What Makes a Space "Safe?"

Adjuncts in the #MeToo era.
By Melinda Myrick

room with red walls and ceiling with metal folding chair

On March 5, 2014, I sat at the end of a long conference table across from the chair of my department. We were the only two people in the room. It was late in the evening, and everyone else had gone home for the day. I had braced myself for a tense conversation because this meeting was a reckoning; my chair was not happy.

For starters, adjuncts from our English department had formed an AAUP chapter on campus, and we made up the majority of that group. Additionally, several chapter members, including me, had testified before the Colorado legislature in support of House Bill 14-1154, the Community College Pay and Equity Act, which would essentially have required equal pay for equal work. Though the bill was ultimately defeated, it represented our first, very public attempt to expose the poor working conditions endured by adjunct professors in the Colorado Community College System (CCCS).

Before my colleagues and I formed an AAUP chapter, we operated in isolation. Before we spoke out for ourselves and the other 4,600-plus adjunct professors in the CCCS, our administrators happily honored that isolation. Before we formed a community, combined resources, and began asking hard questions and publicizing our answers, I thought the world of academics was immune from bullying and discrimination. In short, I thought I was safe.

The culmination of a series of events, however, had put me in the hot seat. A state senator wanted to hear a student voice in the debate about HB 14-1154. A former student of mine was excited to meet with students from other campuses and testify about the intersection of student learning conditions and faculty working conditions. When my chair got wind of this, he sent a departmental email with a blunt demand: “Stop asking students to serve as the voices of instructors, because it crosses the line of professionalism.” I was worried about potential retaliation against the student, so I told him not to meet with state legislators. In my defense, leaders of the Colorado AAUP conference sent a letter, copied to members of my department, asking the chair to reconsider his “stance on students’ rights to become actively involved in political issues that affect them personally.” Barring evidence that they have been coerced, students should be allowed to exercise their freedom of speech. The student paid the chair a visit to express his dissent, which did not go well.

Though my chair’s email was civil, the tone quickly disintegrated during our meeting. It became clear to me that he held me responsible both for the exchange he had with the student and for the letter he had received from the Colorado AAUP. The meeting culminated in what I could only view as a threat. He reminded me that for several years, I had been assigned the schedule I requested, but as the department chair, he had the power to choose which classes were assigned to me—or whether classes were assigned to me at all. And, with two years left in his term, he wasn’t going anywhere soon.

Safe Spaces

After the meeting, for the first time, I didn’t feel safe at work. Up until that week, it hadn’t occurred to me that my department chair would be anything less than supportive. In my naive mind, he would back his adjunct instructors because, like most of our full-time counterparts, he had been one once. To add to the confusion, the president of the college had suggested that we take the legislative route to begin with, explaining that he could do nothing at the campus level about our pay. As for the student, as the Colorado AAUP conference’s letter stated, testifying would provide him the perfect opportunity to apply his learning to a real-world situation—to encourage his “intellectual and personal development.”

I found myself in this situation at a time when the idea of the “safe space” was becoming popular on college campuses, including mine. In the United States, the concept of “safe space” originated in feminist and LGBTQ communities. Safe spaces were originally defined as places where marginalized people could freely discuss shared ideas and concerns without fear of retribution. Who could oppose fostering conversation or protecting and promoting speech? More recently, though, it seemed that administrators were capitalizing on the notion of safe spaces in unfortunate ways. Now, they apply the concept of a safe space to the campus community, including themselves, as a shield against uncomfortable or controversial topics.

In its report On Trigger Warnings, the AAUP states, “Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they had taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.” This tenet should be applied at all campus levels to encourage dialogue, inquiry, and transparency, even—and perhaps especially—when it challenges administrative and institutional power. The meeting with my chair was nothing less than an attempt to suppress speech that challenges the dire working conditions of adjuncts. After the meeting concluded, I thought, “If safe space exists, it’s only safe for some.”

In institutions such as my own, where the few remaining full-time faculty members take turns serving as chairs of departments filled with scores of adjuncts, department chairs hold tremendous power over course assignments, incomes, and, in some cases, even the ability of adjuncts to avoid homelessness. This power can easily be abused—to intimidate, harass, or, as in my case, discriminate against subordinates.

I moved on. I told myself that showing up with my head held high and my AAUP button on was its own form of protest. Doubling down on volunteering for committees and conferences was my way of not going away. But as I watched the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements unfold, my thoughts returned to this scenario. As people came forward, from celebrities and athletes to government officials and NFL cheerleaders, the uneasy feelings about my own profession returned. To be clear, I am not comparing my story to #MeToo victims who were sexually assaulted or harassed. The larger issue that both #MeToo and Time’s Up address, however, is the abuse of power, often in the workplace— something that countless adjuncts experience.

Culture of Hypocrisy

For adjuncts of any gender, almost any challenge to the administration risks reprisal. In 2016, an adjunct philosophy professor at the Community College of Aurora was fired after he had complained that the new curriculum was insufficiently rigorous. As he put it, “They gave me a document, and the document said you are going to drop 20 percent of your course content, and you are going to assign a maximum of eight pages per semester.” The dismissal prompted an AAUP investigation and ultimately led the AAUP to censure the administration for violations of principles of academic freedom.

Colleges and universities build their brands on community and inclusion, claiming to be “committed to inclusive excellence, educational equity, and advancing opportunity for ALL.” Those are the words of CCCS administrators, who, after the 2016 election, proudly added rainbows to their nametags and hung posters in the hallways proclaiming, “We’re Glad You’re Here!” They quickly helped organize renewal workshops for students covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and hung signs in common areas proclaiming, “Love is Love. We are LGBTQ friendly.” On their social media pages, they claimed, “I heart science!” and “I March for Women!” Administrators want us to know they are “safe-space trained.”

Yet in 2014, when their supposed colleagues (us, the faculty majority of adjuncts) mobilized on behalf of 75 percent of the instructional staff, there was no banner in the library, no workshop to help us prepare. There was no “safe space.” Our president, the same man who recommended we seek a legislative remedy for a much-needed pay raise, was the key witness who testified against HB 14-1154. The administration used $60,000 from the college budget to pay lobbyists to make sure the pay equity bill was defeated. Then, in 2018, our president convened an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Council to create “a plan to achieve equity in outcomes for students in underrepresented groups.” The hypocrisy of the administration’s rhetoric is striking: how can equity be achieved on campus when the treatment of the faculty is so inequitable?

Some campus and student causes are politically useful for the administration or “on brand” in ways that make our college appear compassionate and socially engaged. Last semester, our campus marketed the annual Hunger Banquet, a showcase to raise awareness about college students who experience food insecurity. “Nutrition or Tuition?” the literature proclaimed: “We want you to walk away with a better understanding of hunger in its many forms on the community college campus.” At the same time, many of the caretakers of these students, their adjunct professors, regularly visit food banks and qualify for low-income housing and taxpayer-subsidized health care, along with heating and electrical assistance during the winter months. It struck me that this cause was worthy of promotion, but our AAUP chapter faced an ever-increasing number of rules and regulations that made it almost impossible to distribute information on campus about the number of adjuncts who might qualify for food stamps. Hunger “in its many forms,” indeed. As I walked past the digital announcements on the way to class, rather than feel a sense of pride in my college, I felt a strange mix of shame and anger that the needs of the people who keep the place running were overlooked.

This disconnect creates an environment that leaves many adjunct professors feeling anything but safe. Instructors do not feel safe when they have no voice in their departments or on their campuses. They do not feel safe when they have no reasonable assurance of employment. They do not feel safe when, as my colleague explained, “the lack of job security makes speaking up perilous.” They do not feel safe about exhibiting the skills they teach in the classroom: advocacy, critical thinking, and building evidence-based arguments. They do not feel safe when student causes are promoted while issues affecting three-quarters of the instructors—living wages, health benefits, contracts, due process, shared governance—are ignored.

I doubt that the chance to contribute to the cognitive dissonance on our college campus is what inspired my chair to work in higher education. Pressure from above pushes many department chairs and other faculty members further from the ideals they hoped to instill in students. Yet a genuinely inclusive and caring community can be created only when the welfare of all members, not just that of a select few, is kept in mind.

The solution to ending discrimination and harassment on campuses won’t be found in strategies or initiatives that coopt student issues and use them to build political clout. Rather, the path forward is through policies that encourage freedom of expression across all organizational levels, so that a multitude of ideas, beliefs, and values are understood as tools of unity rather than division. Without such policies, the inclusive messaging colleges and universities promote is nothing more than a disingenuous marketing strategy.

Following the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements’ vocal challenge to abuses of power, we must push back against the hypocrisy of administrations that issue abstract calls for “diversity” and “equality” while threatening and impoverishing their adjunct faculty. This is discrimination. This is harassment. This is not a “safe space.”   

Melinda Myrick is an adjunct English professor at Front Range Community College in Westminster, Colorado, where she is also the president of the campus AAUP chapter. Her email address is [email protected]