COCAL IV Papers and Commentary

Keynote Address for COCAL IV
San Josť City College
San Josť, California
13 January 2001
Jane Buck

I am delighted to be here. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this exciting conference.

I started teaching in the golden age when faculty were professors, not information providers. Those whom we taught were, or pretended to be, students, not consumers or customers. Students filled out course evaluations that were intended merely to give us valuable feedback. The notion that the opinions of adolescent undergraduates could substantially affect promotion, retention, and tenure decisions was not even broached, let alone taken seriously.

Deans were former faculty members, not bean counters or retired colonels. They served as the conduit between the faculty and administration, not as managers and overseers. The top administrator was called a president, not a CEO. The person in charge of collecting tuition and paying the bills was a bursar or treasurer, not a CFO. Our collective identity was that of a college, a self-governing assembly of scholars. We were neither a family nor a profit-seeking corporation. When university presidents now refer to the academy as a family, they appear to be using the Roman model in which the paterfamilias held the power of life and death over other members of his family.

Above all, the university's mission and identity were firmly grounded in the notion, subscribed to by faculty and administration alike, that, in the words of the AAUP's "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure," "Institutions are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole."

Adjunct faculty occupied a small, but valuable niche, providing expertise in arcane or highly specialized areas not provided by the regular, full-time faculty. They were the local lawyer who taught one course per semester in real estate law to business majors, the psychiatrist who taught a graduate seminar in Jungian analysis, and the retired French professor who wanted to keep her hand in by offering a literature course that no one else in the department was interested in teaching, but that was popular with senior language majors. They did not have benefits or office space, because they did not need them.

Part-timers were those who, by choice, were unable or unwilling to take on full-time academic responsibilities. They were tenured or tenure-eligible faculty with reduced course loads, office hours, and committee assignments. They received benefits, were provided office space and secretarial support, and were indistinguishable in almost all respects from their full-time peers. They were faculty spouses-almost always wives-with young children, or graduate students working on their dissertations who had exhausted their university's financial support. Anyone with appropriate academic credentials, including ABDs, had a choice of full-time, tenure-track jobs. One was limited only by personal inclination with respect to geography and the characteristics of the institution. Faculty members who performed their duties faithfully and competently could expect to obtain tenure after a reasonable probationary period. It was a seller's market.

I exaggerate a little, of course. There were tyrannical presidents, limited access for women and minorities, and students who spent most of their time for four or more years honing their party skills. But the picture I've painted represents, if not objective reality, the stated ideal shared by all components of the academy. Our purpose was clear-to provide our students with an education that would teach them to think, to participate fruitfully in the larger society, and provide a measure of personal satisfaction. Even those students whose primary purpose in attending college was to obtain marketable professional skills expected and were required to take courses in a core curriculum that included at least some exposure to the arts, the humanities, and the social and natural sciences. (What should be included in a core curriculum or, indeed, whether there should be a core curriculum, is a topic that is too complex to explore in this context.)

The college and university represented the best in society, not only intellectually, but morally, and the professorate was held in high esteem. Young scholars entered the profession for a variety of reasons that included a fiercely held devotion to learning, to the betterment of society, and to the socialization of the younger generation. They could expect an adequate, but not lavish, standard of living, usually at a much lower level than they would have received in the corporate world. In return, they would enjoy almost complete freedom in determining the shape of their professional lives. Within the bounds of scheduled class times and office hours, they were free to work when and how they pleased. Part of the unwritten understanding was that, in addition to guaranteeing academic freedom, tenure was a property right that substituted, in part, for low salaries.

Even in corporate America, workers could expect the equivalent of tenure after a short probationary period. There was an expectation that, barring gross incompetence or malfeasance, jobs were secure. Employers owed their workers loyalty, and workers reciprocated in a mutually advantageous exchange.

Starting in the mid-seventies, the terms of the compact shifted. Corporations aggressively seeking greater and greater profits began to eliminate major portions of their workforce. Functions that had been performed by employees were turned over to independent contractors and temporary agencies. Corporate executives eventually found their way to university governing boards. They convinced academic administrators that this new, unproven, and inhumane organizational model was the wave of the future, not only for profit-seeking companies, but for the academy as well. Cafeteria workers and bookstore clerks employed by the university were fired and their functions farmed out to national chains that promised greater efficiency at lower cost and, of course, great profit to themselves.

The problem with faculty, of course, was that too many of them had tenure and could not easily be eliminated. Restructuring the curriculum by eliminating or combining programs and departments facilitated the removal of some academic personnel, but the pesky problem of tenure persisted. In the eighties, attacks on tenure escalated in number and volume. Unfortunately for the bean counters and fortunately for the viability of the profession, we were able to withstand the worst of the direct assault.

The corporate tacticians, thwarted in their attempt to destroy the collegial model that has made the American system of higher education the envy of the world, shifted gears. If they could not eliminate tenure by a frontal attack, they would vitiate it by imposing standards for promotion and tenure so exigent that few could meet them and by replacing tenure-eligible positions with contingent faculty. In 1970 part-time faculty comprised only 22% of the professorate. In 1995 the figure had risen to 41%. It is now 46%.

The results of a recent study, released last month by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, document the deplorable truth about the extent of the problem both in terms of the overuse of contingent academic labor and the financial exploitation of part-time faculty and graduate students. The data regarding the percentage of courses taught are especially revealing and provide much more useful information than data on the number of part-time and adjunct faculty. The survey of 10 social science and humanities disciplines reveals that graduate students and part-time faculty teach more than half of the courses offered, with the exception of history and art history.

According to data released by the Modern Language Association, full-time, tenured or tenure-track professors teach only 28% of the foreign language courses at doctoral institutions and 26% at institutions granting associate degrees. In other words, just over a quarter of all foreign language courses are taught by full-time tenured or tenurable faculty. As Cary Nelson, AAUP Second Vice President and M.L.A. activist, points out in the Chronicle article, "...you can go to Yale and basically get the same instruction you'd get at Long Island Community College because higher education is relying on the same labor pool." Exploitation of contingent academic labor is an equal-opportunity phenomenon.

The president of Temple University was quoted in the same Chronicle article as saying that the report neglected to address the fundamental issue of the effect on students of the use of part-time faculty. Although the survey did not specifically speak to concerns about the impact on undergraduate education, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence from which we can draw reasonable inferences.

It is not uncommon, as we all know, for contingent faculty to teach as many as eight courses per semester at several institutions in order to survive financially. They typically do not keep office hours or serve on committees. They are often evaluated only by their students, because their numbers preclude more thorough peer review. Vulnerable to arbitrary hiring and firing decisions that are often made on the basis of last-minute enrollment figures, the temptation to pander to their "customers" is, although indefensible, understandable. In the January 1 issue of Time magazine, Ben Marcus, an assistant professor teaching creative writing at Columbia, admits to flattering his students in order to guarantee favorable evaluations. In his words, "Submitting students to the rigors of learning seemed only to incur the wrath of many of them, which entered the record as my teacherly shortcoming....The business model has taught me that the customer is always right. But maybe a few more dissatisfied customers would mean a better learning experience."

The full-time faculty has been lulled into thinking that the use of contingent faculty lightens their workload, when, in fact, it almost certainly has the opposite effect. When significant numbers of courses are taught by part-timers who typically do not do academic advising or committee work, the slack must be taken up by the full-time faculty.

At the beginning of my remarks, I quoted the AAUP's "Statement of Principles" to the effect that institutions exist for the common good. What immediately follows that quotation is the following: "The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free expression." It has always been AAUP's position, in the further words of the "Statement," that "Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligation to its students and to society." When almost half the members of the professorate are denied the opportunity to seek tenure, and 25% of that group earn less than $2000 per course, I would argue that we have lost our moral center and that our enterprise is in mortal danger.

The struggle for professional and financial equity must be joined by the ranks of the tenured faculty, who can no longer pretend not to notice the plight of our contingent colleagues. If higher education is to survive the bean counters and demagogues, tenured faculty must abandon the relative security of writing only for our colleagues. We must inform the public, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of our work, by writing opinion pieces for our local newspapers and mainstream national journals. We must develop effective ways to reach our lawmakers. The halls of our state legislatures must become as familiar to us as our own campuses. The public is best served when we continue to fight for academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance. We must continue to oppose efforts to turn education into merely the delivery of information, presidents and deans into CEOs and managers, faculty into marginalized wage slaves, and students into consumers and cash cows. We must die at our desks unless we have a written guarantee that we will be replaced with tenured or tenure-eligible full-time faculty.

The price of tenure is a continuing and life-long moral obligation to exercise academic freedom by speaking out against assaults on our principles. We are not always right when we speak out, but we are always wrong when we do not.


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