The time is now for organizing contingent faculty

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Despite decades of agitation, action and organizing, the problems of a higher education workforce that is now predominantly contingent outstrip union advocates' ability to keep up with organizing demands. The AFT represents the largest number of adjunct, part-time and nontenure-track faculty—more than 100,000—and is charting a plan that will lead organizing efforts in new directions.

At the Jan. 23-25 meeting of the AFT Higher Education program and policy council in Washington, D.C., the stories of disillusioned yet still passionately committed adjuncts informed every aspect of the discussion. Nationally, the higher education division is analyzing the results of a Hart Research Associates survey of part-time/adjunct faculty priorities and needs. In Philadelphia, it is organizing a corps of 15,000 adjuncts who teach in a 30-mile area that includes 43 colleges and universities.

Higher Education PPC: Jennie Shanker, a sculptor, teacher and former academic program administrator.

The PPC heard from two activists—Ryan Eckes, a poet and English instructor, and Jennie Shanker (pictured at right), a sculptor, teacher and former academic program administrator. Eckes has been teaching for eight years, and his dedication has been rewarded with consistently high student evaluations. This semester he is working 60 hours a week teaching four composition courses at two campuses. "I have no time to give students the attention they deserve," he says, "so I play a game with myself: efficiency versus loyalty to the students."

Shanker, like Eckes, described a work life spent relentlessly pursuing her two passions, teaching and creating art. With success after success in teaching under her belt, she was asked to head up a program when its director took a sabbatical and was given more full-time responsibilities. Despite proven excellence, she was bypassed in the national search for a permanent replacement and has seen her teaching assignments lessen.

Both are now organizing their colleagues through the United Academics of Philadelphia. "Being involved with the UAP has put the fight back in me," says Shanker. With the AFT's guidance, "we've developed a model for what's needed in our region: an organization that is a powerful advocate for its members' rights and their well-being, that creates community among educators, and that provides resources and opportunities for professional development."

Coincidentally, two other significant events took place in Washington, D.C., on the second day of the PPC meeting. On Jan. 24, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce released "The Just-in-Time Professor," a report compiled by the committee's senior Democrat from California, Rep. George Miller. He held an online e-forum to collect information and adjunct experiences, and heard from more than 800 people. The report is the first official acknowledgement by a congressional committee that the academic staffing crisis in higher education is severe. Adjuncts do not have the time and resources they need for things like adequate class preparation and office hours.

What is especially troubling is the clear link the report makes between the exploitation of adjuncts and the quality of education that college students receive," notes AFT President Randi Weingarten. (See the AFT's blog post on the report.)

Higher Education PPC members

On the same day as the report's release, the New Faculty Majority, a coalition of faculty and academic organizations, held a research briefing on Capitol Hill, which AFT PPC members attended. It included results from the Delphi Project on the effect on students of a workforce that is more than 70 percent contingent, when graduate employees are factored in.

The AFT and PPC leaders are committed to moving in new directions to strengthen the voice and reach of this essential part of our workforce, says PPC Co-Chair Sandra Schroeder, who is an AFT vice president and past president of AFT Washington. This will occur through organizing, advocacy, greater participation on the union's governance boards, community outreach, and deeper communication about the impact on workers and students of failing to invest in the academic workforce.

Other topics the PPC discussed included federal legislation, ongoing engagement with student groups on student debt and college affordability, and the AFT's stepped up advocacy on teacher preparation. The day before the meeting, five leaders met with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his staff to provide views from the trenches on President Obama's plan to rate colleges and link federal student aid awards to institutional performance. [Barbara McKenna, photos by Chris Goff and Michael Campbell]

January 28, 2014