Monday, January 20, 2014

The Future of Higher Education: Trash Bears and Pandas

One of my Harvard graduate school pals, long ago, wasn’t happy about the job market for new PhDs. In particular, he was disgusted by the prospect of taking an adjunct teaching job. "I'd rather eat out of a garbage can," he said.

Oh well, I've been eating out of garbage cans for about twenty years, and at about as many different schools, all of them run by presidents who, if you hang around them for more than five minutes, will give you a speech about how education is opening the doors of opportunity for all.

So, for the coming semester, I'll be eating out of garbage cans provided by Fordham University, Westchester Community (SUNY), and LaGuardia Community College (CUNY). The fare is of variable quality, but never more than what $3800 per course, with no benefits, can buy. I'm better off than many of my brothers and sisters in the "majority faculty," by the way, who make on average $2700 per course. I suppose there's a sort of cost-of-living bonus for foragers in the NYC metro area.

I've come to think of myself as a Trash Bear, one of those degraded bruins who rummage through the town dump, or through suburban trash cans. They seem to survive pretty well, and there are more of them now than ever. Though they were clearly not "naturally selected" to do so, they successfully adapted to new and unnatural conditions, and are now able to survive by foraging, often ranging over great distances, for meager resources.

 Now, can they organize?

 I hope so, because my strengthening conviction is that it’s going to be trash bears, not pandas, who save higher education. Pandas, of course, are full-time tenure track—but particularly tenured—faculty, exquisitely adapted to a specific environment in which they depend on huge quantities of rare bamboo and the occasional boiled egg and maybe a little glass of sherry. They are highly specialized mammals, and seriously cute.

 Their habitat is being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, their bamboo groves replaced by huge stainless steel buildings which house 1) The Student Counseling and Loan Center, 2) the Office for Loan Compliance, 3) the Dean's Office for Deanly Affairs, and 4) the Provost's Command Post.

 How can these pandas be saved? They do not wander far from the sweetness of their bamboo, and perhaps do not see the devastation that rolls toward them. But we, the wide-ranging trash bears, we know the lay of the land, and can plan accordingly. If Service Employees International Union (SEIU)  or similiar strategies in higher education organizing are successful, bringing solidarity to this highly dispersed foraging population, it will certainly change the terms of the "education reform" debate, focusing on the link between decent higher ed outcomes and decent faculty working conditions. That should be good for all the animals.

 Here is the key: part-time faculty can organize anywhere--under whatever state law pertains, and in public and private universities—but, among the pandas, only those in the public institutions can do so: a result of the Supreme Court's 1980 Yeshiva University decision, in which full-time faculty at private institutions were designated "management."

 Pandas, already declining in number, have been divided into two distinct and even smaller populations by Yeshiva, and this raises the specter of "minimal viability": at some point they won't be able to reproduce. But trash bears? No minimal viability there: they've been growing in number for forty years. And ask yourself, by the way, is any court likely to declare that part-timers are part of "management"?

In the past, it's true, trash bears have often foraged alone but, as their numbers have grown, and their travels have become more frequent and wide ranging--through private and public and even for-profit higher ed garbage cans--they are becoming more capable, and increasingly more willing, to share information and resources, and to plan ahead, with others of their kind.

 That's my view, and I think it's in sync with SEIU organizing campaigns for part-time adjunct faculty. In a recent NYT article, Adrianna Kezar, director of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, was quoted as saying that “The S.E.I.U. strategy has the momentum right now.” She also said “And we know that unionizing leads to pay increases and at least the beginnings of benefits.”

More on that SEIU "momentum": That would be Adjunct Actiona national contingent organizing campaign with a great track record beginning in the Washington D.C. metro area, with SEIU’s Local 500, which now represents part-time adjuncts at  George Washington Universitywhere I got my first degree—American University,  Georgetown University, and Montgomery College. More recently, Tufts University and Lesley College (Boston metro region) are active, as are University of LaVerne and Loyola Marymount, and Whittier College (Los Angeles metro). And now, we’re seeing Adjunct Action at work in New York State: stay tuned. 

Most higher ed faculty aren't pandas, and to pretend otherwise is a disservice to all faculty, and to students, and to the future of higher education itself. Unless we are able to understand our own condition, and to accept the truth of it, we'll hardly be able to fight for better things.

Now, what's with all my trash talking here?

So, two weeks ago, at the American Philological Association's annual meeting in Chicago, I participated in an excellent panel entitled “Contingent Labor in Classics: The New Faculty Majority?” My contribution was a version of the trash bear/panda theme I’m playing with here—I also tossed in some language about “monstrous hybrids” that I thought would be appealing to classicists, and which reflects some of the work that gets done in my own field, cultural anthropology. Mutant unnatural hybrid adjunct/contingent swarm organizes. You get the idea. 

While it was all received, as intended, amiably, there was some unease as well. Some people clearly found it divisive and, in fact, not just the "trash bear" idea, but the idea of a "new faculty majority" itself: don't these ideas divide us?

 I don’t think so. The labels, the metaphors, do not divide us. Divisions have been made. They are real. They have created real obstacles to communication and movement. We’ve been divided. But the divisions have created a few opportunities, I think, of which the most significant is the potential of part-time adjunct faculty labor to build solidarity across institutions and throughout "metro" and regional higher ed territory. Pandas can't do that yet, but, who knows? When the day comes, I hope all the bears will have a big picnic.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Fordham Students and Transparency in Catholic Higher Ed

Ok, kids, this is maybe one sort of transparency, but not what I had in mind. 

End of October it was, and I was saying look in coming weeks for an article in the Fordham student newspaper, The Ramfor a good student-written article on adjunct faculty.

Well, that wasn't The Ram, it seems, but The Paper, which is the other student newspaper at Fordham, and I did manage to figure that out, and to grab a few copies before they all disappeared.

You know, it was a very good article, by Matt Winters, and I hope the editors will post it up on their website, and soon, because, in truth, it was buried--and big time--in the middle of an issue which did not, to put it mildly, feature any outward sign at all that anything serious was contained within its exuberantly adolescent pages.

By which I mean to say: These darn kids! They're all beer bong and grasshopper now, and that's natural, sure, and there's nobody likes a sock hop more than me, you'd be surprised, but these young people, you know, it breaks your heart, they'll find themselves sadly in need of fiber and formic acid when the hard freeze comes, and I'm just trying to provide some guidance. You can see more here. 

So straighten up and fly right! 

I expect a corrected copy of that whole edition, in my box, by Monday morning, with Matt Winters' excellent article on adjuncts featured prominently on the front page, and NO images of attractive nearly naked young ladies suggestively brandishing machine guns. Just cut that stuff out right now and it won't be too soon. 


Now, in another sector of Catholic academe, please see An Open Letter on Transparency: Fears, Problems and Solutions, by John H. Sceski, Managing Editor of the Catholic Higher Education Advocate (CHEA).

I think perhaps you need to register to comment, something you really should do, especially if you work at a Catholic school. Here, though, are the last several paragraphs of John Sceski's letter and I join him in asking you to "please get involved."

To test the waters, over a year ago CHEA contacted the heads of faculty senates and congresses at what we believed were eight Catholic universities where faculty appeared to have more clout and success in working with their administrations. We asked these Catholic schools to provide the following information (This request still exists on the Stats & Legislation page of the CHEA site):
The average percent faculty salaries have increased over the past three years (if any).The percent of the school’s budget devoted to faculty compensation compared to capital expenditures.The current ratio of full-time faculty to contingent faculty (i.e. adjuncts, visiting assistant professors, graduate students, non-fulltime faculty of any type) and the percent of increase or decrease in the use of contingent faculty over the previous three years.The number of departments/programs added or deleted over the past three years.The average years of service required to achieve tenure.The average percent of increase or decrease of healthcare cost at your institution over the past three years.

Most schools did respond, but not with the requested information.  In fact, several individuals requested complete anonymity concerning any communication between themselves and CHEA. To be connected to providing the requested information and make it available for public consumption is just too professionally risky.  CHEA now realizes it was wrong to request that information from publicly recognized leaders.
But without transparency about the true state of things how can we effect change at our schools that will benefit our careers and Catholic higher education in general?  Two solutions seem to be available: 1) If every Catholic school provides the above information (and perhaps more directly damaging information about practices at its school), then the rules of the game change since administrations will now know that such practices are commonplace and the likelihood of being punished for participating in an industry wide practice will diminish, 2) create a safe haven where anonymous dumping of information cannot be traced back to its source, but the information is accessible for all to see.  CHEA will now make option number two a reality.  Personnel from any school will be able to post information on the CHEA “Information Dump” in a way that it cannot be traced to its source.  We cannot claim credit for this idea. In February 201 3, CHEA linked to a story about Gustavus Adolphus College (see here) where an information dump was created that empowered their faculty to effect real change at the college.
No doubt downsides remain. Schools that choose to provide information when other schools do not provide such information run the risks of having such information negatively affect: hiring, funding opportunities for research, potential donors, accrediting agencies and the like.  As well, non-sourced and untraceable information invites reporting abuses.  Indeed, scholarly activity eschews not citing one’s sources, so this solution seems at odds with established academic practice.  However, our quest for a better workplace is not solely an academic matter. It seems reasonable to trust in the intentions of those individuals who dump information and the critical thinking skills of the people who choose to access this information. 
Finally, CHEA is requesting a dialogue with Catholic academe about the value of such an information dump before it is launched.  Criticisms of what is written above and new ideas are welcomed.  Please get involved.
John H. Sceski, Ph.D.
Managing Editor