Organizing for Advocacy

Building a new chapter at a community college where all faculty jobs are contingent.
By Miranda Merklein

Santa Fe College is a diverse and in many ways atypical campus. The comprehensive course offerings are tailored to students’ needs in a way that surpasses what occurs at some research universities, especially in the fine arts, the trades, and technology. But like the vast majority of other educators in higher education, our faculty are struggling with the consequences of deprofessionalization and contingency. It is my greatest hope that our AAUP chapter will take a leading role in improving faculty working conditions, placing emphasis on instruction over infrastructure, so that SFCC can provide a model for restoring campus equity and supportive student-learning outcomes. The three main goals that our chapter has identified for itself are enhancing the faculty’s role in shared governance, creating a more reasonable faculty workload policy, and achieving pay equity for adjunct faculty.

As an adjunct, or “presjunct,” as I have been light- heartedly referring to myself since accepting my new role as AAUP chapter president, I commute to multiple institutions, picking up classes where I can, in order to cobble together a living wage. Although I teach at more than one college, I have always considered SFCC to be my home base, or “school number one,” especially because SFCC is where I began my academic career.

I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting every faculty member on campus, even though I am at SFCC most of the time. Adjunct faculty are by nature a dispersed and relatively isolated group. I wonder if it might surprise some faculty members to learn that I have a long history with the college that began in 1999, when I first came to SFCC as a student. I was a nineteen-year-old single mother that year, and with some encouragement from an admissions counselor, I decided to leave my low-wage retail management job with the goal of achieving financial mobility and creating a better life for my children. After two years of classes and volunteering as a service learning coordinator for AmeriCorps, I went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science at the College of Santa Fe (with a concentration in labor studies); a master’s degree in liberal arts at St. John’s College in Santa Fe; and a PhD in English, with a concentration in creative writing and poetry, from the University of Southern Mississippi. Of course, as an adjunct faculty member, I have not yet had the privilege of teaching in my professional field, creative writing, at any of the schools where I have taught since 2008. Instead, I teach composition, developmental reading and writing, and technical communication. In order to earn a living wage, I have to teach such a heavy load that, for the most part, I am unable to continue to produce independent scholarship and research.

In 2013, with the support of the governing board and interim president Randy Grissom, the faculty senate invited the AAUP to our campus. Our members include two tiers of untenured, contingent faculty: full-time faculty on renewable nine- or twelve-month contracts, numbering less than 100, and around three hundred fifty adjunct faculty on part-time appointments. Terminating the appointment of a faculty member with full-time status requires a statement of cause, but no cause is necessary for adjunct faculty to be dismissed, a fact I am reminded of regularly by management, as adjuncts work on a semester- to-semester basis with no expectation of continued employment.

SFCC shares the systemic problems that have become all too common on the majority of college and university campuses and that the AAUP identified in its 2003 report Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession. We are facing the consequences of pay inequity and overreliance on contingent, precarious labor to provide the bulk of instruction. This has led to weakened involvement in governance for faculty who wish to play a more active role in decision-making and campus policy development; it can be detrimental to student learning; and it is an obstacle to ensuring an atmosphere of collegiality among the administration, faculty, and staff. In addition, adjunct faculty’s lack of job security severely limits our ability to exercise the benefits of academic freedom, as we are always walking on eggshells.

The administration has been supportive in some ways. Plans are underway to develop an online course with informational resources for new adjunct faculty. They are also expanding the adjunct faculty office, where previously only six computers, one printer/ copier, and an additional copy machine were available for our roughly 350 part-time faculty members to use. And we have a copy center for bulk jobs, which is very helpful when one has the ability to plan ahead (though many adjuncts avoid the hassle of printing and copying on campus altogether by choosing to do their printing and copying elsewhere at their own expense). Around the time our chapter formed last spring, the administration secured more computers for adjunct use, which was a great relief especially to the adjuncts teaching online with no equipment of their own. A few empty offices with doors were also provided, which could be reserved for meetings with students on an hourly basis. Overall, adjunct faculty welcomed the change, as we previously had no private place to meet with students, so it was challenging if not impossible to hold private conversations and uphold our obligations under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

At first I thought I would reserve some time to work in one of the offices, but soon I became dejected because every time I discussed the subject with managerial staff I was reminded that adjuncts were not to take advantage of this opportunity by “moving in” or “camping out” in the empty offices. And anyway, one-hour blocks of time move too quickly to justify the time-consuming task of packing and unpacking teaching materials from our rolling offices (luggage). Perhaps in the future we will be able to schedule longer slots, at least two hours at a time, which would make it worthwhile for those of us who volunteer to hold unpaid office hours.

Although the chapter found itself in a favorable circumstance in that we had the theoretical support of the board and interim president in forming our chapter, I have found that the primary obstacle to recruitment of new members is fear of being labeled a rabble-rouser or of inviting retaliation for joining the chapter. In my opinion, these fears are partly a result of the turmoil that erupted during the reign of our last president, who was eventually removed by the board last spring (albeit with a $500,000 settlement package). Although the faculty has mixed views about her dismissal, many indicated in a campuswide survey that SFCC had developed an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and retaliation under the former administration. The survey was covered extensively by the local press and, unfortunately, what it found is still true for many faculty members, especially adjuncts.

I have tried to reassure timid faculty who want to join the chapter that the AAUP is a well-respected professional organization with a positive reputation, and that the chapter is a welcomed addition to our campus. Still, because of pervasive insecurities, I have had to send out blind copy e-mail messages, at least for the time being. We have members who regularly attend meetings, but we also have members who do not feel safe enough to be open about their membership. I am hoping that as our membership grows, more people will feel safe enough to engage publicly in our chapter discourse. I understand this hesitancy as I myself have been casually warned by administrative staff to not involve “outside parties” like the AAUP in our struggle to improve working conditions for faculty and told that “things will get ugly” if I do not instead choose a more docile organizational approach, like a virtually powerless institutional adjunct committee to address critical faculty concerns.

Another challenge that arises on a regular basis concerns members who are public about their membership and support, but say they do not have the extra time to go to meetings and to help with recruitment. I can understand that we are all overwhelmed by our heavy schedules, but I think that actively advocating for ourselves now will pay off in the future.

In many ways, being public is the only protection we have. Also, it is of utmost importance that we act now, as we have all witnessed directly or through media reports the severe consequences of lack of shared governance, academic freedom, and accountability at a nearby Northern New Mexico College. Administrative retaliation for critical speech is a regular, well-documented occurrence at Northern, where I am slated to teach in the fall but probably will not because of my recent outspokenness in the press; among other things, I went public with my decision to quit teaching at Northern in the middle of the summer term after the college shorted adjuncts’ paychecks. It is important that all SFCC faculty understand that that what we are seeing at Northern is a worst-case, near-apocalyptic scenario where even tenured faculty can be discarded on a whim. This is why we need to do everything we can to ensure that our campus never succumbs to the destructive forces that deprive students and faculty of a functioning learning environment.

“Shared governance at SFCC should include a faculty voice in all matters related to curriculum, academics, and workload,” faculty senate chair Clark Baughan told me in a one-on-one interview. “We have a great opportunity to create the academic environment at SFCC we wish to see on behalf of our students and the needs of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico.”

Currently tenure is not an option for SFCC faculty. Instead, we have multiple levels of contingency, all of which operate under a problematic and conflicted understanding of workload policy in which we have yet to find a solution or workable interpretation. Although full-time faculty members’ working conditions are better than those of adjuncts—they have offices, get paid more for the same instructional work, receive healthcare benefits, and enjoy relatively secure jobs—they are subjected to a formula that is overly burdensome. Additional duties such as committee work, mandatory office hours, and required institutional service cause their workweek to extend well beyond forty hours (fifty to sixty-five hours per week is the norm, from what I have observed). In this, all faculty tiers find something else in common: while full-time faculty are burning the candle on both ends at one institution, adjuncts risk burnout from the necessity of working at multiple jobs to piece together a modest income.

One possible solution to overburdened faculty has been proposed by Sarah Snyder, an adjunct faculty member at SFCC and graduate student at St. John’s College who serves as our AAUP chapter parliamentarian. She has suggested extending advising and committee work to adjunct faculty. “If adjuncts shared some of these responsibilities and were paid accordingly, the workload imbalance could be rectified,” she said in an interview. (Periodically, adjuncts do assume other duties to relieve some of the stress put upon full- time faculty, but much of that work is unpaid.) Snyder added, “The extreme commercialization of education, the ‘adjunctification’ of the teaching workforce, and the high level of income inequality endemic to many sectors of our society are all essentially in the water of higher education. It is our job as well-educated and thoughtful professionals to be involved in crafting the social paradigm of higher education and to make sure that it reflects human wellness and growth above all other factors, especially those economic.”

Adjunct astronomy professor Barney Magrath said in an interview, “I would like to see a realization that old ways of thinking—for instance, the exploitation of adjunct faculty and the overcompensation of administrators—are a huge obstacle to our mission of teaching the leaders of tomorrow.”

Uncompensated work is a universal problem for adjuncts, and we at SFCC are not immune. Faculty work is parsed out and assigned piecemeal at the sole discretion of department chairs in proportion to fluctuating enrollment numbers. Regardless of which courses we teach, adjunct faculty are not compensated for course preparation, curriculum design, or the technical training required to teach online, all of which are essential duties. This is especially problematic for English composition courses, which are typically the most labor intensive. That workload is doubled for online courses, even though faculty are compensated at the same rate as on-site classes. In general, the additional, uncompensated workload required for many adjuncts course loads poses such a hardship for some adjunct faculty members that they have to rely on public assistance, food banks, and even plasma donation centers to supplement their incomes. We have one adjunct faculty member who lives in an off-the-grid RV located on a Walmart parking lot, yet he is a well-respected professional in his field.

Luckily, most SFCC department chairs try their best to keep adjuncts’ course loads relatively stable, and they also try to provide advance notice when courses are cut because of low enrollment. However, adjunct faculty recently saw their teaching hours capped at nine credit hours when the college adopted a cost-saving measure to deny them healthcare, to which they would otherwise have been entitled under the Affordable Care Act; this resulted in an annual maximum salary of less than $15,000. For full-time faculty, the consequence was an increased course load on top of an already overburdened schedule.

The course cuts and posturing of the college around the Affordable Care Act were the critical points that led me and other faculty members to realize that we had to become active in the struggle for campus equity and agency in governance. The cuts were an integral part of faculty’s decision to organize and to connect with labor leaders nationally—probably the wisest decision of my career up to this point.

In fall 2013, when the course-load cuts were still unconfirmed but expected, adjunct faculty became more outspoken about our concerns. More people attended faculty senate meetings and found courage during Campus Equity Week in October. I assisted our two previous faculty senate adjunct representatives, Jessica Lawless and Nancy Uvalle, in putting together materials and answering questions during breaks from teaching my seven courses (five at SFCC and two at Northern New Mexico College). We all remarked on how empowered we began to feel when students, faculty, and staff came by to offer their support. At the time, we had no idea that we would be forming an AAUP chapter the following semester or that the formerly factional tiers of faculty would come together to serve a common set of shared goals.

So far, organizing the advocacy chapter at SFCC has been part hard work, part labor of love. What has been most surprising to me is that even though I am working more than I was before assuming chapter responsibilities, I find that I have more energy overall and that I am much more optimistic about the future and my relative safety as an employee. I can be fired at any time for any reason, true, but it would be a very public firing. My advice to new members fearing retaliation is that great relief can be found in standing up for your own survival and the success of your students. The AAUP has been very supportive on campus and at a distance, and our western regional coordinator, Jason Elias, has been an indispensable source of knowledge and strategy as we move forward.

When I speak to potential new members about joining the chapter, the two main categories of questions I hear from faculty are (1) “Why should we choose the AAUP over or instead of such-and-such union?” and (2) “Yes, I want to organize, but can the AAUP really help us?” In both cases, I recommend that members look at the work being accomplished by the AAUP in other chapters across the country, all of which information is readily available online. In the recent year alone, we have seen many success stories emerge from formerly disenfranchised faculty. One of my best experiences was attending the AAUP’s Summer Institute, with my colleague Sarah Snyder, at Hofstra University. I met many intelligent, like-minded colleagues dedicated to improving the state of higher education in America.

“I believe SFCC could also move toward sabbaticals, tenure, and better pay and security for our adjuncts,” said faculty senate chair Baughan. Ultimately, I would like to think that this is what our chapter can accomplish.

When looking back on my long history with SFCC, I still consider the support I received as a student to be an integral part of my personal development as well as my achievements as a dedicated professor and writer. As I recall my favorite professors, I remember how important they were to me as leaders and models. I had no idea at the time that they were low-wage workers—adjunct faculty with no job security or benefits—or that they would either have to change careers to earn a real wage or would remain adjuncts and later become my colleagues.

Considering the obstacles that students face today during a recession in a country afflicted with extreme income inequality, I look forward to seeing a shift in priorities here at SFCC to benefit instruction. It is important for students to have empowered professors who can afford to pay for food and shelter and go to the doctor, especially because we are working not just as instructors but as cultural workers on the front lines with the current generation of students, adult learners, and veterans, all of whom need us to function at full capacity. With this in mind, I would like to see the chapter focus on ways to forge a path to full- time employment for the professors who have given so much of themselves, and to improve conditions for all faculty in the SFCC community.

Miranda Merklein is president of the AAUP chapter at Santa Fe Community College. She can be reached at miranda.merklein @gmail.com; follow her on Twitter @MirandaMerklein.

Comments

Unfortunately, this article seems ever more about Ms. Merklein herself, who is interim president for so-called advocacy chapter.
The article, in my opinion, overstates her accomplishments and undervalues any work and effort provided previously by others.
I and others are discovering that communicating with our ‘president’ is non-productive.
No one on SFCC campus had opportunity to review this before publication and it shows.
Organizing needs to understand that it’s about people.

I don't see what you see here. I see someone reaching out, telling her story because it's a story so many of us can relate to, and addressing questions that those of us considering joining unions but still on the fence ask ourselves. I also see evidence that she appreciates the work done by those who were involved before her. So your comment reads like that of someone with an ax to grind. Ours is a difficult journey, and I admire all of the adjuncts/contingents who are putting their efforts toward finding some relief for the rest of us.

"Organizing for Advocacy" seems to be an article that is SUPPOSED to be about the author since it's on organizing in general in a difficult environment. She appears to be writing to model how she, as a precarious, part-time faculty member, has been able to be a leader (and a good one) when given the opportunity despite all of the obstacles. The article isn't written as representing the group itself--just on how she has interacted with it. Your complaint about her not getting permission from someone on the campus before she published this article smacks of disregard for her, an adjunct, being in this position. And your disdain for the group itself, the "so-called advocacy chapter" says far more about you than anything you have tried to imply about this amazing woman. Please don't even bother trying to please this person, Miranda Merklein. He'll never be that guy writing the article himself--but he'll always be criticizing the one who is.

That's just a very undermining comment about someone using her limited free time to help her colleagues. And why does she need your permission to do anything?

Dear Clark,

Professor Merklein's publications don't need your approval. You're free to write and submit your own article outlining your contributions to the effort. But rather than tearing down a fellow (and a use that term loosely on your part) organizer in public, your struggling new chapter would be better served by your public support, regardless of what your private feelings might be. Looks like you've got a few lessons to learn about what real advocacy and organizing are.

please review my comments below, Mr. Baughan

Professor Baughan, I agree with the many respondents who don't agree with your criticism of the article as navel-gazing and self-aggrandizing; it isn't any such a thing. And the notion that she should have let other people "review" it before publication is incredibly patronizing.

However, I'd be very curious to know what you'd like to have asked Ms. Merklein not to say had you been consulted before she published it. And who else should have been able to "review" it. And a little bit about why you'd expect her or anybody else to accept your feedback.

Rather than bring more kindling to your pathetic attempt to light a strawman to avoid discussing the essential matters with Ms. Merklein, I will ask you direct question and I expect direct answer: “I believe SFCC could also move toward sabbaticals, tenure, and better pay and security for our adjuncts,” said faculty senate chair Baughan.

So do you support "better pay and security" for the SFCC adjuncts? Or is your obvious attempt to slander Ms. Merklein just another avoidance tactic you and your colleagues deploy when your higher ups get nervous about your comments and tug at the lapdog leash you obviously wear so well?

You may respond here.

-Adjunctski

Dear Mr. Baughan,
I see no rhetorical attempt by Ms. Merklein, either overt or covert, to do anything but represent the value of the AAUP chapter she leads to the well-being of contingent faculty. Your overt attempt to discredit her and the "so called advocacy chapter" is right there in your first sentence for all to see. I can only presume by your opening sentence that you're not a fan of Ms. Merklein or the AAUP or the well-being of contingent faculty, and if even one of those is true, then I think it's also fair to presume that you don't really care about students.

Collaboration across faculty, no matter their rank, is essential to securing everyone's well-being, including the institution's. And caring about other human beings is just...human.

BT

Quote from Clark Baughan's Comment:
"No one on SFCC campus had opportunity to review this before publication and it shows.
Organizing needs to understand that it’s about people."

I'm not sure that Dr. Merklein needs anyone from SFCC to review anything that she has to say of her experience. It seems to me that she is indeed taking a risk in speaking candidly, and that risk is appreciated by those of us (myself included) who are not able to secure a national and open forum for discussion. As far as I can tell, her piece is all about people. Many people. People who are largely voiceless in the cacophony of of administrative theory and jibber-jabber. People who are telling you what they see, from their point of view--a point of view that does not need the validation of any administrative dictator or lobbyist.

I welcome and support narratives like Dr. Merklein's, which perfectly illustrates some of the very important issues that a large majority of college and university educators face. I would like to see more voices like hers. And someday I would like to be one as well. And when I do speak, although I'm sure there will be detractors, I would hope that those who are working toward the same goal don't throw stones. That's just counter productive.

"Organizing needs to understand it's about people." Exactly, Clark Baughan. Miranda Merklein is quite human and has written a compelling essay. Why didn't you add a substantive comment instead of a smackdown? As an outsider some distance away ... I have to say it looks like jealousy. And considering how difficult it is to advocate on any campus (including the personal toll and risks), I think collegiality and solidarity would have gone a long way here -- and maybe put a dent into your very sticky local situation. The resistance to any organizational change can be relentless, and I wish any adjunct attempting it well. And my hat will be off permanently for administrators and tenured faculty who finally acknowledge issues of equity and fairness.

Great to see that there's feedback.
A functional chapter is a valuable asset to all faculty. This is a goal that a number of faculty on our campus (including me) have worked on. There is a responsibility for chapter leadership to communicate with the members and practice openness. This includes scheduling meetings with feedback from the group so members can attend.
Organizing requires paying attention to the people involved, the strength ultimately comes from group. This has been my meaningful experience with unions and it is, in my opinion, what makes success possible.

Whenever there is more than enough frustration to pass around, some, in what can become an unconscious habit, take out their frustrations even on those who are trying to address the root causes of the issue. Merklein is taking time from her own frustrations and from her own life to try help so many. We need to support one another in this movement. We have to move from awful-izing to organizing. It is common for the powerless to damn their peers (or even themselves) instead of gathering strength from one another to speak to power.

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