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Adjunct and Tenured Faculty Must Unite to Resist Pandemic Opportunism on Campus

Administrators are still using COVID to justify the neoliberal gutting of higher education. Let’s resist together.

Members of New York University's adjunct faculty union march near Union Square on April 14, 2022, in New York City.

Part of the Series

When COVID-19 descended upon the United States, college and university administrators used the disruption caused by the pandemic to slash the jobs of adjunct faculty. Now, two years into the pandemic, these same administrators are continuing to use the conditions of the pandemic to rapidly accelerate the same neoliberal transformations they had been pushing for pre-pandemic, such as replacing “expensive” tenure-line faculty with a cheaper and more exploitable adjunct workforce.

My employer, Portland State University (PSU), is just one of many schools that has used the excuse of the pandemic to place entire programs (and their tenure-line faculty) on the chopping block, favoring a move toward cheaper and more exploitable adjunct laborers.

As we face these threats, it has become clear that adjuncts and tenured faculty alike will only be able to defend our jobs and institutions from this continued onslaught from neoliberal university administrators if we organize ourselves in one union wherever possible and, where not possible, act as one union even if we are forced formally to speak in different voices.

The Adjunctification of Higher Education

At my college graduation ceremony back in 1991, a professor pulled me aside to share some good news: a report had predicted that there would be five jobs for every four candidates available by the time I finished graduate school. It wasn’t until 1999, when I in fact was finishing a Ph.D., that I realized that the profoundly misguided prediction shared with me at my undergraduate graduation must have been based on a now-infamous study of academic job markets titled Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences by former president of Princeton University William G. Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa.

Projecting that a wave of retirements would result in an abundance of open tenure lines (they didn’t), Bowen and Sosa’s study kept alive a high degree of denial and mystification about the deprofessionalization of academic labor that had been underway since the 1970s. My generation was but another casualty of “casualization,” the conversion of stable jobs into part-time, at-will work.

I, however, got a good job so I survived the last two decades as tenure-eligible positions continued to evaporate, and contingent positions increased to make up 75 percent of the faculty workforce. I always understood, though, that my good fortune was a matter of luck not merit, and I never forgot the lesson we were all being taught. Faculty can be divided and played by rank (those with job security and those without), and we are all pawns in the corporate university.

Sure enough, my own moment has arrived with what I’m calling “Pandemic Opportunism 2.0”: my department is one of 18 at the university that the provost identified for “curricular revision, program reduction, or program elimination.”

To borrow words from scholars Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt and Bertin M. Louis, Jr. — the curators of Truthout’s special series on “Challenging the Corporate University” — the “project of transforming higher education into an industry run on contingent faculty (insecure faculty positions like postdocs, teaching assistants, adjuncts and lecturers with little job security) and student debt, rather than a public good funded by taxes” is in many places now in its final stages.

Pandemic Opportunism 1.0 and 2.0

The American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) special report entitled “COVID-19 and Academic Governance,” issued in May 2021, details Pandemic Opportunism 1.0. The report explains how administrators capitalized on COVID-19 by following the “disaster capitalism” rulebook:

This phenomenon, generally known as ‘disaster capitalism,’ a term coined by Naomi Klein, was exemplified in early December 2020 by James White, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who, after announcing a long-term plan to replace tenured faculty members with non-tenure-track faculty members, said, ‘Never waste a good pandemic.’ Even though Dean White apologized the following week, calling his remark ‘flippant and insensitive,’ to many faculty members the gaffe seemed to exemplify what in political circles is called saying the quiet part out loud. In this respect, as in so many others, COVID-19 served as an accelerant, turning the gradual erosion of shared governance on some campuses into a landslide.

The AAUP investigation found that university presidents at eight colleges and universities invoked “force majeure” to discontinue programs and lay off faculty without due process and boards of trustees denying shared governance — and ignoring the votes of no confidence protesting that denial — to ram through drastic cuts without faculty input.

The AAUP report shows that Pandemic Opportunism 1.0 laid waste to tenured faculty and adjunct faculty alike, but it is also clear that adjunct faculty have been the first and easiest victims across the country. After all, little work is involved in not rehiring someone you never promised to rehire, even if that person has served you and your students for decades.

Now the more calculated Pandemic Opportunism 2.0 is upon us, both at some of the institutions discussed in the report and at others. In this phase, administrations target “expensive” tenure-line faculty through something other than dictatorial fiat. This involves ratcheting up methods like retirement incentives to facilitate “the decades-long transition from a majority tenured to a majority nontenured faculty,” to borrow a phrase from the report. Retirements are then “non-replacements.” Community college dean Matt Reed explains:

Nonreplacements don’t trigger the same kind of scrutiny, or pushback, as layoffs. For one thing, nobody loses their job. It’s possible to argue that someone is harmed — presumably, the person who otherwise would have been hired — but most of the time, nobody knows who that is. No one person has the standing to sue. There’s a cumulative, generational cost, but that doesn’t trigger the same kind of conflagration as firing an incumbent.

Of course, “nonreplacement” is obfuscating because the retiring salaried faculty member is typically replaced — just by poorly paid adjunct instructors without access to health care or job security. And the many remaining duties — service, governance, advising — of the original position are heaped onto fewer and fewer full-time shoulders.

Retirement incentives were all the rage after the 2008 recession, and they are back in full force, but more aggressive means of cutting salaried positions are also on the table. Take the attempt by Point Park University to eliminate the positions of 17 faculty members but not their courses, which would continue as adjunct sections. The union took the administration all the way to arbitration where the arbitrator sided with the faculty union. American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2121, which represents the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) faculty, fought a similar attempt to replace full-time faculty workers with part-time work. In an open letter to their trustees in April 2021, they wrote that AFT 2121 is “particularly alarmed to learn that administration also plans to convert much of City College’s stable, full-time faculty into contingent, part-time workers.” If CCSF succeeds, they added:

Entire departments will be left with no full-time faculty. Our ability to write or update curriculum as required by accreditation standards, work with community agencies, bring in students, or do outreach needed to ensure San Francisco’s black and brown students know about the opportunities City College provides will be severely diminished. Students will lose access to office hours and faculty support. The structure that keeps our college going as an intellectual and community resource will be undermined.

The form Pandemic Opportunism 2.0 has taken at Portland State University is a case in point. Though our union negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the administration at the start of the pandemic which stipulated that no new initiatives be undertaken during the crisis, the administration nonetheless did just that — forging ahead with a set of efforts that led to the identification of 18 programs for curricular reform, reduction or elimination. This is what is being called “ReImagine PSU.”

Once I digested the fact that my own department was on the chopping block, I was struck by how, with few exceptions, these were programs with reputations on campus for refusing to generate tuition dollars through exploitative labor practices. When I asked how departments had been identified, my alarm was apparently validated. I was told that the first set of calculations had been made simply by dividing the total number of student credit hours generated (which translates to student tuition dollars) by the average total term full-time equivalent cost of all faculty.

This is some breathtakingly crude math that guarantees that departments which deliver student credit hours as cheaply as possible look like paragons while those that maintain a commitment to jobs providing a decent living that allows instructors to dedicate themselves to the university and its students are the miscreants. By administration’s logic, in other words, the departments that had been identified as problematically expensive were just as likely to be problematic because their students were taught predominantly by full-time faculty with health care benefits as they were because of low enrollment or poor management. This neoliberal exercise in “reimagining” the university ought to decisively prove that tenure-line faculty’s fate is inextricably bound up with that of adjuncts.

Adjunct faculty have long warned that corporatization was coming for their tenured counterparts, too. Pandemic Opportunism 2.0 must spell the long overdue death of tenured faculty’s inability to grasp this basic fact.

We Need Only One Union

We are all precariat now and it would behoove us to act like it by organizing ourselves in one union. Back in 2014, Jamie Owen Daniel wrote:

The administration is the only constituency that benefits when we faculty see each other in terms of these increasingly arbitrary divisions, instead of as faculty, pure and simple. Tenured and tenure-track faculty who still see their non-tenure-track colleagues as “supplements” to, rather than part of, their departments, or who view these colleagues as academic service labor, doing the faculty’s work but not included as faculty, do so at their own peril.

At Portland State, tenure-track and full-time non-tenure-track faculty are in one union, PSU-AAUP, but adjunct faculty are in a separate one, PSUFA. When the administration tries to implement program elimination, will the interests of these two unions be aligned? Full-time faculty may need them to be, but why should adjunct faculty care? Just to underscore the point, let me give you the numbers: In Fall 2021, PSU-AAUP represented 843 tenure-line and full-time non-tenure-line instructional and research faculty while PSUFA represented 785 adjunct faculty, as noted in an email that I received from my university.

This is not the case at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where interests have been aligned since 2013 when faculty of all ranks formed United Academics. Perhaps not coincidentally, the raw numbers there are strikingly different from those at Portland State. United Academics represents roughly 1,566 tenure-line and full-time non-tenure-line faculty and 233 “pro tem” faculty (equivalent to PSU’s “part-time” or adjunct faculty).

United Academics negotiated bargaining contracts that required adjunct faculty be promoted into career positions after three years or not be rehired. While the data is not easy to chart over time, the efforts made by the University of Oregon union to limit adjunct exploitation are surely one major reason why there are significantly more “good” than “bad” jobs there. The outcome sought by the pandemic opportunists among administrators — fewer decently paid secure positions and more badly paid, insecure ones — will be very hard to achieve in the unionized environment created by United Academics at the University of Oregon.

Another place to look for inspiration and a path forward is Rutgers AAUP-AFT. Rutgers AAUP-AFT leaders understood that the pandemic offered not just administrators but also unions an opportunity — to educate faculty of all ranks and categories that bargaining for the common good was how to transform the neoliberal university into something more democratic, just and sustainable. In spring 2021, AAUP-AFT union leaders Todd Wolfson and Donna Murch wrote in “Reclaiming Paul Robeson in the Time of COVID-19”:

The unprecedented pain and disruption caused by COVID-19 has helped create a united front of unions that would have been unimaginable before the pandemic. Workers across the sector are advocating for a compassionate and commonsense response to the pandemic that insists on holding the line on layoffs until the end of the fiscal year 2022; providing graduate student workers — who are essential to the teaching and research mission of the university — funding to make up for the time lost toward their degrees; rehiring part-time lecturers who lost their jobs; and providing free COVID-19 testing at sites on all three Rutgers campuses.

The solidarity built over these last few years is manifesting itself in precisely the kind of increased unionization that needs to happen everywhere unions are possible. On May 18, 2022, the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union delivered the signatures necessary to demand that their union be allowed to merge with the full-time faculty unions.

At Rutgers, if these academic laborers are successful in bringing into being a single union, it will be much harder for administrators to pit faculty against each other. At Portland State, where whole programs (and their tenure-line faculty) are being set up for elimination, but adjunct sections are not, I can only hope that the adjunct union will work with the tenure-line and full-time non-tenure-line union to fight the neoliberal measures proposed by our Provost. But if the adjunct membership tells us full-timers to take a walk when we come hat in hand, who could blame them?

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