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The "Adjunct Problem" - Roots of a national staffing crisis

by Barbara Bowen
President, Professional Staff Congress - New York

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Something catastrophic and largely invisible has happened to CUNY since 1990: the University has lost almost 40% of its public funding. Maybe I should say that again: 39.3% of the funds. We are living in the fallout of that disaster, and one of its most insidious results is a simmering resentment between full-time and part-time faculty.

Of course not all relations between fulltimers and part-timers are characterized by mistrust: union activism itself is a place of coming together, and hundreds of us have established significant professional relationships across the imagined divide: teaching together, developing curriculum or sharing research. And then there’s our undeniable bond: we share students. But in many places, an atmosphere of mistrust remains.

In honor of Campus Equity Week, an international initiative to focus attention on issues of contingent labor in the university, I want to use this column to take on, once and for all, the “adjunct problem.” My point is that there is no adjunct problem; what we really face is a funding problem, a political problem, a labor problem, an academic freedom problem. Higher education, for all its air of gentility, is one of the most shocking labor abusers in the country. Nationwide, over 60% of instructional staff are on contingent or part-time lines, only a small fraction of whom are offered benefits.

Labor System

The mystery is why academic managers have gone along silently with this amazing restructuring of their workforce – and why we, an unusually well-educated group of workers, can be duped into thinking that the real problem is competition between fulltime and part-time faculty. In any industry that relies heavily on underpaid part-time workers without job security or full benefits, full-time workers will see their pay and benefits erode. This will come as no surprise to those whose field is labor studies, but many of us are unaccustomed to realizing that being professors doesn’t isolate us from the pressures that operate in any labor system.

The least productive way for workers to understand the situation is in terms of competition among themselves. Only management benefits when we see ourselves in conflict with each other.

Yet competition is often the theme of comments I hear from members. There’s probably no other single issue on which the PSC membership is so polarized. On the one hand, I get angry calls from part-timers complaining that the union leadership hasn’t done enough for them, that some teach more courses per semester than most full-timers and are still far from a living wage, that they will have to work until they drop dead in the classroom because they have no post-retirement health benefits. On the other hand, I receive just as many angry comments from full-time faculty, accusing the union leadership of giving away the store to adjuncts, or allegedly bankrupting the Welfare Fund to support adjunct benefits. Both of these approaches are political dead ends: they naturalize the unbearable cuts to CUNY’s funding as a fact of life, and fail to understand that salaries and conditions for full-timers will improve when it becomes harder for the University to exploit and underpay parttimers. (And that’s leaving aside the obvious educational argument that students receive a far better education when their instructors have the job security that protects academic freedom as well as paid time for professional development.)

Welfare Fund Revenues

Let me lay to rest a couple of persistent falsehoods. First, speaking to full-timers: the cost of health insurance for adjuncts is not the cause of the Welfare Fund deficit. In fact, in the last fiscal year the adjunct portion of the Welfare Fund showed a positive balance. The area running the greatest deficit is the fund for retirees, as is natural and as occurs in almost every other welfare fund. Your union dues do not support the Welfare Fund (it’s funded by employer contributions, for which the PSC negotiates); union dues do not provide Welfare Fund benefits for adjuncts or anyone else. It’s also worth remembering that the “speed-up” many of us feel as our committee and advising loads balloon is the direct result of replacing full-time positions with part-time ones. As the total number of full-time faculty at CUNY plunged from 11,500 in 1975 to 5,500 today, with part-timers not paid to participate in the shared responsibilities of departmental life (though many of them generously do), the small cadre of full-time faculty who remain are bound to shoulder a bigger share of the work.

Now one for part-timers: full-time faculty are not the cause of your unconscionable pay and conditions. The cause is the rightwing political lobby that has succeeded in arguing that any expenditure on public goods is a waste of taxpayers’ money. And the cause is the anti-intellectual, and in CUNY’s case racist, political agenda opposed to expanding higher education. Salaries for full-time faculty (and staff) at CUNY – like academic salaries nationally – are also depressed, in large part because academic managers have little incentive to increase them when part-timers can be hired and exploited. Full-timers at CUNY, with inordinate teaching loads, overstuffed classrooms and little research support, are victims in a different way of the same budgetary ideology that underpays part-timers. Everyone suffers – most of all students – in a scandalous labor system. I’d argue that students suffer in a subtler way, too, when the example of labor practices offered by their university is so much at odds with higher education’s self-representation as a model of democratic, enlightened values.

So what’s the answer? Ultimately, it’s to take back the academic labor system from the hands of corporate managers and create a system that serves the interests of students and the project of generating knowledge. More immediately, we can make it a priority to insist that part-timers be paid what their labor is worth. Doing so will put both full-timers and part-timers in a stronger position.

For that fight, we are fortunate in the PSC to be in a single union. At universities with separate full-timer and part-timer unions, it’s up to management to decide how resources will be allocated – with the predictable result that both sides get less because they are pitted against each other. Our ability to negotiate together for full-time and part-time faculty – and for other contingent workers such as graduate employees, substitutes and Continuing Education faculty – allows for far greater control over our work lives.

Labor Crisis

Meanwhile, the union leadership is exploring proposals to press the State and City – which are primarily responsible for our labor crisis – for funding to provide a living wage for adjuncts, along with more funds to rebuild the full-time faculty. Finally, on our own terrain, I want to risk a plea to my fulltime colleagues. A luxury of the empowered group is that they are not forced to understand the lives of the less empowered, while those in subaltern positions have always had to see more. (DuBois’s brilliant analysis of “double-consciousness” might help us here.) On that principle, I’d like to ask fulltimers to consider asking an adjunct you know for his or her “reading” of the labor situation at CUNY; I’d also like to suggest that you take a look at the profiles of adjuncts on pages 6 and 7 of this month’s Clarion. The impressive histories you see there are not untypical.

Together, let’s use Campus Equity Week to expose and address the labor scandal on which most of American higher education is built. In no other profession is nearly half the work done by part-timers, most of whom have no health insurance, no pensions and no retirement benefits. If that were true of public school teachers, doctors or lawyers, it would rightly be considered a national staffing crisis. Higher education in America is in crisis, and the crisis is not going to end until we stop the exploitation of contingent academic labor.

Faculty and Staff displaced by Hurricane Katrina can register at the Louisiana Board of Regents Displaced Faculty & Staff Registry.