Fighting for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty

By Ellen Schrecker

Power despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education by Joe Berry and Helena Worthen. London: Pluto, 2021.

The amazing thing about this book is that the title, Power despite Precarity, tells you precisely what it is about. The authors, veteran academic union organizers Joe Berry and Helena Worthen, have produced a kind of handbook for the activists who are working to create a socially conscious movement of non-tenure-track faculty members to eliminate the dreadful inequities blighting their lives and careers. And, since these contingent workers now provide nearly 75 percent of the instruction in US colleges and universities, their situation affects almost everyone involved in higher education. The AAUP cannot ignore their fate. While some are covered by a decent union contract or an enforceable faculty handbook, most can neither obtain tenure nor participate in faculty governance—the traditional protections of academic freedom that our organization was formed to defend.

Besides providing detailed information about the day-to-day traumas that faculty members with contingent appointments experience and contend with as organizers, Berry and Worthen offer a thoughtful analysis of the long-term strategies that are essential to addressing systemic problems. They realize that only a broader democratic transformation of our polity and social structure will eliminate the underlying problems that have hollowed out our universities and undermine the legitimate prerogatives of their faculties. They ground their analyses in the concrete challenges that contingent faculty members face as they struggle for a more humane workplace and a better education for their students. Even so, our authors have big dreams. After all, since gig work has now become the default condition for millions of workers around the world, the advice and analysis that this book supplies can be useful far beyond the campus.

Thankfully, the authors do not dwell on the disadvantages of contingency, except insofar as those disadvantages contribute to the problems encapsulated in the slogan “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.” Berry and Worthen are realistic, aware that their “blue-sky” reform agenda can be only a partial and transitional solution to the inadequate salaries, stingy benefits, and lack of institutional support for their teaching and research that plague most non-tenure-track faculty members. Their ultimate goal is not just to alleviate the problems contingent academics currently experience but to eliminate contingent positions altogether. Accordingly, they warn readers to expect protracted struggles that end at best with incomplete victories and must be fought for over and over again.

History is their ally. If nothing else, it reveals the contingency of contingency. Once upon a time, working conditions were better. In the 1950s and 1960s the nation’s faculties—marred as they then were (and still are) by racism, sexism, and other forms of exclusion—nonetheless did enjoy greater respect and economic security. Berry and Worthen trace the professoriate’s decline to the 1970s when a coterie of right-wing libertarian ideologues and their billionaire funders took advantage of the economic crises of the moment to mount an all-too-successful campaign to foist their neoliberal agenda on the rest of society. For colleges and universities, what followed were cutbacks in public financing and the adoption of corporate values and practices that impoverished and undercut the quality of most of the nation’s institutions of higher education. As austerity took hold, middle-level managers were caught off guard. They coped by reducing their labor costs, replacing retiring tenured professors with part-time and temporary instructors who, one administrator explained, were “units of flexibility.”

Given the traditional status consciousness that prevailed within much of the academic profession, and its members’ lack of support for part-time and temporary faculty members, the only realistic route to power for contingent faculty organizers was through collective bargaining. The result has been a decades-long struggle. Until the late sixties and seventies, traditional academics clung to their professional identity and looked down on unions as beneath their professional status. Once they overcame their reluctance to unionize, many of those professors still opposed collaboration with their part-time and temporary colleagues. Ironically, as collective bargaining grew among faculties, so too did contingency. Eventually, as Berry and Worthen note, faculty activists in more progressive states like California and New York came to recognize the value of internal democratization. Incorporating the growing majority of contingent faculty members within their institutions into a combined bargaining unit made it possible for them to win better treatment and stronger contracts for all academic workers.

Most of the examples the authors cite as they show how contingent faculty members gained power at their institutions come from the experience of organizers in the California State University system’s California Faculty Association. Even in progressive California, it took years. But the union negotiators ultimately got what the authors claim are the best provisions for improving their non-tenure-track colleagues’ remuneration, working conditions, and job security. They took advantage of whatever tools were available. They used collective bargaining to obtain enforceable contract provisions for both large and small gains. But they also turned to grievance proceedings that created a set of precedents that serve as quasi–case law. They sometimes secured helpful legislation from union-friendly politicians at the federal, state, and local levels and even received assistance from their regional accrediting agencies. And they sought more allies. Students were crucial, as were other unions both on and off their campuses. Sometimes they even collaborated with their own administrations.

Their main efforts focused on equalizing salaries, benefits, and job security for contingent instructors with those of “regular” faculty members. Often, as Berry and Worthen show, they tweaked preexisting procedures and policies to serve the needs of contingent faculty members. For example, they did not demand tenure, which had become an increasingly toxic term among the general public, but instead bargained for the long-honored union requirement that seniority be recognized. They also gained considerable job security by using grievance proceedings to enforce the provisions in their employment contracts for “just-cause dismissals” and “careful consideration” in personnel decisions. In some cases, they were able to negotiate a kind of seniority that approximated tenure in all but name.

Because Berry and Worthen published this book in 2021, just before MAGA politicians escalated the culture wars against higher education and before the Israel-Palestine conflict roiled the nation’s campuses, its tone is more optimistic than it might be now. Still, its message of gains won by struggle and solidarity remains relevant. At many institutions the faculty, as vulnerable as it appears today, does have power. Faculty members need to recognize that fact and organize themselves to secure it, which is and will continue to be a massive slog. This book, with its strategic thinking and nitty-gritty tactics, can provide a valuable tool in that struggle.

A former editor of Academe and current member of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, Ellen Schrecker is a retired professor of history at Yeshiva University who has written extensively about McCarthyism, higher education, and political repression. Her forthcoming book, The Right to Learn: Resisting the Right-Wing Attack on Academic Freedom, coedited with Valerie C. Johnson and Jennifer Ruth, will be published by Beacon Press in the spring.