Late last night, disabled faculty veteran Gerald Davey posted to the adjunct faculty discussion list (join) to explain that he’d been fired, less than a year after blowing the whistle on San Antonio College administration’s scheme to defraud contingent faculty by forcing them to sign waivers relinquishing pay and eligibility they had earned under state law.
The adjunct representative to his faculty senate, not only did Davey refuse to sign, he contacted AAUP and the media, eventually forcing the administration to admit breaking the law. Essentially standing alone, he was eventually featured in a prizewinning series of articles.
“Those who predicted retaliation in a term or a year were correct,” Davey wrote. “Having traditionally taught 6-11 hours per term, I was reduced to 3 hours in the Spring term with the hiring of a new, much less qualified adjunct.
“For the Fall, my chair wrote me two days before the start of classes that I wasn’t placeable” Davey continued, claiming that the chair trumped up a refusal to teach a class offering, a pretext he dismisses as “entirely made up and of course completely untrue… a wholesale lie.”
Largely subsisting on disability pay from a previous academic position, Davey is one of the few members of his department to hold the Ph.D. and publish in his field, has won multiple awards for excellence in teaching, and in 2006 was featured as one of the “20 Best Teachers” in the district.
A “New Low” in Shared Governance
The AAUP (join) has previously collected documents pertaining to his case, calling it a “new low in the exploitation of adjunct faculty.” I’ve previously interviewed Cary Nelson on the question of academic freedom for faculty serving contingently.
“It’s broadly recognized, certainly by contingent faculty themselves, that they really don’t possess academic freedom,” Nelson says, at least not “in the way that the American academy has assumed for basically half a century that everyone who teaches does.”
In the first segment of our interview, the 49th president of the AAUP suggests that the shift to a majority contingent faculty is not only an economic phenomenon.
It’s an intellectual sea change as well–for the faculty and for their students.
Instead of intellectual freedom, many of the majority contingent faculty can be fired for contradicting the administration, can’t choose course texts or create syllabi, and are afraid to challenge students to think and learn, or raise controversial issues.
“It’s a question of teaching in a climate of fear, versus teaching in a climate of freedom and honest interchange with your students,” Nelson warns. “The American academy has shifted from a place where there is a great deal of reinforcement for the intellectual independence of its faculty, to a place where there is very little.”
The near-absence of academic freedom for the contingent majority is steadily becoming the reality for the tiny fraction of faculty who actually enjoy tenure, as AAUP counsel Rachel Levinson, Michael Berube and I warn in High Noon for Academic Freedom and The Children of Garcetti. The notion of shared governance is increasingly a figleaf for total managerial control.
Community Colleges Yes, Perma-Temping No
The recent boosterism for the mission of community colleges is welcome.
That enthusiasm needs to be tempered, however, by a clear-eyed look at the way those institutions hire and promote their faculty. Hard research demonstrates clear connections between over-reliance on adjunct faculty and student nonpersistence, but sadly it appears to be adjunctification that Obama and Duncan like about community colleges. And as the Davey case and many others suggest, instances of administrative thuggery are sharply on the rise.
As a recent NYT op-ed, Quenching A Thirst for Learning, points out, however, even when the community colleges aren’t being run by crooks and thugs, or using students as indentured labor, and are being staffed by those with the most earnest philanthropic motivations (“I’ll sacrifice to teach these people–they need me!”), the adjunct system fails:
“I’m an adjunct professor, one of hundreds of thousands in an overeducated, unmoored, disposable work force staffing a majority of the nation’s colleges and universities. At the community college where I work, I have no permanent desk or office, no telephone, no benefits and, to many, no name….. Once the semester is over, I can’t promise that I’ll see [my students] again because I never know if I’ll be rehired. When they try to enroll in my coming classes, the registrar can’t even locate me in the computer system.”
Even while describing the students who melt away from her classes, adjunct Katherine Jamieson seems like a committed, successful teacher who understands that she teaches as a philanthropist:
“When I calculate the time and money spent traveling, grading, answering e-mail, teaching and planning, my wages come to about $9 an hour. Faced with this situation at any other job, I’d leave with no regrets. But these conditions are outweighed by the simple fact that I’m needed. When I walk into my classroom and look into 20 pairs of eyes ready and waiting to learn, I can’t turn away. [I] guess that this is why I keep coming back, too: I like to help people…”
Despite the talent and dedication brought to the job by Jamieson (who, if she’s typical, will leave in a few years) all of the evidence strongly suggests that institutionalized teaching as deprofessionalized philanthropy fails: it fails K-12; it fails community colleges; it fails at research institutions and at small liberal arts colleges. It fails by standard metrics, such as persistence, and it fails the major tests of social justice.
If we really want to invest in community colleges, we need to invest in faculty, secure their participation in governance and curriculum, pay them well enough to allow demographic groups without disproportionate wealth to envision joining the faculty, and put these faculty through the intensive peer scrutiny of the tenure system.
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