I have been away from serious blogging for a while now, and I’ve been missing it, but my life has been turbulent lately and there just hasn’t been the time to reflect that I need in order to write. I am sitting right now in the Starbucks around the corner from the gym where I work out, where I am very happy to be working out this morning for the first time in more than a week. I’ve been sick with a respiratory infection that I started yesterday to shake for real. Before that, I was consumed with making sure I got all my paper grading and other end-of-semester work done on time, since I fell very far behind while my grandmother was dying. Now I am in the thick of another crisis, this one at the college where I teach, where it seems pretty clear that our new president and board of trustees are hell bent on decimating the full-time faculty and transforming us into something more along the lines of Phoenix University than what it has been: one of the premier, two-year liberal arts institutions in the country. He has done this mostly under the guise of having to close the huge budget gap we are facing–and we are facing a huge budget gap; there are painful cuts that need to be made–but the disdain, and even contempt, he has expressed for the full-time faculty in making the cuts he has made suggests that the budget is not his only agenda.
I am not going to go into too much detail about the specifics of the situation, partly because it would take an awful lot of explanation for people who don’t know anything about the place where I work and partly because so many things are still in flux that I–someone who is not authorized to speak officially for the faculty–don’t want to cause problems for the people working on those issues. One detail that I can talk about, however, is the fact that, at the end of the spring semester, the president fired all 66 full-time faculty who were working on temporary contracts, nearly 10% of our full-timers. A temporary contract is the one you get, at my college anyway, before you are switched to a tenure track line and the president is within his rights to dismiss anyone on a temporary contract without cause. Nonetheless–and I am going to skip over a whole lot of local politics involved with what this president did because it involves details of our contract, the nature of faculty governance at my institution and what the history of faculty-administration relations have been–nonetheless, it is worth taking a close look at the implications and consequences of what he did, even if he was within his right to do it.
To start, consider that 66 faculty represent, at a minimum, 6,000 classroom seats that will not have instructors for the Fall. Those seats will need to be taught by someone, which means that the college will have to hire more adjuncts and/or–but it is most likely “and”–increase class size across the campus, and even then I don’t know if the college will be able to adjust in order to make sure those seats have instructors. If we can’t, that means there will be a significant chunk of students that we will not be able to serve; if we end up with class-size increases–of which we have already had one in order to address budget issues–teaching and learning will suffer, and they will suffer in ways that are perhaps particular to community colleges, where we do not have the huge lectures that exist at four year schools and where professors do not have graduate students to help with grading and other classroom tasks, including, sometimes, the teaching itself. There is, in other words, a lot to be concerned about in terms of the effect laying all these people off will have on the college’s ability to serve the community it is our mission to serve.
As disturbing to me, though in a different way and on a different scale, is the way in which these layoffs will require us to become more dependent on adjunct instructors than we have been. This is disturbing to me not because I think adjuncts are not good teachers; they are as good or as bad as any other group of teachers. More, I have tremendous respect for their dedication to both the profession of teaching and their field of study, because an adjunct’s life is much harder than mine. They are, as a whole, perhaps the most exploited workers in all of academia, and the fact that they nonetheless choose to cobble together a living from teaching part time at (usually) two or three (or sometimes more) different colleges and to keep up with their field of study is really quite amazing. Yet the fact that they are so fully (and, frankly, easily) exploited makes the ways in which colleges and universities are, nationwide, coming to rely on them more and more unconscionable, and it disturbs me to know that my college might be headed in that direction.
I am aware that arguing for less reliance on adjuncts means, at least implicitly, arguing for less work for adjuncts; and I am aware that this is problematic for a whole host of reasons, some of them connected to the individual livelihoods of the people who are adjunct instructors and some of them connected to the nature of the academic job market, in which many people often get the experience they need to be hired full time by working as an adjunct. To agree that the “adjunct problem,” as it were, needs to be comprehensively and systematically addressed, however, should not be to deny that there are serious problems when colleges reduce the numbers of full time faculty and replace them with adjuncts, as if teaching is the only thing that full time faculty do.
At my school, it is the full time faculty who hire and fire; it is the full time faculty who do the work of curriculum development; of handling grievances; of student advisement; of advising student clubs; of most of the mentoring that gets done; of establishing, in other words, maintaining and growing the educational and extra-curricular infrastructure of the college itself. And while I know that we have a degree of faculty governance that many other schools do not, the fact is that full time faculty at other colleges perform a similar function. It is the full time faculty who put the community in community college, not because adjuncts are less able or less qualified or even less committed, but because adjuncts–given the structure of their lives–almost never have enough time. More, there is no reason for adjuncts to have the commitment that full-timers do to the institutions where they teach. Adjunct positions are enrollment-dependent; they get no tenure, no benefits; and they inevitably have to split their attention (and their loyalty) between and among the different institutions where they teach. They may be motivated to sit on the committees in which full timers get the work of running the college done, but adjuncts have no incentive to do so. Committee work does not get them a raise, does not get them promoted. I would agree that a system should be worked out where adjuncts do have incentive to sit on committees, but it doesn’t exist now, and I can guarantee you that my college president is not thinking about instituting one, not when he is hoping to use adjuncts to cut costs.
A college–just like a high school, just like an elementary school–is, or at least I am convinced it ought to (continue to) be, more than a collection of classrooms in which teaching is delivered; it is, or should be, a community of people learning to become, among other things, engaged and employable citizens, and that kind of learning requires faculty who can make commitments to students and to the institution where they work beyond the teaching they do in the classroom. There is, in other words, a good deal in my college president’s decision to fire nearly 10% of the full time faculty, not least of which is the way in which his decision essentially guts the next 20-30 years of the kind of work I have been describing that would have been performed by those fired faculty members.
As you can tell, I am angry about this, and I am aware that I have probably reduced the complexity of the issue because I am angry; but I do think that people should be very concerned about a system of higher education that is becoming increasingly reliant on contingent faculty. It is not something we ought to let happen simply because it costs less than what we have now. It’s important to remember: You really do get what you pay for.
Cross posted on It’s All Connected.