Tuesday, February 24, 2015

There are not enough Pies in this World for the Faces of Our Higher Education Hypocrites

I have no idea why this thought entered my rankled mind, today, on the eve of National Adjunct Walkout Day, but we must work with what we're given, and a few candidates for the silent (film) treatment are immediately apparent. 

 However, I will not name these. This is because the Taylor Law expressly forbids New York State public employees—and many of us are among that crowd—from such things. In New York, and in other states one also confronts these problems, public employees are not to engage in any sort of strike or other “concerted stoppage” of work, and regular work, I suppose, would not get done during the time it would take to fling a pie into the face of your favorite local higher education hypocrite.
And it’s so hard to get into pie-throwing range of the national higher ed leaders, so it’s best we just drop this right now.
For the moment, then, I just hope everyone will have a very pleasant and productive NAWD, and I’ll be following events as best I am able, and participating in this or that one, at Fordham University, Westchester Community College (SUNY), and/or LaGuardia Community College (CUNY).
More later.

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.