chapter have a story to share? Write to [email protected] to be considered for a chapter profile in Academe.

Photo by Alan Prendergast--Westword.

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