Negotiated Conversions: Living with Uncertainty

By Bill Hendricks

As a group, college teachers are replaceable parts, and when one of us is replaced, perhaps the only thing it is possible to say with confidence about the new model is that she will cost less. Anyone looking at higher education today can see that the tuition and fees college students pay keep outpacing inflation. But fewer notice that college teachers’ compensation plays almost no role in these increasing costs and may actually have a dampening effect. After all, an ever-more-contingent faculty means a cheaper faculty. Though casualization is bad for college students, it’s worse for college teachers. Casualization is cheap teaching, a non-career populated by an uneven mix of the secure and the desperate.

Sometimes, however, faculty unions can arrest management’s forced march toward the bottom. My union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties represents faculty at the fourteen universities of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. All faculty, tenure-track and contingent alike, work within a single bargaining unit and under a unified contract, with part-time compensation pro-rated to tenure-track salary scales. This unified contract has been critical, for one thing, as a mechanism to decrease incentives for state system universities to employ ever more contingent faculty; the minimum per-section compensation for instructors without a terminal degree is currently $5,400.

Since 1999, the collective bargaining agreement has provided opportunities to not only halt but to reverse the erosion of tenure-track jobs, opportunities that are currently being realized, though unevenly and not without considerable struggle, at my institution, California University of Pennsylvania, and other system campuses. The contract provides that full-time temporary faculty who have worked for five consecutive years in the same department will be “placed in tenure-track status.” Further, it provides that the existence of any courses that have been staffed by temporary faculty for four years in such a way as to equal a full-time workload (four courses a semester) for one or more tenure-track faculty shall constitute grounds for creating new tenure-track positions. Until 2007, these two articles, conversion of persons and conversion of positions, worked in tandem with another contract provision mandating that the number of part-time temporary faculty members not exceed 7 percent of the total number of tenure-track faculty. That cap on contingency was raised—disastrously and unnecessarily, in my view—in the most recent contract to 25 percent of total faculty.

In recent years, my department, English, has benefited from both of the contractual conversion provisions. In fact, these provisions been the principal source of new tenure-track jobs in the department, yielding four new hires (two from each provision) in the last three years. But while the “conversion of persons” provision certainly promotes union solidarity and labor justice, I’m less sure about the “conversion of positions” provision, the practical effect of which is usually to displace contingent department members in favor of new hires from elsewhere (since most temporary faculty at Cal U do not have PhDs). While contingent faculty at Cal U are less exploited than most contingent teachers nationally, their jobs are hardly secure. And so, the fact that no temporary faculty can ever count on conversion (though some are converted) means that they’re always hustling to keep some teaching presence in other institutions even during those semesters when they’re working full-time at California (and making significantly more per course than they do elsewhere). Like most contingent faculty nationally—and like many of the students they teach—Cal U adjuncts live and move uneasily, compromised by the compromises they must make.

Conversions at Cal U are hardly confined to English. Our local union president, a psychologist, was a “conversion of persons hire,” and some other departments across campus push hard for conversions of both types. But these are rarely easy. Just within the last year, the sociology department and the health sciences department almost lost out on conversions when two contingent faculty who were almost there were cut back (by order of the administration) from four courses to three in the final semester before their automatic conversion. In these two cases, the union local raised hell and ultimately prevailed; it’s quite possible, however, that the administration was not shamed into acquiescing so much as made aware of the really uncomfortable problems that non-conversion would entail. The two candidates were the only ones in their departments who had the special skills and certifications for specialized accreditations that both the departments and the administration coveted.

Conversions at California are only partially driven by the commitment of the union and many departments to try to make them happen even in the face of managerial opposition. There are external, sometimes unpredictable, factors as well. Upper administrators’ own salaries (and it is upper administration that must ultimately sign off on conversions) are dependent on a sometimes contradictory series of guidelines from the university system’s central bureaucracy. For instance, while the system’s constant drive for greater productivity (that is, ultimately, cheaper teaching) might seem to make them reflexively inclined to nix conversions when possible, the simultaneous mandates from the system for more faculty with PhDs and for more specialized accreditations and for better graduation rates might make campus administrators in some years favor conversions. Frustratingly, the relative weights of these factors change from year to year. For faculty, and most painfully for contingent faculty, this year’s war is not necessarily last year’s war. Who prevails in a given year seems, and sometimes is, just the luck of the draw. The uncomfortable news is that the battles are endless. The better news is that persistent unions can sometimes win.