The Faculty Caste System: Auto-Ethnography of an Adjunct, Part 2

by Ruth Wangerin

Part 1 here.

The higher caste in academia. Caste has been the solution chosen by higher priced academic labor. They maintain that certain tasks and qualifications are theirs alone, and they try to get this written into the contract.

  • Tenure track professors define the upper caste: Only they are hired by a national search, only they are worthy because they’re doing research and have lots of publications, only they are “real” professors.
  • They monopolize certain jobs: college governance, advising students, setting curricula.
  • They have sacred spaces: commencement, official college and university publications, faculty meetings, private faculty offices, faculty senate.

Adjuncts may or may not accept the idea that tenure-track faculty are doing a better job teaching than they are. But adjuncts do know that they aren’t paid for any of those activities and so they don’t try to participate, even if invited. It’s really difficult to get an adjunct to attend a meeting because we have pride – we’re not paid to attend meetings. (The same 2-3 adjuncts hold all token positions for adjunct faculty for my college and perhaps for CUNY, and have for many years. [When the election is held, there’s no publicity and most adjuncts I know are completely mystified – What’s this about? Who are these people? Why do we only get two reps?])

The only reason the caste system is still working to some extent is that tenure track faculty have some power and influence, students and families admire professors, and many administrators have some belief in higher education as a public good.

Dedication to caste, even by union leadership. My union is suspected of being of the tenured, by the tenured, and for the tenured. One of the officers recently said,

“[D]ecades of underinvestment by the State and City have led to a massive reliance on adjuncts, whose underpaid labor allows CUNY to stay afloat as enrollment rises.” (Steve London, 3/6/15)

Let’s deconstruct this and note the assumptions:

  • The statement implies alliance with or at least sympathy for the employer, who is portrayed as helplessly forced into “reliance on” (not use of) “underpaid labor” (underpaid by whom?) to “stay afloat.”
  • Note the use of the “political passive” voice. They “have [been] led to a massive reliance on adjuncts.” Why would a union hesitate to say that the employer is actively exploiting some of the workers?
  • The grammar implies a way of thinking called “essentializing” in sociology: portraying the situation of a whole category of people as due to something in their essential nature, rather than to decisions made by a society or by some actors. In the above quote, and the rest of the statement, it’s clear that for this union leader the essential nature of people employed as adjuncts is “underpaid labor.”
  • What does “underpaid” mean? From the point of view of higher paid labor, anything under their wage rate is underpaid.

To many in my union leadership, the majority of the members of our union are seen as outsiders, the Other (“underpaid labor”), not as fellow faculty who are being cheated. If CUNY has been forced to rely on outsiders because of underfunding, then once the funding improves, wouldn’t it make sense to replace the outsiders with people like themselves, people recruited in a national search, people who will bolster the strength of the higher caste?

Perhaps that is the plan. Our union leaders always talk about the need to have more full-time faculty, citing studies that full-timers are better for the educational mission. And with not a touch of self-awareness or shame, they complain that salaries are too low (they mean the salaries for full time positions—apparently it’s not polite to complain about the low wages for part-time positions) to attract and retain top scholars. In this atmosphere, is it any wonder that many contingents suspect that some of our “brothers and sisters” dream of replacing us with highly paid, prominent scholars who would uplift the prestige of the university’s brand and therefore of their own personal brands as Faculty (with a capital F) of that university. That would explain why they seem content with a proposed system of partial job security that would only apply to a small percentage of the contingents.

Are faculty losing the fight for the soul of higher education?

Today, corporate-minded college administrators seem to be winning. Not only do they keep raising tuition and paying low wages to a high percentage of the instructional staff. They are also steadily turning potentially higher priced labor – people with PhDs, for example – into lower priced labor by refusing to fund sufficient full-time tenure track positions. The situation has reached the point where some universities (such as SUNY and CUNY) feel strong enough to even refuse higher-priced workers’ demands for cost-of-living raise increases. They have simply stalled for years on negotiating a new contract.

With the growing tendency to run universities like corporations, the temptation is strong to believe low-paid instruction will be just fine, especially in non-elite settings. A distinguished professor told me that an unnamed administrator had once confided to him that a university could be run with a handful of full professors and a multitude of adjuncts. No matter how clearly faculty organizations point out that that’s no way to run a college, it seems to be the way we’re headed.

In one (non-CUNY) community college I know, mega-departments assign a textbook from a big company like Pearson that comes with test questions and slides (never mind how shabby and full of errors the slides are) and give adjuncts a standardized “syllabus.” With so few full-time faculty, there is no one to observe or supervise adjunct instructors. The college depends on uniformed security staff to report if an instructor dismisses class early and depends on course evaluations filled out by students online to know if an instructor is teaching an adequate course. Nevertheless, on paper and in the minds of administrators and politicians with no background as actual educators, these “Pearson packages” and syllabi mean the student is getting the same course they would have received from an adequately paid and supported college instructor. What’s next—robots?

Conclusion: Occupy the faculty

It is often pointed out that saving higher education in America will require an alliance between faculty and students. But what if the faculty part of that equation is missing in action?

I’d like to tell my full-time brothers and sisters that caste is no longer working, that while they’re trying to hold onto their privileges, they’re actually allowing the “house” of higher education to burn down. When administrators resist calls for job security for contingent faculty, they talk about their need for “flexibility.” Can’t my tenure-track colleagues read between the lines? Don’t they see that tenure makes them look less than optimally flexible? Do they really believe they are the administrations’ special friends?

In the last few years, contingents have stepped into the breach and breathed new life into faculty organizing. One of the first things we have to do is crash the party where the administration and tenured faculty are toasting each other on the students’ dime. Yes, it’s time to break into the upper caste’s sacred spaces: attend Commencement, go to their meetings (whether we’re welcome or not) and raise our issues, get our names on department websites, run for office, take over our unions, and tell the students the truth. Contingents have to Occupy the Faculty so that there will be a faculty capable of fighting side by side with students for the higher education system we all deserve.

Ruth Wangerin holds a PhD, anthropology from CUNY and an MPH (public health) from Columbia. Her career included public service in NYC, including CUNY, NYC Board of Ed, and Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene. She was part of organizing campaign at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, among part-time instructional staff. Ruth is married, with two adult kids with advanced degrees whom I hope never have to work for less than a fair going rate. She likes to swim, exercise, cook, laugh a lot. Her mom is still living, and still claims Ruth was a born troublemaker. Life is now calmer in the Catskills.



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