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Author Robert Yoshioka with Ratsky

After listening to educators’ responses to the account of  Margaret Mary Vojtko’s life as a destitute contingent faculty member at Duquesne University, I find myself both saddened and angered.  The anger comes from the reaction of my peers. Colleagues quickly concede that non-tenured faculty are exploited.  But then, in an intellectual sleight of hand, they take comfort in the thought that adjuncts have no one but themselves to blame.  It’s their own fault.  They could be doing something else, right?  Were they more competent, better educated, or more strategic they wouldn’t have to suffer like Vojtko.  What this rationalization does, however, apart from misrepresenting their own complicity, is mask institutional responsibility for a corrupt system that marginalizes teachers and cheats students.

Within education, administrators routinely gnash their teeth: “Don’t blame us,” they say. A case in point is Tim Austin the Provost at Duquesne who was tasked with handling the PR aftermath of the Vojtko case.  He called the rapid spread of the story through the media “shameless,” as if honest discussion about Duquesne’s treatment of contingent faculty were beyond the pale.  An outrage both to him and the august institution he represents.

At the same time, full time faculty chime in with their own take on “those poor unfortunate souls who voluntarily work “part-time.” They ignore the institutional law that makes full-time work illegal.  And they imply that part-timers were not, are not, nor ever will be of the same caliber of “scholar-person,” as themselves.  These same faculty conveniently forget that when most of them were hired, full-time faculty were in the majority.  No longer.  Now non-tenured faculty make up 75% of all instructors in higher education across the country.   In contrast new full-time hires (non-tenured tenure track faculty) are at an all-time low, representing only seven percent of the entire higher education workforce. Furthermore, the trend is only getting worse, as documented in the American Association of University Professors (linked above).

Part timers are the operational equivalent of the “canary in the coal mine.” We represent the rotting edge of higher education’s corporate response  to teaching. How to do more with less…the best solution, to date, seems to be: let’s cannibalize and exploit the least powerful and least politically connected group (read here, part time, so-called, “at will” faculty) to balance our books and keep providing more than generous benefits to full time tenured faculty, staff and administrators.  Student success, if carefully packaged in obfuscating metrics, can also be dispensed with.  As some administrators have told me, “students are a necessary evil, but they are sooooo transient…we just need to facilitate their safe passage out of our institutions…after all “WE ARE THE INSTITUTION…”

Then there are the part timers who feel that this is not their fight and that if they speak out they will not have much of a chance at being chosen to be the next full time tenure track faculty person on their campus. Yes, many of our number work part time “for the love of teaching,” while many others teach because they have other things going on in their lives and do not want to make a full time commitment (not that they would be able to, even if they wanted a full time job), while others are just plain afraid or don’t believe that “edu-professionals” SHOULD HAVE TO STOOP TO ORGANIZE IN ORDER TO REAP THE BENEFITS OF THEIR HARD WORK AND EXULTED SELF-DEFINED morally superior status.

So, if we discount all of the schadenfreude and smug finger pointing, we are left with, what? A hell of a mess. We do not value our teachers, nor, it would seem, do we value the education that is passed on to our students. Schools are now “businesses,” rather than “institutions of learning,” and this seismic shift is something that few seem willing to address.

But in community colleges we can address the inequities institutionally.  Margaret Mary is a tragic symptom of “Higher Education Gone Wrong,” and will only be fixed when we: (1) level the playing field and honor – and pay – all teachers a living wage, (2) trim administrations to deal with providing better services for students and faculty, rather than becoming a self-sustaining business unto itself, and (3) end tenure as we know and love/hate it – replacing it with equitable rolling contracts and safeguards to protect what used to be considered, “freedom of speech,” or as the Canadians call it “regularization” of faculty.

Robert Yoshioka

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One Reply to “Lessons from the Death of a Part-Time Faculty Member”

  1. Dr. Robert Craig Baum

    //Colleagues quickly concede that non-tenured faculty are exploited. But then, in an intellectual sleight of hand, they take comfort in the thought that adjuncts have no one but themselves to blame. It’s their own fault. //

    As someone who produced and published responses to the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, I took particular offense to these trends. No one I read–New Faculty Majority, Chronicle, ConJob, and others–experienced any “comfort” in the aftermath of this tragic death. Outrage can appear as finger pointing and mourning can ring a tone of self-examination that can come across as self-loathing.

    //So, if we discount all of the schadenfreude and smug finger pointing, we are left with, what? A hell of a mess. We do not value our teachers, nor, it would seem, do we value the education that is passed on to our students. Schools are now “businesses,” rather than “institutions of learning,” and this seismic shift is something that few seem willing to address.//

    The good news remains that no one was silenced. Voices were heard. Hundreds if not thousands of us did something on our campuses, in our social networks, with producers across many different media. And entire subterranean network was created and a swarm was initiated that rocked the mainstream establishment resulting in more coverage and direct action (and follow up) by Chronicle, Inside Higher Education, CNN, NPR, and PBS to name a few outlets.

    We seemed united in our outrage; and like all works of mourning, we decided to align our struggles with those of someone we didn’t know but whose experiences paralleled so many of our own. I was absolutely distraught to learn of this story because quite honestly I know three Margaret Mary’s in New Hampshire and two in Vermont. In fact, if I didn’t make different decisions in Fall 2011, I may have been on this fast track to the land six feet under.

    What you say about the dangers of the corporatocracy in higher education is dead on; you’re solutions very much reinforce the educated and empirical positions of countless adjunct advocate groups.

    I learned from 2003-2011 in New Hampshire (especially during the Adjunct Union drive 2009-2011) that people are hurting, and this pain crosses generations, income levels, professional communities, and geographical regions. All I do now is find ways to best witness to suffering, one I knew intimately as an adjunct, graduate assistant, and doctoral student. I now happily work in New York and Los Angeles as a producer, writer, composer, and director. I also teach, having started education platforms in New England and the UK over the last two years. I want to model an “outside” or a “way out” for those who choose it while also advocating for the most basic labor rights, most needed sustainable models, and decrease in all activities the suffering of my friends and colleagues who are still living the life.

    Thank you for your work!

    “The time is now; the struggle continues” — August Wilson (1945-2005)

    -Migrant Intellectual (Dr. Robert Craig Baum)

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