Alert Top Message

Due to concerns about COVID-19, the AAUP office has transitioned to telework. Please contact staff by email.

 

 

Do Adjuncts Have Academic Freedom? or Why Tenure Matters

The costs of contingency.
By Henry Reichman

A house hanging off of a cliff over the water

Academic freedom has never enjoyed the “golden age” that some suggest we are leaving behind. It has always been contested and vulnerable. Today, threats to academic freedom may be more extensive and dangerous than at any time since the 1950s. We have seen the dangers posed by rampant interference in university affairs by politically motivated governing boards and legislators, especially in the public sector, a danger already multiplying in the wake of the crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing reliance on the largesse of external donors, often politically or ideologically motivated, also represents a threat to faculty control of teaching and research. And, of course, there is the frightening explosion of online and even direct harassment of faculty members in response to their controversial comments as citizens or statements in the classroom. Such harassment may be beyond our ability to control, but the too-often craven response of college and university administrators to this intimidation poses the genuine danger.

Yet these threats pale before what has become the gravest challenge to academic freedom, one that exacerbates all the others: the steady erosion of the tenure system and the concomitant and explosive expansion of contingent, frequently part-time faculty employment, a central element of what has been termed “academic capitalism” in what is increasingly becoming, to use Adrianna Kezar’s label, the “gig academy.”

Consider these stories.

For most of the past twenty-four years, Jeffrey Klinzman served as a part-time English instructor at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. After Klinzman was harassed and threatened online for opinions he expressed, the administration abruptly terminated his services. The college claimed that Klinzman resigned voluntarily; he contended that the resignation was coerced. In either case, the college insisted that his removal from the classroom was “based solely on our commitment to fostering a safe learning environment” in the face of credible threats of violence. Campus safety is, of course, a legitimate concern in such instances, but alternatives to dismissal were available. Klinzman could have been given special security or assigned to teach online. He could have been suspended for a semester with pay while the controversy subsided. Most important, even were dismissal the only option, Klinzman should have been provided a faculty hearing in which his colleagues could judge his fitness for continued employment. Eventually Klinzman agreed not to teach at Kirkwood in exchange for a financial settlement. But a message had been delivered: if you want to get a controversial adjunct removed at Kirkwood Community College, just threaten to bring violence to that campus.

Jane Harty, for forty years a part-time music instructor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, was summarily dismissed after she agreed to provide private lessons to a student when such instruction was not offered on the university schedule. This was surely a pretext for going after an outspoken union activist following an unsuccessful unionization effort. After the AAUP intervened, Pacific Lutheran agreed to hold a hearing, but at that hearing the administration declined to assume responsibility for demonstrating adequate cause for dismissal. Moreover, the administration pledged that regardless of the hearing’s disposition, Harty’s contract would not be renewed, and the board made good on that pledge. In June, following the publication of an investigating committee’s report, the AAUP placed Pacific Lutheran on its list of administrations censured for violations of academic freedom.

Then there is the experience of Nathanial Bork, a part-time philosophy instructor at the Community College of Aurora, near Denver. Bork was concerned about a new curriculum that had been foisted on him by an administratively generated curricular “reform,” in which he and his fellow adjuncts played no part. He believed that the mandated changes marked a dumbing down of his course, reducing it to a high school level. So he decided to complain to the college’s accreditor, but first he submitted his proposed letter to administrators for review. Two days later an administrator visited his class, and less than a week after writing the letter Bork was summarily dismissed midsemester. The college would claim that a routine, coincidentally timed classroom observation revealed instructional deficiencies so severe that they required his immediate removal. An AAUP investigating committee’s report concluded that such a claim “strains credulity,” noting that Bork had always received stellar peer and student evaluations.

As a part-time faculty member off the tenure track, Bork had no access even to an inadequate grievance procedure. Colorado’s community college system, as leaders of the state AAUP conference would note, “makes no dispute resolution procedure available to adjunct faculty,” placing such instructors “in a precarious situation should pedagogical differences arise.” In Bork’s case the administration’s action in summarily dismissing him midcontract led the AAUP to investigate and place the administration on the censure list. The college might instead have waited until the end of the term, when it could have quietly declined to renew Bork’s contract without rationale. As the Colorado AAUP leaders wrote, “It is not unusual at all for college administrators to simply refuse to re-hire an adjunct faculty member once the semester is over or discourage their continued employment by offering them fewer classes. . . . No cause need be provided.” This is true, they added, even after many years of service. As one of the AAUP’s first investigations, that of the dismissal of Scott Nearing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1915, concluded, “It makes little practical difference, so far as the injury to academic freedom is concerned” whether a teacher’s removal “is called ‘non-reappointment,’ or ‘removal,’ or ‘dismissal.’”

“It is hard to argue that adjunct faculty enjoy academic freedom when the risk of dissent or professional disagreement is loss of a job with no recourse to dispute resolution procedures,” the Colorado leaders concluded.

The Contingent Majority

These examples represent the tip of an iceberg extending throughout higher education, public and private. In recent years more and more academic freedom cases coming to the AAUP involve faculty members off the tenure track. For each of these cases there are likely dozens more where faculty members think twice and decide that not speaking is the better part of valor. Take the following confession by Eva-Maria Swidler, then a part-time adjunct at Goddard College in Vermont. When Goddard graduates invited Mumia Abu-Jamal to address them from prison at commencement, controversy ensued. “I soon began mentally composing an op-ed on the dustup,” Swidler reported. However, “I quickly realized that I could not risk putting my name in print next to such an op-ed, given my semester-by-semester adjunct positions at a variety of institutions. I killed the project.”

Today the majority of all nonmanagerial workers in higher education, both academic and nonacademic, are employed on a part-time, temporary, or contingent basis. If we include graduate student instructors, approximately three-fourths of all those who teach in higher education are employed off the tenure track, compared with only about one-fourth decades ago. At four-year public institutions 56 percent of full-time and part-time faculty members in 2017 were off the tenure track. The figure at four-year privates was 66 percent.

To be sure, all part-time appointments are not alike. According to a 2018 survey by the TIAA Institute, about 11 percent of part-timers are retired tenured professors. Another 23 percent have career employment outside higher education, perhaps as a practicing nurse, journalist, or attorney. They may teach one or two classes, but their income derives mainly from nonacademic occupations. The remaining 66 percent can be deemed precarious. About 70 percent of such “adjuncts” are over forty years old, with a third aged between fifty-five and sixty-nine. Approximately one-half teach one or two courses at a single institution, while 22 percent teach three or more classes at two or more institutions. About one-half say they would prefer a tenure-track position, with an additional 10 percent preferring a full-time non-tenure-track position. A 2012 study from the Center for the Future of Higher Education found that more than a third of contingent instructors report being hired within three weeks of the start of classes and more than a sixth within two weeks, a practice common even among those who have been employed for years.

The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure declared tenure “a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” Adjunct employment threatens not only the first and primary purpose of tenure, the defense of academic freedom, but also the second, because such employment provides at best limited economic security.

Part-time faculty are paid approximately 60 percent less per hour than comparable tenure-track faculty. On average they make a full-time equivalent of $22,400 annually—less than most fast-food workers—for teaching eight classes (a bit short of $3,000 per class). Almost 60 percent receive less. The Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has reported that a quarter of part-time instructors nationally receive some kind of public assistance. According to Adrianna Kezar, “In no other sector has contingency among high-skill professionals come with such dramatic wage decreases.”

College and university administrators claim that such compensation is essential to cost containment in light of decreased public funding and the need to minimize tuition hikes. Such arguments are unconvincing. The greatest increases in adjunct employment have come in periods of economic growth, irrespective of the financial health of institutions. On the basis of detailed study of university expenditures, Kezar concluded that “whatever purpose labor restructuring in higher education has served, it is clearly not being used to make college costs more competitive.” Instead, funds previously devoted to instruction have increasingly gone to support the ever-expanding business functions of the university or to noninstructional student services. Executive positions are growing at an especially rapid pace, with salary increases far outpacing those of even the most highly paid tenured faculty members.

Reliance on part-time, precarious faculty labor is not confined to teaching. There has been a steady growth in the number of full-time research faculty employed on a contingent basis, most visibly in medical schools and STEM disciplines. More widespread is the growing use and abuse of postdoctoral appointments. One study calculates that since 1980 the postdoc population rose from under twenty thousand to around seventy-nine thousand, with another study estimating the current number at over ninety thousand. Compounding the problem is the fact that a majority of postdocs are international scholars working on temporary visas that stipulate ongoing employment, thus making them vulnerable to abuse and discrimination as well as retaliation for exercising their academic freedom. Many postdocs complain that they are denied full or fair authorship credit on publications to which they have contributed.

The dreadful working and living conditions of so many adjunct faculty members have become an increasingly common theme in reports on the state of higher education. We repeatedly hear tales of adjuncts on food stamps, sleeping in cars, or even dying of medical conditions that might have been prevented with the benefits of a full-time permanent position. Herb Childress’s recent cri de coeur, The Adjunct Underclass, includes numerous excerpts from interviews with adjuncts that repeatedly and painfully evoke what he calls “the vast purgatory of contingent life.”

When Harvard adjunct Kevin Birmingham was awarded the Truman Capote Prize for his book on the struggle to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses, the theme of his acceptance speech was the abuse of contingent faculty, which he called “the great shame of our profession.” Focusing on his own field of literary studies, Birmingham called out his fellow humanists for their indifference and complicity, charging that “institutions supporting literary criticism are callous and morally incoherent” when they churn out new PhDs whose labor they then exploit through precarious employment.

Childress and others have bemoaned the loss of close student-faculty contact that reliance on part-time faculty produces. Empirical evidence assembled by Kezar suggests that “learning outcomes are negatively associated with faculty working under Gig Academy conditions.” Under these conditions, she adds, “the human connections that form the foundation of student learning are being eradicated, albeit inadvertently.” Birmingham makes a different and more germane point. “The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security,” he declares. “By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular, and conformist.”

The 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, the AAUP’s founding document, affirmed, “It is, in short, not the absolute freedom of utterance of the individual scholar, but the absolute freedom of thought, of inquiry, of discussion and of teaching, of the academic profession, that is asserted by this declaration of principles.” If we understand that academic freedom does not exist solely, or even mainly, to protect the rights of individual teachers and researchers but is instead designed to protect the collective freedom of the faculty, then we must ask, as adjunct faculty members Jan Clausen and Eva-Maria Swidler did in a 2013 essay in the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom, “What becomes of that freedom if the vast majority of faculty members cannot exercise their collective functions without fearing employer retribution?”

Deprofessionalization of the Faculty

The AAUP’s founders envisioned their commitment to academic freedom as part of a larger project to ensure the professional status of college and university faculties. The tenure system was designed specifically to protect the rights and prerogatives of what the founders repeatedly called “the teaching profession.” As professionals, faculty members must be assured the independence and integrity that are essential to their professional role. The expansion of contingent, often part-time, hiring is, in effect if not intent, a project of deprofessionalization.

But if the tenure system has at times appeared—and, more often than it should, has actually been—“elitist,” the emerging “gig academy” offers anything but a democratic alternative. Contingent hiring must entail continuous monitoring and assessment of faculty work—too often by nonfaculty bureaucrats. The result is frequently a culture of “mutual back-scratching or mutual back-stabbing,” as Ernst Benjamin put it in a 2010 essay in the Journal of Academic Freedom. As a consequence, Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth argued in The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, “hiring legions of faculty off the tenure track leads to the creation of fiefdoms and patronage systems.” This is bad enough. But at too many institutions the new reality is a system governed neither by professionalism nor by patronage but simply by administrative fiat.

In this environment the shrinking minority of tenured and tenure-track faculty are cast in the role of props to a reconfigured and expanding unprofessional structure. While offering protections, increasingly merely symbolic, for a few, tenure as it too often functions fosters destructive forms of competition and rivalry while denying basic rights to the majority of instructors and researchers. Under academic capitalism the focus is shifting from the faculty as a community of self-governing scholars to the faculty as a collection of individual entrepreneurs. As a result, the increasing vulnerability of those outside the tenure system inevitably bleeds into that system itself. “Once dethroned, a costly and unruly tenured faculty will be hard pressed to secure its own restoration,” Clausen and Swidler correctly warn.

The impact of all this can be seen in the deterioration of shared governance, along with tenure a critical defense for academic freedom. Teaching, curricular planning and evaluation, hiring and promotion decisions, and academic governance more generally all demand collegial and cooperative relations among faculty, administration, and governing board. Yet decisions previously left to faculty bodies are increasingly centralized in hierarchical administrative structures that pay lip service to, ignore, coopt, or at times undermine or even attack faculty governance. A 2012 AAUP report on the inclusion of contingent faculty in governance argued that “the routine exclusion of some faculty from department meetings, curricular planning, and other governance activities does much to foster the sense of inequity. On the other side of the divide,” those who hold full-time or tenure-track appointments “are overburdened with governance responsibilities as the pool of colleagues eligible to share this work shrinks.”

Even where non-tenure-track faculty members participate in governance alongside their tenured faculty colleagues, they do so on an uneven playing field. While a strong system of shared governance is essential to the protection of academic freedom, participation in governance itself requires the protections of academic freedom. In 2012 the previously mentioned AAUP report recommended including contingent faculty in most areas of governance and compensating them accordingly. This is a worthy sentiment, but not without problems, as the report discusses. The potentially coercive dangers are complex and highlight the patronage aspects of the emerging system. Contingent faculty may be vulnerable to abuse of power by both the administration and, sadly, the tenured faculty. And then there is the problem that while tenure-track faculty members are usually compensated in one way or another for their service activities, the job descriptions of adjuncts rarely include governance work, which is therefore unpaid.

Problems with this system were highlighted in a report by the academic senate at the University of California, Berkeley. At that institution, the nation’s most prestigious public research campus, 27 percent of the faculty are on full-time non-tenure-track appointments and 15 percent are on part-time non-tenure-track appointments. In the UC system the tenure-track and tenured faculty are represented in the academic senate, but non-tenure-track faculty, mostly called lecturers, are not, although they are unionized. Recognizing considerable variation in how they “were recruited, the insecurity of their employment, as well as the way they were treated and regarded in their home departments,” Berkeley’s faculty conducted a survey “to assess the variation in conditions with a view to improving the lot of lecturers.” The survey and report, prepared by two tenured sociologists, found that while Berkeley lecturers are better off in terms of income, benefits, and job security than similarly situated colleagues nationally, they remain in key respects “second-class citizens,” with rights and status substantially inferior to those of senate faculty.

The Berkeley report’s conclusion begins with this statement: “With budgetary pressures the employment of lecturers is bound to increase.” Maybe so, but shouldn’t that assumption be questioned? Here the final paragraph of the report is telling:

Senate Faculty are in a contradictory position between lecturers and administration. . . . They may be said to benefit from the precarious employment of lecturers—a cheap expendable labor force, clearly demarcated from themselves in terms of conditions, status, and power. Inasmuch as their conditions of employment are made secure on the backs of lecturers, their short-term interests are opposed to those of the lecturers. At the same time, however, Senate Faculty have a long-term interest to defend the conditions of employment of lecturers—both their security of employment and their working conditions—since what is at stake is the erosion of tenure.

The conflict outlined here is one faced by faculties everywhere, leading us to ask, “Can a major university succeed in its mission with a two-tier faculty in which one tier is treated as second class?” What basis exists for dividing the faculty into one group with formal representation in governance and another with no representation at all? As the 2012 AAUP report concluded, “When half or more of the faculty at an institution may not participate in meetings of the faculty senate, when decisions about revisions to a course are made without input from those who teach it, or when the majority of a department’s faculty has no voice in the selection of its chair, something is amiss.”

The Fight for Academic Freedom

What can be done about all this? Not that much, say many—the train has left the station. Childress claims that “the faculty will never again be a primarily full-time, primarily tenure-track institutional or cultural commitment. There will always be teachers, sure. But the idea of ‘the faculty’ is as dead as the idea of coal.” Perhaps. But to resign ourselves to such a fate is to guarantee it. One can never predict the future, but there are solutions, even if their ultimate success cannot be assumed.

One solution is unionization. According to Kezar, in 2012, 390,000 faculty members were in collective bargaining units, roughly 27 percent of all higher education faculty members, a 14 percent jump from 2006. In 2016, 20.3 percent of all postsecondary teachers were covered by collective bargaining agreements, including about 42 percent of public two-year college faculty. Over the last decade campaigns to organize non-tenure-track faculty have gained considerable momentum in both private and public institutions. Between 2013 and 2019 a total of 118 newly certified bargaining units were added, with a total of 36,264 unit members. This growth has borne fruit in significant improvements to adjunct salary, benefits, and, most relevant to academic freedom, job security. Some of these gains have been passed on to faculty at institutions that have as yet failed to unionize but whose administrations have made concessions out of fear the movement could overtake them.  

These are heartening developments. Still, as a remedy for the problems posed for academic freedom by adjunctification, unionization has its limits. For one thing, while worsening conditions of employment have spurred a welcome resurgence of interest in unionization, the environment for unions is still not encouraging. Despite growing public support, a hostile Supreme Court and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have restricted the ability of unions to organize. Even worse may be on the horizon from an increasingly antilabor Supreme Court, although the Biden administration's appointments to the NLRB should make that body more sympathetic to labor concerns. At the state level there has been more legislation hostile to union rights than bills aimed at expanding those rights. More important, while faculty unions can and frequently do play a critical role in protecting academic freedom and shared governance, they simply cannot accomplish this alone.

To be sure, unions have won multiyear contracts for non-tenure-track faculty that, while not equivalent to tenure, provide greater protection against the sorts of arbitrary dismissal and nonrenewal exemplified by the cases of Klinzman, Harty, and Bork. But union contracts vary and are necessarily products of compromise. Take my own union, the California Faculty Association, which represents some twenty-seven thousand tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members in the twenty-three-campus California State University system. Our contract contains no specific article protecting academic freedom; the term appears only in a preamble. This is a relic of an original agreement from the 1980s, when union leaders (and, no doubt, members too) saw the dangers as minimal. In recent years we tried in multiple bargaining cycles to make protections stronger and more specific, but each time CSU administrators balked. Other union contracts, especially AAUP contracts, have more explicit and stronger protections, but this is not always the case.

In addition, while experience teaches that in the legal arena contract law often provides a stronger protection for the academic freedom of individual faculty members than First Amendment law, as a general rule the conceptions of academic freedom established and elaborated by the AAUP do not always fit comfortably in an employment-law framework. One case that illustrates the potential limits of union contracts as a means of safeguarding the academic freedom of adjunct faculty is that of Georgette Fleischer, a long-term adjunct writing instructor at Barnard College. When in 2014 Barnard declined to reappoint Fleischer after fifteen years of teaching, she tried to file a grievance but was told that as a part-time lecturer she wasn’t eligible to do so because she was not a member of “the faculty”! The AAUP wrote in protest, but it took a lawsuit to get that decision reversed. By the time Fleischer returned to work she was part of a group that ultimately succeeded in winning a union contract for Barnard’s part-time adjuncts. Like all contracts, it was a product of compromise and had its flaws. For one thing, the union agreed that only part-time non-tenure-track instructors would be covered. This allowed Barnard to reclassify some key members as full-time, a personal gain for them that at the same time reduced the union’s clout. Most important, reappointment protections were not up to AAUP standards. So Barnard declined to reappoint several long-term writing instructors, including Fleischer. The others took severance packages, but Fleischer grieved.

The case went to arbitration, but it took twenty-seven months before a decision was issued. The arbitrator accepted Barnard’s contention that Fleischer had not been reappointed because of deficiencies in her teaching. Evidence of that was scanty at best, however, coming down to a few comments on student evaluations. The arbitrator ignored expert testimony about the well-known limitations and problems of reliance on such evaluations. Today, Fleischer is unemployed and the adjunct workforce at Barnard has learned a lesson: cater to student evaluations or risk your job, union or not.

Can disciplinary organizations help? Not long ago two historians published a scathing attack on the American Historical Association (AHA) for its failure “to organize to halt the disappearance of [tenure-track] positions.” The association has put considerable effort and resources into promoting “career diversity”—that is, historical jobs outside academia. But, the two complainants wrote, “Historians don’t need assistance transitioning away from stable academic jobs; we need stable academic jobs.” They called on the AHA to “name and shame” colleges and universities that abuse contingent appointments. AHA officials responded by stressing that disciplinary associations are not unions and “have no enforcement mechanism.”

They have a point, of course. If the power of unions to halt the advance of precarious employment is limited, that of disciplinary groups is even weaker. But in retort to these proclamations of powerlessness, the two historians asked, “How will we know if we don’t even try?” Some disciplinary associations have in fact begun to try. As early as 1994, the Modern Language Association (MLA) declared, “The practice of hiring numerous adjunct faculty members year after year to teach courses required of large numbers of undergraduates undermines professional and educational standards and academic freedom.” The MLA has sought since then to establish appropriate minimum salary norms. Numerous other disciplinary organizations have issued statements and recommendations seeking to limit contingency and improve working conditions for contingent faculty. Obviously, success has been limited, but these organizations should be applauded for trying and should be encouraged to act more boldly. Is it not past time for disciplinary groups to begin to reconceive and redefine their mission in order to address the biggest challenge facing the teaching profession today?

There is no silver bullet. If the baleful movement toward a deprofessionalized precariat, with stunted ability to defend academic freedom, is to be arrested, the problem will need to be addressed in multiple ways. And it will be necessary to accept partial victories and not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Of course, academic freedom and shared governance have always been partly aspirational. But aspirations can and have become realities. In the end, our goal should be clear: if academic freedom is to survive as more than hollow promise and empty rhetoric, we need to rebuild the system of tenure.

Which brings me to the second part of my title, with its implicit question, “Does tenure matter?”

Short answer: it does.

But what exactly is tenure? The 1940 Statement offered this definition: “After the expiration of a probationary period, teachers or investigators should have permanent or continuous tenure, and their service should be terminated only for adequate cause, except . . . under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies.” The Statement added that “during the probationary period a teacher should have the academic freedom that all other members of the faculty have.” The AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure have since adapted these principles to part-time appointments, based on this fundamental principle: “There should be no invidious distinctions between those who teach and/or conduct research in higher education, regardless of whether they hold full-time or part-time appointments or whether their appointments are tenured, tenure-track, or contingent. All faculty members should have access to the same due-process protections and procedures.” To this day the AAUP does not recognize any type of regular full-time appointment other than probationary for tenure or tenured, regardless of the contractual or legal position an individual faculty member may occupy within a given institution’s policies.

In this light it is of critical importance to recognize that tenure is not a reward for merit or a symbol of prestige, as far too many faculty members and administrators think. It simply denotes a continuing appointment, not professional standing. As the AAUP stressed in its 2009 report Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession, “tenure can be granted at any professional rank (or without rank); the Association does not link tenure with a particular faculty status.”

While many institutions prioritize research as a criterion for awarding tenure, the authors of the 1915 Declaration were less concerned with academic freedom in scholarship than they were with protecting academic freedom in teaching and public expression. Indeed, the high-water mark of tenure’s reach came in the 1960s and early 1970s with the immense growth of community colleges and state technical and teacher-training institutions, where the great majority of faculty positions were devoted exclusively or almost exclusively to teaching, yet still carried with them the prospect of tenure. Tenure’s purpose is to ensure academic freedom and professional standing in all professional duties. It protects both research and teaching. As the AAUP put it in a 2010 report on Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Appointments, “The tenure system was designed as a big tent, aiming to unite a faculty of tremendously diverse interests within a system of common professional values, standards, and mutual responsibilities.” 

To restore tenure we must rethink tenure, ironically, by returning to its original conception. We must fight for tenure as it could and should be, not as it too frequently has become. But to restore tenure—and in doing so defend the academic freedom, job security, and professional standing of all who teach and research—we must build on what unites the faculty and not capitulate to what divides us. All faculty members, including the tenured, need one another in this effort, but a precondition for unity is that the privileged among us, the tenured, must discard their too-frequent indifference to the plight of our peers. The fight to expand the reach of tenure—and hence the fight to defend academic freedom—is not merely the adjuncts’ fight; it is the fight of all who teach and do research in higher education, regardless of employment status.

In the dark days of the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s, tenured faculty members were dismissed, often with little or no due process. But in that era, like today, the most vulnerable faculty members were those whose appointments were contingent and of limited term. That group now represents the great majority of the profession, as it did when the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges issued the 1940 Statement. Hence the profession as a whole is today more vulnerable to shifting political winds and the whims of academic fashion than it has been in some time.

The academic precariat did not emerge overnight. It was the product of many small, incremental decisions and will be reversed only through patient and persistent organizing, step by painful step. But we must get to work.

This article is based on the twenty-ninth Davis, Markert, Nickerson Academic and Intellectual Freedom lecture, delivered at the University of Michigan in October 2019.

Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, and chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He is the author of The Future of Academic Freedom, published in 2019, and Understanding Academic Freedom, to be published in 2021.

Comments

I have been prevented from offering a class that is listed in the catalogue because it would take students away from a tenured faculty member from attracting students to their classes. The faculty member has gotten a reputation for poor teaching, so students do not want to take his classes. I am the only person qualified to teach the class. No other members have the expertise to do so, ass consequence the class has not been taught for two years even though the catalogue lists it as being taught every two years.

In this new non tenure-track environment for most college teachers, it is important to have protection and especially due process for our non tenured faculty. This piece raises important issues.

This article represents one of the best statements by a full-time tenure track faculty union leader about the condition of contingent faculty that I have seen. I hope it gets wide dispersion and close readings, especially the part about why it is in the interest of the tenured and tenure track minority to support the fight for better and equal conditions for the contingent majority.

The only significant omission, and a surprising one for an AAUP official, is that it does not delve deeply into how the absence of academic freedom for the contingent majority deprives most STUDENTS of THEIR own right to academic freedom to hear the widest array of opinions on topics of concern and to discuss them in an atmosphere free of invidious coercion. The same point might also be made regarding the public vis a vis faculty "extramural" speech ( outside their institution or discipline).

Again, a job well done and one might hope it will be both emulated and followed by organizational and other action in this essential fight to abolish contingency and the two-tier system as the norm in higher education.

Joe Berry, New Faculty Majority Board member, Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor International Advisory Committee, Executive Board AFT 2121 (City College of San Francisco), editor COCAL UPDATES

Thank you, Joe! This is welcome and high praise coming from you, someone who has been leading on the front lines of this fight for many, many years. As for my oversight, yes, of course, you are right. I plead only that the article was already longer than Academe usually permits.

Thanks for your thoughtful article here. I wonder, however if we have never been treated the same re: due process protections and procedures how are we ever to even begin to dismantle the two tier system ? When our unions are run by and top heavy with tenured this leaves a giant hole in the democratic processes supposedly by which unions run, especially those in HE. More often than not contingent faculty are NOT at the bargaining tables, NOT in leadership roles in unions and more often than not...'silenced' or simply just not heard ie ignored. We need due process and equal representation in our unions!
“There should be no invidious distinctions between those who teach and/or conduct research in higher education, regardless of whether they hold full-time or part-time appointments or whether their appointments are tenured, tenure-track, or contingent. All faculty members should have access to the same due-process protections and procedures.”

Hank, you are exactly right. Thank you for writing this. We face so much resistance to simply remembering what we do, who we are, how important it is. What Giroux calls "organized forgetting" is a job skill worth millions for college administrators. No one is measuring what we are losing when qualified, devoted teachers stop practicing academic freedom, stop testing its limits because they need to eat. They are forgotten today when policies are made, and tomorrow when budgets are created. Meanwhile, there is big money in forgetting about them, in forgetting on purpose how many have left the profession (and why), and what that loss means to higher education, to democracy. Data at any college might capture that, but those instruments are never created, by design.

That is the question I am left with after my long ordeal as a non-tenured faculty member. I have been in a debate with religious leaders over Daniel Markovits' terrific book "The Meritocracy Trap" which details "How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite." The system of tenure in higher ed has both set and then fallen into its own meritocracy trap. I really appreciate your distinction that tenure is not about merit, but about a continuing appointment in order to establish academic freedom. But to my opening question to religious leaders: how do you get people to share employment, income, resources and governance? That is our battle in academic capitalism--to learn to share in a highly competitive system. The religious leaders were not optimistic, but that doesn't mean we give up. Like you said, "we must get to work." Loved your essay.

Add new comment

We welcome your comments. See our commenting policy.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.