Building Campus Coalitions

The following was originally written for activists working on Campus Equity Week, which highlights the overuse of contingent faculty positions and the exploitative labor practices inherent in these positions, but it contains useful advice for building coalitions around other issues as well. 

Why coalitions on campus?

Since the emergence of the new social movements in the middle of the 20th century, coalitions have become a crucial form of organization. Coalitions are successful because they accomplish many complex functions.

1. Coalitions amplify political power. Coalitions amplify political power because they can mediate conflicts of interest among various constituencies. Coalitions can articulate a single voice on issues involving the whole community while preserving the distinctive qualities of the various member groups and constituencies. Coalitions give us the possibility of unity without uniformity. The power of coalitions flows from the age-old political logic that rulers must divide to conquer and that we must unite and coordinate our fragmented and scattered forces to win.

2. Coalitions are learning and teaching opportunities. Coalition activity provides one of the best settings for real learning because it exposes activists to ideas, tactics, strategies, cultures, and styles from other communities. By speaking in the name of community standards and high ideals, coalitions garner public notice and media attention and overcome the limitations of narrow interest group politics.

3. Coalitions promote innovations in organizing. The campus is uniquely positioned to be a crucible for new ways of confronting contingent employment and corporate power. In many regards the campus reflects the workplace of the future. Coalitions are based on grassroots organizing and move us away from dependency on staff and money. Coalitions are flexible and can be formed around an issue such as contingent faculty, a sector of the economy such as education, or a geographic location such as a metropolitan area or state.

4. Coalitions can help create real community. One vision of what a campus community should be is based on an ideal we call the "community of scholars." The community of scholars places the teacher-student relationship and the pursuit and transmission of knowledge at the heart of the institution. Everything else about that institution is inspired and connected to those people and their mission. Admittedly, that ideal was only an occasional reality in the history of higher education but one eminently worthy of reconsideration. Now that corporatization is threatening to fragment and unbundle the teacher-student relationship and replace the pursuit of knowledge with the pursuit of maximum profits as the motivation for campus life, alternative notions of the university become a practical political need.

Practical tips for coalition building

Keep in mind that coalitions take many different shapes and these are only some rules of thumb for starting out.

1. Have patience. Coalition building takes time.

2. In the early planning stages, focus on wide and inclusive representation. Make sure invitations go out to all concerned parties to attend early planning meetings. Completed agendas should not be presented prematurely. Extend the "founding" period. Use terms like "working group" or "committee in formation." Invite people in by saying something like, "We want to address the issue of contingent faculty in academe and need your suggestions and ideas to fashion a response."

3. Start small with actions or events you can assure will have a good outcome. Hold educational events. Focus on consciousness raising. Have a public meeting with a brief presentation and an experienced facilitator to involve the participants in agenda setting and decision making. Be sensitive to process as much as to outcome. It will take time, experience working together, and some initial "victories" to build up trust and the willingness to act in concert.

4. Coalitions have a low level of unity. Do not overburden them with every problem or issue at once. It is hard enough to agree on what the problem is and what to do about it rather than why the problem exists. Focus on areas of common concern and on common action rather than on ideological or political explanations. Coalitions are action-oriented groups not debating societies. At education events individuals can offer critiques of corporatization or other relevant issues, but the coalition itself must have low barriers to participation. For example, a coalition may unite organizations and individuals that want to stop the overuse and abuse of part-time faculty regardless of how different actors account for the situation.

5. Move from your strengths to your weaknesses and from the administration’s weaknesses to their strengths. Like unions, coalitions use the resources of stronger citizens to help promote the organization of weaker ones because it is in everyone’s long term interest to do so. Start acting where you are strong and move gradually into areas where you are weak. For example, it is typical that the public sector is more highly unionized and can provide resources and lower the risk for private sector activists. Conversely, when plotting strategy and tactics do not rush to a frontal assault on the whole of administrative policy or high ranking individual administrators, but look for opportunities to isolate a particularly obvious weakness in policy to hone in on.

6. Coalitions are fragile--do not try to control them. Overzealous steering committees or forcing through agendas are the kiss of death because people will simply withdraw. Establish accountable and transparent leadership structures. Avoid "consensus" in meetings larger than a handful. Keep meetings short and task oriented. If people want to debate theory or vent anger, have pre- or post-meeting get-togethers for coffee or drinks.

7. Leaders should avoid expediency. Politics is the mobilization of people and ideas, not the administration of tasks. The aim of coalitions is movement building and that means developing new leaders and passing on skills. The point is to stimulate and facilitate local organizing, so delegate tasks out to the widest possible range of people, even if it takes longer to get the job done and "efficiency" suffers. Commitment comes from contributions made, not from having a few leaders do all the work. Pay attention to the process of organizing and the policy goals will be easier to achieve.

8. Focus on tactics and events that make people feel they are part of a growing movement. Join the adjunct listserve and create your own local lists. Create pledge cards for people to sign declaring that "I will be there" for solidarity events. Encourage people to get in the loop.

9. Know your audience. When starting out, a coalition’s primary audience is its prospective members and activists, not the administration or media. Do not interpret this too narrowly, but your first consideration should always be how any literature, event, or action will help to educate and recruit new people to your cause. Be attentive to the non-discursive aspects of organizing. Consider how events will look and feel to attendees or passersby. Just as in collective bargaining it is the solidarity of the organization, not the wit of the bargaining committee, that produces victories. Do not fall into the seduction of becoming a "general staff" without an "army." Our job is to convene the "army."

An organizing scenario

  1. An initial meeting is held and an open discussion explores a tentative agenda and possible actions. The facilitator should give a brief introduction and then ask people what they think. Go around the room and have people introduce themselves and contribute to the discussion. Listen carefully and take notes. Depending upon the discussion, you may form a subcommittee to set a date and plan for a coming event. Some kind of public meeting is a typical kick-off event. Invite a speaker to address the national scene or report on a victory. "Workers Rights Hearings" have been very successful. Go to the "Jobs With Justice" website for more information.
  2. A provisional coordinating committee should be formed. Create a list of all attendees. Develop a list of volunteers for tasks such as media work, fliers, research, and outreach. Petitions drives are good for introducing issues and organizations. Events can be publicized as petitions are signed. Be careful not to take on too much.
  3. A very brief invitation is drawn up for an exploratory meeting and mailed or hand-delivered to all concerned. Follow up with a phone call or personal visits. The invitations should come from respected members of the community.
  4. A small group meets to discuss the need for a coalition and identifies every group or individual that should be at the table. Err on the side of inclusion. Local labor, civil rights, religious, community, or women’s groups may be interested. While it is good to discuss your goals and tactics, focus on the process of drawing others in and tapping their knowledge and resources.
  5. A subcommittee or coordinating committee meets to plan the work of the event.
  6. A general meeting is called and tasks are distributed to various people or the coordinating committee contacts people who volunteered.
  7. Tasks are completed with check-up by coordinating committee. Outreach for good attendance at the event is the single most important task. The content of the program matters and is the second concern.
  8. The event is held and newspaper articles, letters to the editor, and reports of the event become the basis for the next round of organizing. Depending of the success of the event the coalition must now begin to identify a narrow band of organizing and policy goals to focus on. Targets are selected by the greatest possibly of success as the first criteria. While pursing political action, be it a union drive or policy change, remember that the need for consciousness raising never ends. Continue to plan smaller events like informational picketing, tabling, teach-ins or film showings. Community building is also important. Plan a party or reception and have some fun.