Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education

Joe Berry, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005),

Joe Berry’s book gives us some good practical advice about organizing adjunct faculty, but promises something else which it does not deliver. In part, it is a well-written organizing manual for part-time college faculty, or contingents as Berry designates them. It gives pragmatic steps for analyzing individual needs and establishing communicative liaisons among part-time faculty in varying college situations. This is a how-to guide in the mode of The Troublemakers Handbook, and this part of the book is very strong. It strikes me, however, as a long-term adjunct professor at CUNY (City University of New York), that the book fails to provide a vision of how the corporate university can be radically restructured, or how–in a detailed pragmatic sense–organized groups of contingent faculty can deal with established unions who will aid them, welcome them as members, and then stipulate the “adjunct” agenda so as not to disturb the benefits that the union has won for its full-time faculty members. Many of these full-time faculty members look down with disdain at the contingent faculty members, who are often as qualified as they are.

As a catalyst for organizing, Berry paraphrases an old union organizer: all organizing revolves around a demand for respect–respect for the people who are doing the work and respect for the work they are doing. Within a Marxist framework Berry states: “My central argument is that the new majority faculty (contingents) is a group that has experienced proletarianization in nearly all its classical components: declining wages and job security, loss of ancillary compensation, loss of autonomy and control of the work process and finally loss of the (professional) prerequisites that have traditionally gone with the work of the (tenured) college teacher.” Pointing out that there is a double-consciousness among contingent faculty he states: “In a less extreme form [than W.E.B Du Bois noted] contingent faculty must maintain one face to those who have or might have power over them, and another face shared only among themselves.” There is a huge contrast between public perception of the status of contingent faculty, and the reality of their existence. If you look like a professor and teach like one, then you must be one, even though the hidden reality is that you are not treated or compensated like one.

As Berry sees it, the two priority issues for contingent faculty are job security and equal pay for equal work. In regard to job security he mentions “security of assignment, placement and retention.” When he discusses equal pay for equal work, short of a post-capitalist alternative economy, which he indicates is not around the corner, he cites equal pay as a principle that draws disparate individuals into collective engagement to work for equity. This collective effort can lead to discussions of larger issues of compensation for those involved.

Berry discusses the sense of fear, isolation and hopelessness that comes to the fore among contingent faculty when faced with the difficult prospect of organizing themselves to improve their situation. How do you build a real union that serves the needs of part-timers? He discusses the building of unions for contingent faculty. He urges that as many people as possible be included in any new group. In numbers there is strength. Graduate students should be part of the organizing effort and should be treated as colleagues. He mentions the PSC (Professional Staff Congress), the CUNY union, which includes full and part-time faculty as well as administrators among its members, as a group that through its organizational efforts has had a great influence on the higher education union movement. The PSC at CUNY is currently supporting the fight of the NYU graduate students against the draconian anti-union stand of the NYU administration. And yet its efforts to improve the situation of CUNY adjuncts have shown meager results.

In terms of building larger alliances with other groups for fledgling contingent faculty organizations, Berry provides practical suggestions for metropolitan area organizing. He advocates virtual (online) and actual contingent faculty centers which provide services and assistance to contingents. It is very important to develop a comprehensive resource list to explore issues and provide information for contingent faculty. The next step is extensive work to build alliances and coalitions with other groups, with a broad outreach effort to other unions, community groups and students. He finally quotes a trenchant comment from a 50-year-old contingent faculty organizer who was fired from teaching and was concerned with the general quality of teaching and education: “The problem I see is the whole educational system. The whole system encourages incompetence. The public does not know this. We need to have a hands-on look at what people are really doing in the classroom.”

In the section of the book “Getting Down to Work,” Berry makes the prescient remark that “if we act like a doormat, we will get walked upon.” As Bob Marley says: “Stand up for your rights.” This is easier said than done, as Berry points out. There are real divisions in college faculties among contingent, tenure-track, and full-time non-tenure track faculty. He suggests we elicit the support of full-time faculty by “appealing to their sense of fairness and decency.” The great difficulty in my experience is that many full-time faculty members acknowledge the inequities, but see themselves as a privileged group that is being threatened by the demands of contingents. Rather than supporting the fight for more for everyone, they themselves are trying to hold on to what they have. They are like the little Dutch boy trying to hold back the flood with his finger in the dike.

To turn the attitudes of full-time faculty around would take extraordinarily skilled efforts in “consciousness raising” by the contingent faculty and their organized groups. They would have to get the majority of the full-time faculty involved in the collective fight for funding and a reversal of their declining role in university governance and policy.

Yes, the pie seems to be shrinking, with government funding decreasing, and tuition for working-class students in public universities increasing. But a real alliance between part-timers and full-timers could potentially create a mutual awareness that “their problem” (contingent faculty) is “our problem” too. A concerted effort to increase government funding to move towards economic parity for contingent faculty is needed. In order to teach well, all faculty need to have job security, equitable pay, health and pension benefits, and access to support facilities and grants for professional

The administration of the City University has put forward a sham advertising campaign that appears in all New York City subway cars. Ads state “Study with the Best” and show notable full-time faculty members in various CUNY colleges mentoring students in their respective fields. What the ads do not say is that more than fifty percent of the classes at CUNY are taught by contingent faculty who are underpaid, exploited and treated with disrespect. Getting corporate-connected and politically partisan trustees off the boards of public universities would be a first step towards changing things.

The university should not have its policies dictated by a corporate CEO’s concept of a bottom line, making educational institutions into privatized profit centers. Public universities need to become more responsive again to the needs of the faculty, staff and students and their varied community constituencies. And as I recently discovered, the PSC (the CUNY union) is not an equal party with management in contract negotiations. CUNY management is the final arbiter of structural and financial changes in the contract. All major proposals relating to achieving equity and parity for contingent faculty were swept off the table in the final contract negotiations at the insistence of management, which totally denied adjunct concerns. Adjuncts at CUNY are being screwed not only by university management, but by their own union too.

A radical rethinking of the nature of the 21st-century university by interactive groups of faculty (full- and part-time) and students, without a nostalgic nod to a past “golden age,” is a possibility. Model centers of academic innovation could be created to point the way to viable future developments for a wide range of students. These actions could be a start towards reclaiming the university for all involved. A more radical question lurks in the shadows: Is the current university worth reclaiming at all? Or should we get down to the business of creating — and financing — an alternative entity that is less hierarchical and more responsive to the needs of the faculty, students, and the diverse members of their communities?

Berry’s book raises many questions about contingent faculty and the function and role of the university in our current society. He gives us suggestions for incremental change, and provokes thought about the dramatic corporatization of the university today and what we need to do about reclaiming the university for all of us. Whether this is possible or not, without a radical change in our larger society, is an open question.

Reviewed by Howard Pflanzer
Adjunct Associate Professor of Theatre
Center for Worker Education, City College of New York

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