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The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated January 26, 2001
Part-Time Faculty Members Try to Organize Nationally
Many think the time is ripe to improve their pay and working conditions
By COURTNEY LEATHERMAN
San Jose, Calif.
After seven years of shuttling among five campuses, teaching 16 courses a
year as a part-timer in the Massachusetts community-college system, Michael
Dubson felt defeated by his profession. In an act of defiance, he placed an
ad in Poets & Writers magazine, calling for "Adjunct Horror Stories." He
rented a P.O. box, and the responses poured in.
Now, more than three years later, Mr. Dubson has edited the collection of
academic nightmares for a book, Ghosts in the Classroom: Stories of College
Adjunct Faculty -- and the Price We All Pay, which he is publishing this
month through a company he started out of his home, Camel's Back Books. He
calls the book "an act of rebellion, revenge, activism, and healing."
It is also a rallying cry. And rallying part-timers is what attracted Mr.
Dubson to a conference on adjunct faculty members, at San Jose City College
For three days, more than 160 academics here packed into sessions on
organizing, coalition building, and collective bargaining at a conference
aimed at mobilizing part-timers in the United States and Canada. This was
the fourth conference of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor -- a
loose group of part-timers, graduate students, and full-timers who are off
the tenure track. Many here believe the conference marked a turning point in
the movement to organize part-timers.
"It seems we're on the verge of a national movement, and we need one," said
Cary Nelson, a full-time humanities professor at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign and a regular spokesman for part-time faculty members.
But this movement, he stressed, "is not just to better the working
conditions of certain individuals. This is a movement to save higher
To that end, the coalition, known by its acronym, COCAL, pledged to hold a
National Equity Week in the fall. The group aims to call attention to the
plight of part-timers and non-tenure-track professors through teach-ins,
petitions, protests, and the like.
The California Part-Time Faculty Association -- a group of activist
part-timers in the state's community colleges -- organized this month's
conference. Meeting on the West Coast for the first time, the coalition drew
faculty members from 20 states and Canada and attracted 45 sponsors,
including the three big national academic unions -- the American Association
of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, and the
National Education Association. Other backers included learned societies and
More than 40 percent of the professoriate works part time, according to a
1997 study by the U.S. Education Department, the latest data available. At
community colleges, the proportion is much higher -- 65 percent, according
to the study. Meanwhile, other studies have found that the proportion of
full-timers working on contract, and off the tenure track, has also risen
With those statistics, and with many of those people wanting full-time jobs,
it's no wonder that at most adjunct gatherings people talk a lot about
exploitation, humiliation, and shame.
But for Vicky Smallman, a Ph.D. candidate in English at McMaster University,
in Hamilton, Ontario, and an organizer for the Canadian Association of
University Teachers, this conference had a "totally different vibe" -- and
she's attended all of the other COCAL meetings. "At the previous
conferences, people were bemoaning the situation and coming together for
support," said Ms. Smallman, a member of the Modern Language Association's
Graduate Student Caucus. "At this one, there's a real sense that a movement
is building, and people seem more positive that by working together they can
The support of full-time professors for their cause has helped foster that
sense of movement. Along with Mr. Nelson of Illinois, other full-timers made
their way to San Jose. Joe Nardoni teaches English full time at Middlesex
Community College, in Lowell, Mass. He was here because of a pact he'd made
with God in 1995. For three years, Mr. Nardoni had worked part time in
California while he was on the job market, sending out 40 to 50 job
applications a year and getting nary an interview. So "I made a promise to
God that if I got a full-time job, I would continue to work for part-time
issues." He ended up with a job at Middlesex, and that's why he was at the
The first meeting of COCAL was a gathering of part-timers and graduate
students piggybacking onto the M.L.A.'s annual meeting in 1996 in
Washington. The coalition met again in 1998 in New York, but COCAL really
took off in 1999, when a group of part-timers in the Boston area held that
year's conference and formed a Boston chapter of COCAL.
Gary Zabel, a part-timer in philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at
Boston and a leader of the Boston chapter, came here to tell how he's
mobilized adjuncts on the East Coast.
In 1998, after part-timers at UMass-Boston pushed their union to negotiate
for higher pay -- a $4,000-per-course minimum -- and health benefits for
part-timers, Mr. Zabel and others decided to move beyond that campus and
"organize municipally." "Higher education is the industry that dominates the
city," he explains, noting that 58 colleges and universities lie within a
10-mile radius of Boston. "We thought, If we can organize the university, we
can turn the city on its ear."
So with the help of the A.A.U.P. and activists on a dozen campuses, Mr.
Zabel says the Boston COCAL chapter has "raised the profile of adjunct
issues" -- backing union drives and pushing for equity for university
workers across the board.
Mr. Zabel doesn't count on goodwill to win better working conditions for
part-timers. "People don't get swayed by moral pressure," he says. "Tenured
faculty respond to power."
Mr. Zabel has always favored grassroots action over legislative pressure.
But he says he's willing to take some tips from the California part-timers
who have organized to lobby.
In fact, days before the conference started, part-timers here celebrated a
big victory when Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, issued his budget request for
the next fiscal year. Included in the proposal was $62-million to bring the
salaries of part-timers at community colleges closer to those of their
full-time colleagues. Meanwhile, a statewide study of the compensation and
working conditions of community-college adjuncts, which Governor Davis
authorized last year, is expected to be issued this month.
Scott Wildman, a former Democratic assemblyman, credited the lobbying of the
California Part-Time Faculty Association with winning the budget request and
the study. "We shamed the governor into submission," he said.
Despite the activity on both coasts, the movement to organize part-timers
hasn't made its way south, where unions don't have much clout. "In Texas,
I'm not allowed to utter the word 'union,'" said Emilio Bruna, a part-time
economics professor at El Paso Community College. "I can't have collective
bargaining; I can only teach it in my course." Even so, Mr. Bruna last year
founded the Texas Part-Time Faculty Association, which has attracted about
70 members so far, he said. He modeled his group on the one in California,
but still urged conference participants here to come to El Paso, where
part-timers really need help. And he pressed others to get the word out
about the working conditions of part-timers.
At the start of the conference, Mr. Bruna snapped up a copy of a 1998 video
documentary, Degrees of Shame, which likens the lives of adjunct faculty
members to those of migrant farm workers. Mr. Bruna had just watched the
film and wanted to take it home to share with colleagues. And he pressed the
filmmaker, Barbara Wolf, who was in attendance, to send it to television
shows, like 48 Hours and 60 Minutes. Perhaps Oprah would be interested, he
offered later. "I heard she was teaching part time somewhere."
Teaching is a second career for Mr. Bruna. So while he earns only about
$30,000 a year from teaching seven courses on three campuses each semester,
he sounds more worried about his colleagues and his two sons, who are
pursuing Ph.D.'s, than he is about himself.
But Degrees of Shame moved him. "I got tears in my eyes when I saw the
film," he said. "I saw me and all my friends."
Still, the conference had moments of levity, like the guitar/vocal duo who
played a mocking ditty called "I've Taught Everywhere." Rattling off a
string of community colleges in California, the singer intoned, "I've taught
everywhere, with energy and care." And every now and then, someone dressed
as the "Freeway Flier" bird would swoop in, decked out in a plastic beak, a
cap and gown, and a briefcase overflowing with papers and labeled "My
The conference energized Mary Ellen Goodwin. She's a leader in the
California Part-Time Faculty Association and the main organizer of the
meeting. Ms. Goodwin has taught in the two-year-college system for seven
years. After a period of teaching eight courses a year in four districts --
"I was a wreck," she says -- she now limits herself to teaching at two
colleges, including San Jose City College. Even so, Ms. Goodwin became
active in the faculty association only last year, because she was on the
verge of leaving teaching. "A friend said, Before you leave, you should try
to change it."
Mr. Dubson, the author of Ghosts in the Classroom, is also on the verge of
quitting the profession. His dream had been to teach English composition
full time in the Massachusetts community-college system. Now, after 10 years
as a part-timer, he realizes that a full-time job is probably out of his
reach: "I'm about out of gas. I'm to the point where I have to stop."
So he's all for change. It just may not come fast enough for him.
Section: The Faculty
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