Adjunct faculty prepare for artsy Campus Equity Week

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Every year, Campus Equity Week highlights the low pay, poor working conditions, and lack of institutional and professional voice experienced by adjunct faculty and others teaching off the tenure track. This year's rallies and demonstrations are expected to draw extra attention as faculty tap their creativity and use art to lift up their cause, literally illustrating their call for better treatment in the workplace with "mAsk4CampusEquity," the theme for the events.

Halloween, masks, costumes and whimsical drama will undoubtedly play a role in the Campus Equity Week day of action taking place on Oct. 31. Potential activities include performance art, historical re-enactments, art exhibitions, social media campaigns, and wry images on buttons and T-shirts designed to upend conventional thinking about life in the adjunct universe.

Campus Equity Week graphic

But inequities between adjunct and tenure-track faculty are no joke: Low pay means professors working in adjunct positions can be juggling outside jobs as they try to make ends meet. Lack of office space means they have to balance student meetings and class prep in coffee shops and on the road, between jobs on different campuses. An absence of job security means they are often scrambling for a position just days before classes start. And, since their working conditions are also students' learning conditions, all of this affects the quality of the educational experience.

As the national Campus Equity Week campaign has evolved over the years, more and more activists and organizations have become involved across and beyond unions, intensifying the pressure on administrations to do right by their academic workers. Broadly connecting Campus Equity Week activities with other public education advocacy also creates a strong incentive for state and local politicians to become visibly involved. Since its inception, the Campus Equity Week campaign has served an important role in the movement for academic equity and organizing academic workers, highlighting their issues with rallies, petitions, congressional briefings, letter-writing campaigns and film debuts.

It makes sense to enhance the role of the arts in Campus Equity Week planning because creative actions by AFT members across the country have been proliferating. For example, during a contract campaign at Philadelphia's Temple University, where adjunct faculty recently became members of the bargaining unit, members of the Temple Association of University Professionals marched through campus and rallied outside of the university president's office with a 60-yard-long banner they had made; the banner's image of 1,300 people marching below the Philadelphia skyline represented the 1,300 adjuncts working at Temple at the time. The banner was a project that TAUP and the United Academics of Philadelphia collaborated on. 

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, where job security is a primary concern, contingent faculty and allies boarded a bus plastered with signs protesting the lack of job security for a Rolling Rally for Lecturers' Rights.

Thanks to increasing activism among the rank and file, there is now greater public awareness that some adjunct faculty make so little they are eligible for public assistance. This message was highlighted by another creative action, undertaken for Campus Equity Week 2015 by AFT members in United University Professions, which represents 38,000 State University of New York faculty and staff. The University of Albany chapter distributed "adjunct dollars" (food coupons) and posters with messages such as "Did you know most UAlbany adjuncts could qualify for public assistance?" and sponsored a "print-in" that took place in a public space where students could silk-screen T-shirts featuring the movement's rallying cry: "Our teaching conditions are student learning conditions."

On other SUNY campuses, contingent faculty displayed huge lists of all the sections taught that semester by nontenure-track faculty.

On these campuses and so many others, union membership can make a difference. A report from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce shows that adjunct faculty with union representation were paid 25 percent more than those without a union ($3,100, compared with $2,475). They were nearly twice as likely to be paid for course cancellations and fared better regarding paid office hours and job security as well.

Because innovative actions, especially interactive ones, can have a profound and lasting impact, a group of artist activists from around the country has been working for more than a year to develop a toolkit of arts projects for the 2017 Campus Equity actions on Oct. 31. The mAsk4CampusEquity initiative highlights the disconnect between the myths and realities of higher education today and provides opportunities to be theatrical and creative to get the message across.

Participants needn't be artists to contribute to the day of action. Organizers have posted accessible art project ideas and examples, as well as other resources, such as downloadable graphics and an easy-to-make two-sided bookmark, at CampusEquity2017.com. Adjuncts and advocates can tag their events online with #2017CEW and #mask4ce, and follow @2017CEW on Twitter and Campus Equity Week 2017 on Facebook.

[Anne Wiegard, Virginia Myers]