By Keith Hoeller

From time to time, people have suggested some version of the following: “If you don’t like your contingent teaching jobs, why don’t you just quit?

The first time I heard this question was in a public hearing before the Washington House of Representatives Higher Education Committee. The moderate Republican (by today’s standards) who chaired the committee asked me this question in response to my testimony about how bad adjuncts were treated by the community colleges.

Three decades ago part-time college professors were paid at a much lower rate than their full-time, tenure-track counterparts, had artificial caps imposed on their workload limits, received few benefits such as health insurance or retirement, had to fight to obtain unemployment benefits, and had zero job security. Despite the efforts of thousands of adjunct activists throughout the country, our plight remains perhaps even more dire today.

“If it’s as bad as you say it is, Keith,” the Chair of the Committee asked me in open session, why don’t you just quit, take your obvious talents elsewhere, and enjoy a more satisfying and beneficial career outside academe?” he asked me.

I recall being deeply offended by the question and I told him so. I replied that if everyone who discovered an injustice decided to ignore it and to walk away from it, injustice would prevail and there would be no one left to object or to try to right the wrong that was being inflicted. 

My adjunct colleague Dana Rush, an astronomer who had worked for NASA on the space shuttle, spoke up and said there would have been no American Revolution if the colonists who were upset with Britain had instead decided to pack up and leave America for elsewhere.

I explained that while I was the immediate victim of the two-tier system, there were many other victims as well, including other professors, students, and the citizens of the state of Washington. After all, the state was spending billions of dollars a year on a higher education system with the lofty goal of improving equality for its citizens. I felt it my duty to report this situation to my elected representatives.

As a practical matter, however, the PATCO air traffic controller’s strike of 1981 dealt a major blow to the labor movement from which it has never recovered. For President Reagan fired 11,000 of them. The result was the odd situation where union workers may have a right to strike, but companies have a right to permanently replace them.

The Legacy of the Crushed 1981 PATCO Strike” does a good job of highlighting the lasting impact on the labor movement.

But striking usually involves employees who are under contract and who decide to withhold their labor in hopes of obtaining some benefit from the employer. Part-time faculty often hold only term contracts, which end when the term is over. Contracts, union or otherwise, usually provide no obligation on the part of the college to rehire them when the next term starts.

Full-time lecturers who teach off the tenure-track may have one-year contracts that are usually not automatically renewed. So with little contractual job security, contingent professors are vulnerable to being fired and/or non-renewed if they should engage in a strike.

But there is another issue as well. The idea of our leaving the profession, as a means of improving our working conditions, stems from the belief in the idea of supply and demand. After all, if the colleges could not find people with graduate degrees to fill these contingent teaching positions, then they would be forced to improve the pay, benefits, and job security of the contingents in order to attract more of them.

But higher education does not operate on the supply and demand principle. Colleges control BOTH the supply and demand of workers in higher education. Despite the lack of full-time tenure-track positions, universities have continued to produce Master’s and Doctorate’s in large numbers.

But if there were not enough adjuncts, colleges could either increase full-time workloads and/or let more full-timers teach “overloads.” Universities could employ more graduate teaching assistants and/or let more of them teach their own classes. And community colleges could do more of what they have been claiming to do all these years anyway: hire experts from the community to teach more of their courses. And of course technology allows the colleges to do more online courses for more students at a much cheaper price than in-person instruction.

And with a shortage of K-12 teachers, Indiana recently passed a law allowing the schools to hire “adjuncts” to fill these positions.

Of course the colleges are not the only ones who have instituted a separate but unequal two-tier system. The three faculty unions (AAUP, AFT, and NEA) have done so as well. In the process, they have abandoned the idea of “union democracy” in their wholesale pursuit of “tenure for the few.”

Their recent turn to the idea of “tenure for a few more” will do nothing to undo the two-tier system; it will only strengthen it as the contingents become fewer in number and even less powerful. In my article, “How Many Contingents Have Lost Their Jobs From the Pandemic?

I wrote: “With 1.5 million (or 75%) faculty teaching off the tenure track, it seems likely that 187,500 contingent professors have lost their jobs, with half of these being part-timers. Perhaps another 12.5% (187,500) have seen their workloads reduced, either because of declining enrollments or because full-timers have taken more overload classes to replace lost income in their families.” 

So unfortunately contingents still face two major obstacles: The corporatization of higher education and the lack of democracy in their labor unions.

Given the choice between fighting or leaving, I still think the odds of changing this inequitable two-tier system are better if we fight than if we leave. While poor people have always had trouble garnering union support, the two-tier system means that contingents are forced to deal with opposition from both college administrators and union leaders.


About the Author: Keith Hoeller is the co-founder (with Teresa Knudsen) of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association, and Editor of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press).

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