Turning Back the Tide on Contingency

Balancing the needs of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty in a union contract.
By Ron Bramhall

Non-tenure-track. Adjuncts. Contingent. Part-time. Call them what you will, the faculty in these ranks share the same struggles across the country. No job security. Low pay. Few if any benefits. Limited voice. Tenuous futures. Increasing workloads. 

Continuing disinvestment in higher education across the country has led to an overreliance on contingent faculty. According to “The Just-in-time Professor,” a report issued by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in 2014, in 1970 contingent faculty made up about 20 percent of the faculty in the United States and today, they make up about 75 percent of the instructional workforce. They are the new majority, and their plight is finally getting the attention it deserves.

An increasing reliance on contingent faculty has much broader implications. The struggles of contingent faculty are not merely about working conditions. They are symptomatic of the continual decline of what has made higher education in the United States great. At its best, higher education in the United States is about deep inquiry and discovery, controversial ideas, critical peer review, and academic freedom. At its worst, it is about managing enrollment, building a “brand,” optimizing student credit hours, and job training. When the majority of faculty in front of students each day have no idea if they will have a job next term or if they will be able to pay this month’s bills, these core values suffer. When they have no time to meet with students because they have to teach too many classes to make ends meet, these values suffer. When they are so worried about being rehired that they fear engaging in discussion of anything even remotely controversial, these values suffer. The gradual erosion affects everyone—all faculty, students, and the broader society.

Organizing And Bargaining 

We, the union leadership at the University of Oregon, understood this when we began organizing a union and then developing our bargaining platform. In March 2012, after many years of discussion and organizing work, United Academics filed union authorization cards signed by a clear majority of tenure-track, non-tenure-track, and research faculty (about 1,100 cards out of more than 1,800 faculty) with the State Employment Relations Board. The union was certified in April 2012, and it now represents more than 1,800 faculty: all instructional and research faculty, tenure-track and non-tenure-track, including “adjuncts,” or part-time contingent faculty. An important element of our bargaining unit is that it includes all of our faculty. In fact, we no longer use terms like “adjunct” and “part-time” to describe those off the tenure track; instead, we simply use “non-tenure-track.” Those in that classification have many titles, such as instructor, research associate, and lecturer, and can hold a modifying rank of senior I or senior II.

Union members spent summer 2012 in bargaining caucuses developing an understanding of the issues most important to our members and drafting contract proposals. Out of that group of faculty, we selected our bargaining team of nine faculty members, who further refined the contract proposals and attended negotiation training. We began bargaining in December 2012 and ratified our first contract in October 2013.

We were not trying to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty only because it was the right thing to do, even though that was an important element shaping our aims. We were also doing this because we understood that improving the working conditions for contingent faculty makes our university better and is a small step toward restoring the greatness of higher education in the United States.

Speaking with One Voice

An important part of our strategy was to include both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty at the negotiating table. We are fortunate on the University of Oregon campus to have a high level of collegiality between these two groups. We just elected a contingent faculty member as our senate president. So we built on that strong platform to create a union that could speak with one voice from many perspectives.

Prior to bargaining, we formed issue workgroups staffed by tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members. From those groups, we chose the bargaining team, which consisted of five tenure-track and four non-tenure-track faculty members. Our team was carefully chosen to represent a variety of disciplines. Another major consideration was the ability of each member to understand and to argue for the “big issues” such as shared governance and academic freedom. As we crafted proposals, we consistently discussed how specific policy proposals would help to accomplish the larger goals. We also made sure that each member understood at a deep level the issues that did not directly relate to his or her role on the faculty: non-tenure-track faculty members had to understand the tenure review process and what we were fighting for, and tenure-track faculty members had to understand the workload issues of contingent faculty. But coming to this mutual understanding often required long and tough conversations about sometimes competing interests. Nevertheless, the process brought us closer together and made our arguments at the table that much stronger.

During bargaining, we thus spoke with one voice. Tenure-track faculty would often argue for contingent faculty issues and vice versa. Our lead negotiator, Mike Mauer of the national AAUP staff, commented that in all his years leading bargaining teams he had never seen the two groups work so closely together. He was amazed that when he first met with the team, he could not tell which individuals were in which group.

A Strong Agreement 

Framing our proposals in terms of the big issues rather than just tactical ones made for a strong, cohesive collective bargaining agreement in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In collaboration with the university administration, United Academics has concrete evidence of improved conditions for non-tenure-track faculty on this campus that we believe not only help our members, but also serve as a model for other institutions across the nation.

Because of the collective bargaining agreement’s provisions for shared governance, all career non-tenure-track faculty across campus will have an equitable voice in unit policies, many for the first time. Giving this group a voice in policies that affect their working conditions is a significant first step in raising the status of non-tenure-track faculty on campus and in increasing respect and collegiality. In addition, our agreement outlines a shared-governance process that defines how faculty will participate in the development of many critical policies.

We convinced the administration that a reduced reliance on adjunct faculty, defined at UO as “a non-tenure track paid temporary appointment that is intermittent or of limited duration,” was good for the University of Oregon. To that end, we developed a process to evaluate all of the more than four hundred adjunct positions on campus for possible reclassification to career non-tenure-track faculty positions. That process is complete, and we are happy to report that more than three hundred adjunct positions have been reclassified as career non-tenure-track faculty. This reclassification means higher pay, promotion opportunities, participation in institutional governance, and longer contracts. Our faculty went from roughly 25 percent adjunct to just 10 percent.

The collective bargaining agreement set aside a pool of money to establish salary floors for non-tenure-track faculty members as a first step towards providing a living wage for all our faculty. The joint committee working on salary floors recently agreed to terms that will provide increases for roughly three hundred of our lowest-paid colleagues, with some raises as high as 30 percent.

For years, many of our faculty had no idea if they would be working the next term until a few weeks before that term started. Now, notices of contract renewal must be delivered by May 1 to career non-tenure-track faculty members for the following year. This important step provides some much-needed predictability and stability for that group.

For the first time, every unit on campus will have a clear workload policy that defines what a 1.0 FTE is. This is significant for non-tenure-track faculty members because many of them have taken on extra teaching and service responsibilities with no additional compensation or release time. These policies will prevent workload creep. It is also significant for tenure-track faculty members because it will force units to develop much clearer policies about the paths to promotion and tenure.

Throughout lengthy discussions on academic freedom, we held firm on the fundamental principles while pushing back on the university’s attempts to weaken them. We ended up with a strong academic freedom policy, but, more important, we set the stage for our senate to pass an even stronger academic freedom policy that was recently signed by our president. One important aspect of this policy is the freedom it gives to all members of our community, not just faculty, to “address, question, or criticize any matter of institutional policy or practice, whether acting as individuals or as members of an agency of institutional governance.”

In It for the Long Haul

We have just wrapped up our first academic year under our new contract, and we have deemed our first effort a success. That said, we still have a long way to go. There are many implementation issues to iron out, there are things we missed or did not get into the first contract, and the struggle of organizing is ongoing.

That last point is a critical one. Despite our many gains, persuading the critical mass to look beyond their own important and pressing concerns—such as wages, job security, teaching loads, and disrespect— and to work for the long-haul big issues is tough. It requires frequent conversations about the importance of our work. It requires reminding everyone that we are not just in it for ourselves. It requires speaking out at every turn against the “corporatization” of our university. It requires putting in the extra hours, days, and months that are necessary to turn the tide.

We believe the effort is worth it.

Ron Bramhall is a senior instructor in the Charles H. Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon. He teaches business leadership and communication, and the legal environment of business. He represents the interests of approximately 950 contingent faculty as the vice president of non-tenure-track instructional affairs for United Academics of the University of Oregon and is also a member of the union’s bargaining team and implementation committee. He can be reached at Bramhall@uauoregon.org.

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