Jane Buck: The President's Report. Successes, Setbacks, and Contingent Labor

Jane Buck: The President's Report. Successes, Setbacks, and Contingent Labor
Academe, September-October 2001

The AAUP has won some and lost some, but the increasing use of part-time faculty members continues to plague our profession.


A few months ago, someone asked what I found to be the most surprising thing about being AAUP president. I replied that I had anticipated most of the demands— the mountains of paper, the daily dozens of e-mail messages, and the extensive travel schedule. What I had not foreseen was the amazing deference I would be accorded, not as an individual, but as a representative of the Association. I invite those who think that we have lost our luster to shadow me for a week or two. I have been invited to embassy receptions, scholarly forums, and an international conference in Paris, where I was placed on the agenda between former United Nations secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali and a member of the French Academy. The AAUP is highly regarded outside the academy as well as within it. In the past year we have had some major victories, but we have also had some setbacks. One of our most important contributions during this time has been helping to raise the alarm about the serious impact of contingent academic labor on higher education.

The AAUP's work at Bennington College can be counted as a major victory. In April 2000 Elizabeth Coleman, the president of Bennington, fired Carlin Romano, the college's only philosophy professor, in the middle of the semester. Romano, who was not accorded a hearing before a faculty body, claimed that the reason for his firing was his open criticism of Coleman. Bennington has been on our list of censured administrations since 1995, following its dismissal of a third of its faculty and the abolition of presumptive tenure. Consequently, imposing censure was not an option. Instead, the AAUP organized a teach-in near the college's Burlington, Vermont, campus and presented a petition to Coleman protesting the continuing denial of academic freedom. AAUP staff members, Bennington faculty, current and former students, and dismissed faculty spoke to a standing-room-only crowd. In January of this year, Bennington settled a wrongful dismissal case with seventeen of the dismissed faculty members for almost $2 million. As part of the settlement, the victorious faculty members contributed $35,000 to establish the Jack Glick, Neil Rappaport, and Richard Tristman Memorial Fund in memory of three plaintiffs who had died while the case was in litigation. The AAUP will administer the fund and use it to sponsor a Neil Rappaport Lecture on Academic Freedom and Shared Governance at the Association's annual governance conference.

The Association enjoyed another success with its annual governance conference, held in October 2000 and cosponsored by the AAUP and the American Conference of Academic Deans. AAUP activists and enlightened administrators spoke enthusiastically about the benefits to the academy of shared governance. Participants recounted the success stories of Nassau Community College in New York and Francis Marion University in South Carolina. Luther Carter, the president of Francis Marion, and Larry Gerber, former chair of the AAUP's Committee on College and University Government, spoke passionately about the insidious and pernicious incursion into higher education of a corporate-management model.

We also celebrated major victories in the collective-bargaining arena. In a joint venture with the American Federation of Teachers, we conducted a successful campaign to represent the faculty at the University of Vermont. The rights of faculty members at all public four-year institutions in the state are now protected by collective bargaining. The part-time faculty at Emerson College in Boston voted 3 to 1 to have the AAUP represent them as their exclusive bargaining agent. And we have entered into a two-year affiliation with the Santa Cruz Faculty Association, the only faculty collective-bargaining representative among the nine University of California campuses.

Legal Developments

In the areas of affirmative action and free speech, there were several positive legal developments. The Supreme Court let stand the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that diversity in higher education is a sufficiently compelling reason to allow the use of affirmative action in college admissions. A three-judge panel ruled unanimously in Smith v. University of Washington that the university was justified in taking race into account as one factor in its admissions policies. The AAUP had joined the American Council on Education and other higher education organizations in an amicus brief in the case, supporting diversity as an educational benefit.

In another Ninth Circuit case, the court, again ruling unanimously, held that the posting of handbills on a public university campus is protected speech under the First Amendment. The case, Giebel v. Sylvester, involved a dispute between two professors, one of whom had posted notices about a speech to be delivered at a 1996 conference on intellectual freedom at Montana State University-Northern. Another professor, with whom the plaintiff had been feuding, allegedly tore down the notices.

There were, however, depressing developments on the legal front. A U.S. District Court judge held that the admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School was unconstitutional because it gave undue weight to race. The ruling is peculiarly fascinating, given a recent decision by another Michigan federal district court upholding the university's use of race in undergraduate admissions. (For more information on this issue, see the Legal Watch column in the March-April 2001 issue of Academe.)

In a very troubling case that strikes at the heart of our professional autonomy, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that a tenured professor's First Amendment rights were not violated when Angelo Armenti, Jr., the president of California University of Pennsylvania, allegedly ordered him to change a student's grade from F to incomplete. The court argued that academic freedom inheres in the institution, not the individual faculty member: "Because grading is pedagogic, the assignment of the grade is subsumed under the university's freedom to determine how a course is to be taught. We therefore conclude that a public university professor does not have a First Amendment right to expression via the school's grade assignment procedures." This bizarre decision makes it extravagantly clear that we cannot rely on the courts to protect academic freedom. We must incorporate in our handbooks and collective-bargaining agreements guarantees of independence from arbitrary administrative interference.

Contingent Faculty

Even if the AAUP were to win all of the battles over academic freedom and professional autonomy as they have traditionally been presented, there remain structural issues that threaten the academic community even more seriously. The increasing use of contingent academic labor threatens shared governance, academic freedom, and the quality of our students' education. Data provided by the U.S. Department of Education indicate that 33 percent of the faculty were part time in 1987. The figure rose to 43 percent in 1998, and some estimates put the current figure at 46 percent.

There are, however, two figures more important and more telling than the percentage of faculty employed part time. The first is the percentage of courses taught by contingent faculty. It is a more revealing measure of the phenomenon, because not all part-time faculty members teach the same number of courses. The second important figure is the percentage of faculty who are tenured or tenurable. The real issue is not one's part- or full-time status, but whether one is on the tenure track. Part-time faculty are rarely tenured or tenurable. Their numbers are a measure of the continuing attacks on tenure.

The Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a group of twenty-five disciplinary associations, recently released a study of ten social science and humanities disciplines that documents the deplorable truth about the percentage of courses taught by contingent faculty. With the exception of history and art history, graduate students and contingent faculty teach more than half of the courses offered in the disciplines studied.

According to data released by the Modern Language Association, full-time tenured, or tenure-track professors teach only 28 percent of the foreign-language courses at doctoral institutions and 26 percent of such courses at institutions granting associate degrees. In other words, just over a quarter of all foreign language courses at these schools are taught by full-time tenured or tenurable faculty. Department of Education figures indicate that in 1987 only 8 percent of the full-time faculty were working off the tenure track. Just over a decade later, that percentage was an egregious 18 percent.

What is the impact on students? It is not uncommon for contingent faculty to teach as many as six courses a semester at several institutions in order to survive financially. These "road scholars" often do not have office space or academic support and sometimes do not keep office hours or serve on committees. They are often evaluated only by their students, because their numbers preclude more thorough peer review. Because they are neither tenured nor tenurable, as a practical matter they are deprived of the academic freedom that tenure affords.

For contingent faculty, who are vulnerable to arbitrary hiring and firing decisions that are often made on the basis of last-minute enrollment figures, the temptation to pander to their "customers" is, although indefensible, understandable. An assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University told Time magazine that he flatters his students in order to guarantee favorable evaluations. In his words, "Submitting students to the rigors of learning seemed only to incur the wrath of many of them, which entered the record as my teacherly shortcoming. . . . The business model has taught me that the customer is always right. But maybe a few more dissatisfied customers would mean a better learning experience."

Most contingent faculty members are highly qualified and dedicated members of the profession, but they are often stretched beyond any reasonable limit by their taxing schedules. Anecdotal evidence suggests that contingent faculty might be more vulnerable than others to a number of quality-impairing temptations. Cutting corners by not giving frequent writing assignments must be almost irresistible. Although well-designed and the operative word is well-designed-multiple-choice tests are superior to essay tests for many purposes, they cannot assess students' ability to write coherently or to organize material. The perceived need of contingent faculty to self-censor in the absence of tenure's protection of academic freedom threatens the integrity of their teaching. And inflating grades in order to boost student evaluations deprives students of an honest evaluation of their work.

If we are to accept the language of the marketplace and speak of our students as customers, let's be clear about what they are buying. They should receive an education that will, at a minimum, teach them to think and to participate fruitfully in the larger society, and give them a measure of personal satisfaction. Even those whose primary purpose in attending college is to obtain marketable professional skills will benefit from the rigorous application of reasonable standards. Employers value literacy, numeracy, disciplined thought, and hard work, qualities that are learned in an atmosphere in which faculty are not penalized for demanding the best from their charges.

How can we meet the challenges presented by the increasing use and abuse of contingent faculty? A number of possibilities have been proposed, and I offer them as avenues to explore, not as fully developed guidelines. If we are to adopt the market metaphor, let's think about pushing it to its limit. If students are customers, let them demand a high-quality product, truth in advertising, a list of ingredients, and warning labels. Colleges and universities, in order to achieve or maintain accreditation should be required to disclose the percentage of courses taught by contingent faculty and others ineligible for tenure, the disparities between the CEO's compensation and that of junior faculty members, the proportion of the operating budget devoted to instruction, and the compensation of support staff.

Some people believe that we should spend more time instilling values in our students. It is, of course, a truism that we instill values willy-nilly by our behavior in the classroom and by the choices that our institutions make. A corporate model appropriate to a manufacturer of tin whistles is inimical to our purpose. Furthermore, the notion that corporations operate in a free market is ridiculous on its face. In the industrialized democracies, we have placed many constraints on the market, lest its untrammeled avarice lead to excessive profiteering, unacceptable restraints of fair trade, slavery, child labor, and indentured servitude. These unacceptable practices have occurred in our own history and continue today in other parts of the world.

Last spring, students at Harvard, joined by many faculty members, shamed the administration into agreeing to consider their demands that the wealthiest university in the world pay its employees a living wage. The administration's justification was not that employees were paid an adequate wage, but that they were paid in consonance with the local market.

Tenured faculty must reach out to their contingent colleagues by demanding that they receive reasonable compensation and be included in collective bargaining units, and that contingent positions be converted to tenure-track positions where appropriate. I recognize a legitimate need, in a few instances, to employ contingent faculty. Several decades ago, contingent faculty almost always were those who provided expertise in arcane or highly specialized areas not provided by the regular, full-time faculty. They were the local lawyer who taught one course a semester in real estate law to business majors, the psychiatrist who taught a graduate seminar in Jungian analysis, and the retired French professor who wanted to keep her hand in by offering a literature course that no one else in the department was interested in teaching, but that was popular with senior language majors. They were employed to fill a genuine need, not to keep instructional costs down or to undermine tenure. Their cases reflect appropriate use of contingent faculty.

How can tenured faculty help? By refusing to retire until they have a written guarantee that they will be replaced by a tenure-eligible faculty member, by organizing with or without the protection of collective bargaining to put pressure on their administrations and state legislatures to limit the use of contingent faculty, and by encouraging their students to value the ingredients of a real education.

If our so-called customers-students, their parents, and those who subsidize our enterprise-demand it, the market will reward those institutions that provide an honest product-a real education, not simply a certificate of attendance. Let the heroic Harvard students be our role models.

We are not always right when we speak out, but we are always wrong when we do not.

Jane Buck is AAUP president.