When I was a kid, I remember the rush I got reading Johnny Tremain. Sure, it’s a great story, but what really grabbed me at the time—made my head want to explode–were the ideas about what government could be: inspiring. Government in that peculiar moment and place in history shifted from being about tyranny and privilege to being about human potential. What Johnny was fighting for had to do with creating a way for human beings to become more than they were—not by acting as individuals but by seeing themselves as part of a group. The novel outlined certain rules—the idea of a civil society, fairness, opportunity—that were they to be applied to everyone and not just a privileged few, would seem to open the floodgates of the possible for humanity itself. A kind of psycho-social emancipation. Government as it came to be at that moment was overwhelmingly inspirational.
And there have been plenty of other moments. Take the California Community College system as an example. It started in Fresno and Bakersfield College in 1913, located in Kern County, still the poorest county in California. Millions of marginalized Californians were envisioned in the state legislature as being given a chance to participate in higher education. People who couldn’t afford more expensive university tuition, or who through circumstance—an early family, obligation to aging parents, a working class background in which no one had previously gone to college—could sign up and attend university-style classes.
Forward a hundred years—now—and government in California seems to have lost its hold on inspiration. Instead we get irony: the current approach to running the community college system is to marginalize its workforce with the purported goal of empowering groups already marginalized. The goal and approach are at cross-purposes. You lift one group up by stamping another group down. You empower some by disempowering others.
What do I mean by marginalizing its workforce? Specifically, it has been converting faculty into a contingent workforce. Contingent is defined as:
- Limiting the number of hours a teacher can work to avoid paying benefits
- Offering work agreements that expire each semester
- Stripping teachers of opportunities for ongoing education or training
- Stripping teachers of opportunities for advancement in the community college system
- Providing limited institutional support for teaching—offices, for instance
- Paying teachers at a rate of roughly half what is offered to full-time teachers
To be fair, this inconsistency in approach—marginalizing some to help the marginalized– may be the effect of business values having entered higher education as a way to deal with a supply and demand problem: the number of students varies from year-to-year, and so the business solution is to create a contingent workforce ready to take up slack or be let loose.
However, the numbers of contingent faculty continue to grow, far outstripping the need to account for variations in enrollment. According to the US Department of Education, contingent faculty has grown from twenty-four percent in 1975 to forty-one percent in 2011. Others put the estimates higher. The National Center for Education Statistics puts the figure for 2011 at fifty-one percent. Along with grad students, contingent faculty is now at a minimum three quarters of the workforce in higher education. Why? The community college system has chosen to ape business not only to handle the supply and demand problem, but also to comport itself as a for-profit enterprise. In this distortion of education’s function, the contingent workforce has become a mechanism for concentrating wealth among a small elite (administrators or “management” as it is called in business) and for “leveraging” resources for investments that look like marketing and not like education. For instance, at my own institution, Southwestern College, the latest infrastructure improvements have been to revamp the stadium. Meanwhile I still have to meet with my students on the lawn if I wish to speak one-on-one. Instead of inspiration, it seems to be back to the days of the Boston Tea Party. Perhaps I am supposed to look for my own inspiration from Socrates.
[Please tell your own story about life as an adjunct here. Congressman Miller has asked that we send in our stories of life in the adjunct lane by December 20! This is the first time a widespread effort has been made to solicit our stories…. so…. This is your chance! Read all about it here]