Hall of Fame and Hope: “It’s Built on Your Backs.” -President Robert Knight

by Tiffany Kraft

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The system that’s been built on adjuncts’ backs is broken, and there are other ways to contain costs and fund instruction.

We typically don’t read much about adjunct relations with college presidents, and maybe this is because they’re fairly non-existent, staged at a distance, or reactionary (negative). Wanting to get to the crux of the issue, I consulted former Dean and fellow Adjunct Activist Robert Craig Baum; specifically, I asked Dr. Baum: (1) “How can adjuncts proactively engage administration and impact policy when we are intentionally marginalized? (2) Do you see a way in, short of demanding a seat at the table?”

Here is his response:

 (1) Across the ‘00s, myself and a handful of adjuncts at the Community College System of New Hampshire (primarily River Valley and NHTI) built strong relationships with Executive Teams. Most of us had worked for Ivy League or Big Ten colleges and universities. Building trust, establishing collegiality, and maintaining affinities across the disciplines was vital to creating the conditions for successful teaching and learning. Then, something changed. The arrival of newly minted Academic Vice Presidents or Associate Deans charged with policing key sectors of the curriculum or budget increased tensions, drove wedges between faculty and top administration, and made it nearly impossible to continue faculty level conversations with Presidents, Trustees, or Legislators. Wherever affinities were nurtured, the programs succeeded. Student enrollment increased, faculty job satisfaction spiked, and revenues rose. Retention issues were normal, not extreme; successful academic progress had been rising. Then, something happened when Trustees and State Legislators prioritized administrative pay, benefits, and influence over faculty stability, retention, and equal pay for equal work.

(2) In the perfect world, I would adjunct all middle management who do not take on teaching or curriculum building responsibilities. Why? Is this purely a Karma move? No. Presidents and top Executive Team members charged with instructional and team-building duties (along with Program Directors and Chairs fully supporting ALL faculty) were absolutely wonderful to work with inside a collaborative structure. Which is hard work. In other words, it takes time to learn how to work together. And this normalized call to “Adjunct Everything” saves no money, increases territoriality between admins and faculty and increases stress and ineffective teaching, researching, and student advising. As long as highly paid administrators build their institutions on the backs of disposable labor or task-master adjuncts through poorly conceived (and in some cases extraordinarily specious) contracts, it makes it impossible to work together toward common goals. Decisions that benefit students and faculty will increase alliances as well as develop curriculum in a way that is real time not fantasy, inexpensive and grassroots-oriented rather than enabling the worst practices of a ravenous top-down Kafka-level state and private bureaucracy.

In this spirit, this past March 2015, President Robert Knight of Clark College spoke at an adjunct colloquium organized by our faculty senate. As you may imagine, the room was tense and faculty were ready to fire off questions and demands. When Knight took the podium, he first thanked us for opening the dialogue and inviting him to speak. He then said: “It’s no secret that the college is built on your backs.” He then moved on to talk about some of the challenges our college faces with state funding, community, and program needs.

I asked him about instructional spending, and though he could not quote the exact percentage, he asked me to take it up with the Vice President of Instruction, Tim Cook. What I’m getting at is that Knight didn’t dodge or deny the issues that our college and community face, and that earned my interest. He spoke for an hour and though nothing was resolved or promised, he listened and engaged with us. Is this enough? No—but it’s a start.

In opportunities like this colloquium provided, it is key to come prepared with strategic questions and evidence, not accusations and anger. Adjuncts are the majority faculty, and we can influence change with a clear purpose and vision; for me, this means working toward an equitable instructional minimum with benefits. Fighting for campus equity does not happen in a vacuum, though; joining the national movement to change higher ed is essential.

Out of all the schools I’ve worked for over the past 13 years, Clark is the school that’s given me some measure of job security, with Affiliate Faculty status, insurance benefits, a yearly memo, and Clark College Association of Higher Education, and WEA/NEA exclusive bargaining. But income inequality persists. And my memo is, of course, at-will, which means there is no reasonable assurance of employment. Per my memo with Clark College: “This memo is not a contract for employment and may be rescinded should the class(es) be cancelled or for any other reason.” I have always received the courses as stated per the yearly memo, and even some on top of that, which once pushed me to PT-FT status and pay grade.

I suspect that Clark is unique in many ways, and this is in no small part because of ethical Department Chairs and Adjunct Coordinators who fight for adjunct equity, even when all they can do is organize a pizza and beer party for us to bond at. Adjuncts at Clark are also welcome to attend appropriate departmental meetings, per our AHE agreement. And it’s rare to report gains, but on July 1, 2015, Knight emailed the college master list to report: “The final budget includes a 3% salary increase for all state employees effective today, July 1. It also includes a 5% tuition reduction for community colleges, starting this fall.”

We have a lot to gain by working together to fix higher education, and that has been my goal in our conversations. I occasionally email Knight, my chair, and coordinator links to articles that I write or am mentioned in; they are all aware of my activism and I haven’t been disappeared. In fact, they’ve thanked me. Reprisal is a real concern, though, and I realize I am fortunate to work with many ethical colleagues in an AHE organized college. But just look at Duquesne University’s recent threats to adjunct organizers, and the ugliness is all too clear.

It may sound counterintuitive, but it is through my activism that I’ve found a sense of security, however real it is. And this is true of two other, but definitely not all, of the institutions I’ve worked at. I even cited my activism in my 5-year review at Clark, detailing how it makes me an active colleague, teacher, and citizen. It’s not the people in power that I take issue with, but the flawed system, and working toward proactive solutions is in everyone’s best interest: we need parity, not polarization.

This is my perspective, and I’m fully aware that other activists and faculty at Clark and elsewhere may not appreciate or share it. Not all administrators are bad actors, though. In “Opinion: The Battle Ahead” A. Madjunct acknowledges that “it really is up to us to rescue ourselves and actively organize, to do the actual work it takes to fight back and win.” Part of that work, I argue, is communicating our needs with integrity and conviction. For me, this means exercising democracy, diplomatically.

So I’m going to keep emailing President Knight, my chair, and coordinator when I have something to share that moves the discussion forward. They can read or delete it as they will. America’s College Promise Act of 2015 offers students, administrators, and faculty an opportunity to rise above business-as-usual campus politics and engage in conversations that lift the whole community. The Act “makes two years of community college free and provides an affordable pathway for low-income students to a four-year college degree. The legislation would give students the opportunity to access quality and affordable higher education that gives them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.” And quality higher education is only a reality if Congress also funds instruction.

I’ve been given every opportunity to make it in traditional academe, and though I didn’t pass through the eye of that particular needle, I’m on the margins, talking freely and fighting for faculty and students. My fellow adjunct activists, whom I consider close colleagues, have paved the way for equity and inclusion in the workplace for all faculty. I’ll likely never be a tenured professor, but my activism continually opens doors and I feel a sense of purpose beyond the classroom.

Baum remembers

a time when talking freely, disagreeing as colleagues, and working toward common goals, not simply making decisions for personal and very specific program needs, was the norm. I was raised in this climate in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. As Dean, I attempted to create this kind of collaborative environment but at each step along the way I was resisted. An agenda? I’m not sure. Perhaps it was unfamiliar; and oftentimes unfamiliar ways of living and working are viewed with suspicion.

I believe President Knight gets that, and more college presidents should follow his lead, and talk with their faculty. I’d like to see more colloquia with strategic question-and-answer sessions and less year-end motivational speeches that inevitably call on faculty to tighten their belts for the impending budget shortfall. We need, rather, to revalue and invest in instruction to ensure student success. The debt-for-diploma exchange is hurting students; it’s time to focus on educational quality and inclusion of all faculty.

At the close of our colloquium, I asked Knight to press harder for our college at the state level, as we’re competing for funds. Transparency is an issue here, and this is where accountability comes to play. All colleges should be regulated closely. Students and taxpayers deserve this much. But “if we confine the discussion to cost and debt, we will have failed,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan argues, “because we will have only found better ways to pay for a system that fails far too many of our students.” The system that’s been built on adjuncts’ backs isn’t broken, it’s intentionally divisive and there are other ways to contain costs and fund instruction. Let’s keep talking about this.

Baum agrees: “If the new resources simply benefit the administrators who create jobs for themselves to oversee (supposedly) the new adjuncts or program directors, then the free system cannot work. It will merely reproduce the current system of top down over budgeting in new ways with new monies from Federal resources.”

And, yes, I’ve been passed over when tenure-track positions in my department have opened, but I’m not bitter; the jobs went to qualified and committed colleagues. And closed doors have opened new opportunities for me to make a difference in higher ed, locally and nationally. Like Oscar Wilde’s presence in a stained-glass window at Westminster Abbey in the Poets’ Corner: adjuncts are neither in nor out, yet we perform the core mission of the college as we guide “individuals to achieve their educational and professional goals.” Quid pro quo.

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