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No Choice but to Serve

Faculty members need to help colleagues look for the union label through collective bargaining.
By Anna K. Nardo

During my thirty-seven-year career as a professor of English literature, I have learned as much from professional service outside my home institution as I have from my work as a teacher and scholar. Engagement with the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the Association of Departments of English (ADE) has both enabled my service at my home institution and awakened me to threats that neither the MLA nor the ADE can counter. Fundamentally, however, I am a teacher. I do research so that I have something to teach. I worked to reform a curriculum, and I chaired a department, in order to improve conditions for teachers. Now I am trying to organize a union in order to create a power base that can protect educators. Given the threats education faces, university professors have no choice but to serve our profession in order to ensure its survival. What follows is the story of how I came to this realization.

Awakening of a Union Organizer

I have spent my entire career at a large state university. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was too busy preparing classes, grading stacks of essays, and trying to become a legitimate scholar to make professional service a priority. Once I received tenure, however, I began to take on committee assignments, the most important of which was chairing a steering committee for curriculum revision. It was the late 1980s, the “culture wars” were raging, and our department was divided. Should we create a cultural studies concentration, retain the Shakespeare requirement, expand our requirements to include courses in critical theory and literature by women and ethnic minorities, or do all of the above? Although these questions seem quaint now, the heat they generated at the time threatened to derail our revision—until we joined a curriculum revision project sponsored by the MLA with a grant from the federal government’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). Knowing they were part of a national project, fractious faculty members gradually began to work together and build sufficient trust to complete the revision. Nevertheless, the grueling process took five years, and without the extra-institutional work we did with the MLA/FIPSE project, I am sure that the revision would have failed. My university valued my leadership in this project enough to award me a university professorship. So far, so good.

When I served as department chair (2004–10), I became even more engaged with the work of the MLA through its offshoot, the ADE. As I attended summer seminars, served on the ADE’s executive committee, and eventually chaired the ADE for one year, I began to read and use the voluminous MLA and ADE reports on the status of the profession. In negotiations with the dean and upper administration at my home institution, I repeatedly invoked these studies. Sometimes the reports’ authority enabled our department to change the culture of the institution. For example, using the 2002 report The Future of Scholarly Publishing and the 2006 Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion, we won administrative approval for a set of departmental rules to accompany the university policy statement on tenure and promotion. As a result, our department is no longer subject to the “tyranny of the book,” meaning that a tenure and promotion portfolio can succeed without a single-authored monograph.

But my story of progress in using extrainstitutional service to enable  intrainstitutional change ends here. What I also learned from reading the many MLA reports—especially the 2007 ADE report Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English—is that my profession is under threat. Citing US Department of Education data on the academic workforce in 1995 and 2009, in his column in the spring 2012 MLA Newsletter, MLA president Michael Bérubé sums up the dismal situation: “That fourteen-year period witnessed an explosion in the hiring—and exploitation—of NTT [non-tenure-track] faculty labor: undergraduate enrollment increased by forty percent, or by 5.3 million students, and faculty appointments grew by fifty percent, but ninety percent of those additional appointments were NTT positions. In other words, for the past decade and a half, nine out of every ten new faculty positions in the United States have been off the tenure track.” These data include all disciplines. Currently, according to AAUP data, nearly 70 percent of all academics in the United States work off the tenure track. Departments of English and foreign languages have for decades relied on non-tenure-track teachers to staff introductory writing and language courses. But the data reported in Education in the Balance reveal that, in English departments, “non-tenure-track faculty members teach a significant percentage of upper-division undergraduate courses: at least 22% in departments in Carnegie Baccalaureate and Master’s institutions to as much as 36% in departments in Carnegie Doctoral/Research institutions.” Undergraduate education, at all levels, is being ceded to a contingent labor force.

I have always known that my work as a tenured professor—teaching upper-level undergraduate courses and graduate seminars and publishing books and articles on seventeenth-century literature—rests on the labor of an army of “instructors” (my institution’s official designation for full-time non-tenure-track teachers) who staff our required composition and general education introductory literature courses. For many years my department followed procedures that ensured continuing employment for instructors who passed extensive third-year and sixth-year reviews. Although some of these award-winning teachers have taught at my institution for thirty or more years, the university still classifies them as temporary labor. Every year they are “continued,” the official term for “rehired,” and they may be “released,” the official term for “fired,” with one year’s notice. Salaries were always abysmal, but at least these fulltime instructors received benefits, and continuing appointment seemed assured because the demand for sections of first-year composition never flagged. To garner tuition dollars, state universities need first-year students; first-year students need sections of composition; and sections of composition are staffed more cheaply by non-tenure-track instructors than by graduate students.

When, however, our faculty senate, following the lead of the Department of English, tried to institutionalize a modicum of job security—three-year rolling contracts for instructors who had passed a sixth-year review—the upper administration flatly rejected the proposal. Soon after this rejection, a new team of administrators insisted that thirty-five English instructors be “released,” with promises to add tenure-track faculty positions—promises that were never honored. Then the economy tanked and an even newer team of administrators responded to the budget crisis by issuing release letters to all instructors throughout the university—regardless of years of service or number of teaching awards. Eventually, fourteen foreign language instructors lost their jobs. (The AAUP recently censured the LSU administration after an investigation of two separate matters: the dismissal of an outspoken coastal researcher and the removal of a biology professor from a class for allegedly grading too harshly.)

For just such crises as these, the MLA—a founding member, along with the AAUP and other groups, of the Coalition on the Academic Workforce—provides information, data, guidelines, and advice. For example, its website offers an “Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit” ( that includes Department of Education data on the composition of the academic workforce; a 2009 issue brief, “The Academic Workforce”; recommendations and evaluative questions in “Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members,” a 2011 document by the MLA’s Committee on Contingent Labor; the Education in the Balance report; and much more. The MLA’s annual convention sponsors workshops and discussions of the status of the profession. And its members have begun to use crowdsourcing to gather and disseminate information about the salaries and working conditions of adjunct faculty. But, as President Bérubé admits in the summer 2012 issue of the MLA Newsletter, the MLA “cannot enforce our recommendations for the working conditions of NTT faculty members, just as we cannot enforce our recommendations for salaries and benefits for tenure-track assistant professors and for NTT faculty members working on a per-course basis. . . . We do not have, and cannot develop, the capacity to negotiate employment contracts for faculty members.” Precisely. This is why my extrainstitutional service has taken a sharp left turn. I am now a union organizer.

“Despair Is Not a Strategy”

During the multiple instructor crises at my home institution, I used all the resources the MLA and the ADE offered. My department, with the support of our dean, prepared a petition for three-year rolling contracts for instructors who pass extensive reviews—our version of the MLA’s recommendations in “Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members.” Other large state institutions have adopted similar plans. As chair, I presented this petition, unsuccessfully, to two successive provosts, and our dean has promised to present it to a third who has just been appointed. Since the conclusion of my term as chair, I have continued to lobby for this change at special events for named professors and as part of our preparation for an accreditation review. All efforts have been ignored. Other voices—beyond faculty members and the “best practices” advocated by professional organizations—now dominate the conversation.

For the past decade, my home institution has been managed by career administrators, who serve for only a few years before being forced out or moving on to higher-paying positions elsewhere. Furthermore, in response to ongoing fiscal crises, these administrators have turned, in order to prevent collapse, to donations from a new coalition of local businesspeople. Hence, the corporate model has wholly replaced the old ideal of shared governance: administrators are employers and faculty members are labor. In this cli- mate, the MLA reports that have served me so well in the past can only expose, not help remediate, abusive labor practices.

Now, my home institution no longer rewards my extrainstitutional service. It actively discourages it. After two years of investigating options for collective bargaining, an ad hoc faculty senate committee has evolved into a chapter of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA). As we began to organize and recruit members, the upper administration rejected our request to allow payroll deduction for our dues. No official policy was cited. As a result, my extrainstitutional service now includes knocking on office doors, buttonholing reluctant colleagues, explaining how to fill out cumbersome paper forms, collecting the forms, correcting the forms, and so on.

My experience as a “community organizer” has so far been humbling. Legislative attacks on public education have been so intense that our local and national affiliates have had to concentrate their resources on wider battlefronts. Helping a new union chapter organize and recruit in a right-to-work state is a low priority for the NE A. So a dedicated group of five to eight members began to meet every week—to formulate bylaws, launch a website, circulate a newsletter, and strategize about how to awaken a complacent and apathetic faculty to the threats that our profession faces. We have secured endorsements from the faculty senate and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences senate; we have invited political candidates and pension administrators to speak at faculty forums; we have brought to campus a union organizer from a comparable large state university to advise us; and we have stood in the hot southern sun in the middle of the university quadrangle passing out flyers, buttons, and pens. So far, our fledgling union has enrolled around eighty dues-paying members, with professors of English, philosophy, and library science dominating the membership.

Why—at age sixty-five, in the current national antiunion climate—am I devoting so much time to this kind of service? At the first organizational meeting of what has now become LSUnited, the LAE executive director asked us each to explain why we came, and a member of the original faculty senate exploratory committee captured my sentiment precisely: “I’m here because despair is not a strategy.”

Not only is tenure in jeopardy nationally, not only are labor practices for non-tenure-track teachers abusive, but in states across the nation, legislatures are slashing retirement benefits for the academic workforce. In my state, public colleges and universities are taxed to pay down a whopping retirement debt that was incurred by years of legislative and gubernatorial mismanagement. Now the legislature has approved a risky new pension plan for future state workers, who do not pay into the Social Security system. Only intensive lobbying and threatened lawsuits prevented passage of legislation that would have increased the retirement age and drastically reduced benefits for the existing pension plans. One lesson that I have learned during my years of extrainstitutional service is that, alone, I have no voice in decisions that affect the future of my profession. Collective action is our only access to power.

I have told a story of one professor’s evolutionary commitment to extrainstitutional service. Like Snug, the joiner, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “I am slow of study”; it dawned on me only slowly that we have no choice but to serve. My junior colleagues, however, won’t have the luxury of my protracted process of realization. When I came to my home institution in 1975, there were no programs to mentor junior faculty—no one to show new assistant professors the ropes or warn them about taking on service commitments that would not be rewarded. Again, based in part on MLA and ADE guidelines, my department developed a policy for “Mentors and New Professorial Faculty” that includes the following advice to mentors: “Discuss the various committees in the English department, how they work, how much time different committees take, what is expected of the faculty in terms of service, how to contribute, how to say ‘no.’” Over the years, our department has created a culture that protects untenured tenure-track faculty members from service obligations as they prepare new classes and a research agenda that will earn promotion and tenure. I think that this culture must change.

As a department chair, I hired and oversaw the mentoring of many young assistant professors. These were the lucky few who, in an abysmal job market, had secured tenure-track positions. Brilliant, intensely focused on their research and creative agendas, and committed to excellent teaching, these new colleagues, for the most part, lack an awareness of the status of the profession they have worked so hard for so many years to enter. Only the new specialists in rhetoric and composition understand the status of the labor market, because non-tenure-track teachers staff the vast majority of composition courses not taught by graduate students. Although instructors in our department have voting rights on appropriate issues and participate at all levels of faculty governance, our department still has a two-class structure; tenure-track and tenured faculty members rarely interact with non-tenure-track instructors. I believe that protecting junior faculty members from professional service and encouraging them to see themselves as different from instructors does both them and our profession a disservice.

We are, as the MLA issue brief “The Academic Workforce” claims, “One Faculty Serving All Students.” Thus we senior faculty members and administrators have an obligation to engage our junior colleagues in the problems that are reshaping our profession. Mentoring junior faculty members should include education about the national threats to tenure; the abusive labor practices for non-tenure-track teachers locally and nationally; and the corporate model of the institution that determines their salary, benefits, and working conditions.

I will, of course, encourage my junior colleagues to read the MLA and ADE reports that have awakened me from my complacent slumber, but when I knock on their office door as an LSUnited recruiter, I will also advise them not to say “no” to union service.

Anna K. Nardo is Alumni Professor of English at Louisiana State University, where she teaches literature of the English Renaissance. In addition to books and articles on Milton, Donne, Shakespeare, and George Eliot, she has published on issues of curriculum and pedagogy. Her e-mail address is

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