Process Blog Home

A New Deal for Contingent Historians? The Current State of Contingent Faculty Labor Organizing


Donald W. Rogers is adjunct lecturer in history at Central Connecticut State University and Housatonic Community College, and chair of the OAH Committee on Part-Time, Adjunct and Contingent Employment. He received his MA and Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has recently authored Making Capitalism Safe: Work Safety and Health Regulation in America, 1880 to 1940 (Illinois 2009).

Over the next month, Process will feature several pieces on labor in academia. Check back for more!

The stunning modern growth of adjunct part-time and temporary full-time college and university instructors has certainly produced a groundswell of protest. Yet, while some of us contingent historians will prize the job improvements that have come out of that agitation, we might also worry that it has done little more than take the rougher edges off of a bad system. Can we do better?

Our contemporary contingent faculty workforce, historians included, is reminiscent of America’s late-nineteenth-century industrial labor force. During that earlier time, our nation’s economy of small-scale skilled producers gave way to a mass of semi-skilled or unskilled railroad workers and factory laborers. Divided as they were by industry, region, ethnicity, race, gender, and skill-level, these new industrial workers were hard to organize in an era of industrial consolidation and government favoritism toward business. They struggled unsuccessfully though the upheavals of the late 1800s, not to mention the rise and fall of the Knights of Labor, an organization that tried to unite all “toilers” across skilled, gendered, and racial lines to improve employment conditions.

We contingent historians have much in common with those late-nineteenth-century workers. We are part of the vast restructuring of an industry (education) that is replacing secure skilled (tenured) faculty members with underpaid lower-skilled (non-tenured) temporary instructors. Our proportion within the labor force of higher education has ballooned from about 25 percent of all faculty members in the 1960s to around 75 percent today. We are employed on a short-term, sometimes spur-of-the-moment, course-by-course basis at meager stipends, ranging from perhaps $2,000 to $5,000 per course. Many of us commute between multiple teaching jobs, with spotty provision for office space, employment benefits, and professional development. By some reports, a quarter of us live below the poverty line. And again much like late-nineteenth-century workers, we are a diverse lot that is hard to mobilize.

The first alarm over these changes, consequently, emanated not from our own ranks, but out of professional societies like the Modern Language Association (MLA), American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and our own Organization of American Historians (OAH). At first concerned with stopping the erosion of tenure-track ranks through the hiring of contingent faculty, these groups soon turned attention to the miserable fate of contingent instructors themselves. The societies formed committees like OAH’s very active Committee on Part-Time Adjunct and Contingent Employment and issued guidelines for fair contingent faculty employment, including joint AHA-OAH standards in 2003, updated by the OAH in 2011.

By 1997, professional societies created the Coalition on the Academic Workforce to study and make recommendations on the problem, leading to one of the first statistical analyses of part-time faculty, A Portrait of Part-time Faculty (2012). Meantime, donors sponsored the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California in 2012 to study the causes and educational impact of the emerging contingent faculty system, while Colorado State University established a similar Center for the Study of Academic Labor in 2014.

Perhaps in the fashion of middle-class Progressive reformers who researched industrial workers a century ago, these efforts by professional societies and academic institutions put faith in investigation and education to inspire reform of the contingent academic labor system in absence of federal involvement. The Department of Education stopped collecting data on faculty employment conditions in 2003. And with Republicans in charge during most of the early-2000s, only a Democratic minority report, “The Just-in-Time Professor” emerged out of Congress to address the issue. The publicity, standards, and research generated by professional societies and universities have identified important thresholds for fair employment, but how much improvement in adjuncts’ day-to-day jobs that they have produced remains unclear.

Direct advocacy by contingent instructors and tenure-track supporters has thus picked up rapidly in recent years. In 1996, a small group of adjunct activists in the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) began holding annual conferences of part-time organizers from Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Meantime, the AAUP has increased its activities to improve contingent faculty employment through its local chapters. In 2009, activists formed the New Faculty Majority (NFM), which has become the foremost national lobby group to educate the public, policy makers, and Congress about the reforms needed to improve faculty working conditions. Overall, COCAL, AAUP and NFM have fought energetically—even heroically—on contingent faculty members’ behalf, but again their impact on institutional practices and day-to-day adjunct conditions are hard to measure.

The most impressive gains for contingent faculty members have come from local campaigns waged on a campus-by-campus basis. Often affiliated with organized labor, especially the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the United Steelworkers of America, local organizers have secured collective bargaining agreements that have substantially improved part-time and contingent faculty employment conditions. The gold standard for these contracts has been set by faculty associations in Canadian institutions like Concordia University and the California State University system, but numerous labor actions on behalf of contingent instructors have percolated in SEIU’s “metropolitan campaigns” and at the University of Illinois, among other places.

Clearly, contingent faculty activism is on the rise, and it is gaining national news attention in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. Yet, contingent faculty activism is spottily localistic, occurring mostly in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. And it has been modest in its accomplishments, achieving quite real improvements in contingent job conditions but falling far short of raising adjunct income up to a living wage or altering the structure of faculty employment to afford contingents a professional future. Last February’s spontaneous National Adjunct Walkout Day sadly suggests that employment conditions for most contingent instructors have improved very little.

A professional society like the OAH with its active committee has much to offer contingent historians, but perhaps like industrial workers of the 1930s, today’s contingent instructors need national solutions—an industry-based body like the Congress of Industrial Organizations to mobilize their strength, and a national Fair Contingent Labor Standards Act to set minimal conditions. Surely, they deserve their own New Deal.