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Adjuncts’ Labor and LAWCHA

Eric Fure-Slocum is a non-tenure-track associate professor at St. Olaf College and convener of LAWCHA’s ad hoc committee on adjuncts and contingent faculty. He is the author of Contesting the Postwar City: Working-Class and Growth Politics in 1940s Milwaukee (Cambridge, 2013) and co-editor of Civic Labors: Scholar Activism and Working-Class Studies (Illinois, forthcoming).

This piece is the third in our ongoing series on labor and academia. See part one and part two.

Adjuncts and contingent faculty continue to make up a larger share of the faculty in history departments and related fields. “Conversion” policies are advanced by the AAUP and allies—that is, moving people from non-tenure-track to tenure-track positions—but the displacement of tenure lines by non-tenure-track positions is instead the norm. Contingent faculty, at both full- and part-time at four- and two-year institutions, now constitute over seventy percent of the academy.

The turn to a “flexible workforce” means that uncertainty and instability have become ever-present for a growing number of faculty. Many contingent faculty members juggle multi-campus careers, often without adequate resources to teach and remain active scholars. Others have settled in for the long-haul on the non-tenure track. For all contingent faculty, concerns about future teaching prospects loom large. And most adjuncts experience how these employment uncertainties shape daily interactions with colleagues, resulting, for instance, in calculations about what a “no” response to a simple request means for future course availability.

Academic and professional associations also feel the pressures of these changes, seeing now the need to rework membership policies, conference practices, and organizational cultures. The Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) recently initiated a project to ensure and invigorate adjunct and contingent faculty members’ participation by organizing an ad hoc committee that aims to help make the organization more responsive to the needs and circumstances of this growing cohort. As “an organization of scholars, teachers, students, labor educators, and activists who seek to promote public and scholarly awareness of labor and working-class history,” LAWCHA is well-positioned to consider how changes in workplace relations affect academic laborers. Over the next three months, the committee will develop proposals for LAWCHA’s board and membership to consider during its April 2016 meeting. The committee also plans to generate questions and suggestions for a broader conversation about the role of contingent faculty in professional associations and higher education.

At the most basic level, the LAWCHA committee will address how membership policies can accommodate this changing faculty, while still generating the funds necessary for cash-strapped associations to operate. Some organizations recognize contingent faculty as a separate category, somewhere between tenure-track faculty and graduate students. Others, including the OAH, set up a sliding scale, based on annual income. In any case, it’s clear that a status-blind fee does not work for a growing cohort of members with uncertain and inadequate incomes. As reported recently in the Atlantic, average annual pay for adjuncts falls below $25,000.

More challenging is the task of fostering adjuncts’ participation at conferences. Part of this entails a clear understanding of the financial constraints, both for the association and especially for adjuncts who might attend. Conference planning committees are led generally by R-1 faculty—higher-paid academics with expense accounts (although those also are pinched). While planning committee members for LAWCHA and other groups’ conferences aim no doubt to generate widespread participation, specific decisions about location, accommodations, banquet costs, etc., have a direct impact on adjuncts’ ability to attend and participate in full. 

Contingent faculty members’ presence also depends on fuller inclusion in the program. Here the realities of constrained academic careers become especially apparent. Conference panels are composed, for the most part, by R-1 faculty and graduate students. Contingent faculty, with fewer resources or time for research and publication are under-represented at many conferences. While acknowledging the challenges that graduate students or faculty from teaching-heavy institutions face, many adjuncts note that they feel more like outsiders at conferences than they did as graduate students. Small steps have been taken, including the worthy gesture of dropping institutional affiliations from name tags at the LAWCHA 2015 conference. But much more needs to be done. How do we change this? Could program committees actively recruit adjuncts to proposed sessions? Could proposal guidelines make clear that sessions filled only with R-1 faculty will be frowned upon, giving R-1 scholars incentives to seek out and invite adjuncts to be part of these scholarly conversations? Might organizations create directories of contingent faculty members and their interests so that those building panels can find them?

Such measures begin to reimagine the culture of scholarly associations, opening the door to wider participation at a time when structural changes in higher education are making access more difficult. It’s not surprising, of course, that even a group such as LAWCHA feels the effects of widening institutional and societal inequalities. The ad hoc committee hopes to ignite a conversation begun already by members and leaders of LAWCHA asking how the organization can work against replicating academia’s two-tiered structure and begin to reverse these trends. All members of LAWCHA, or for that matter all academics, share a stake in this. The neoliberal transformation in higher education, of which the reliance on adjuncts is one part, puts increased pressures on many tenure-track and tenured faculty, as well as graduate students. Fields such as history have been hit especially hard. Without adequate public funding, universities have raised tuition and turned to corporate dollars. Heavy student debt-loads and the infusion of market values have undermined the liberal arts focus of colleges and universities, shifting what being a teacher-scholar means. And here, both organizational and scholarly concerns merge for LAWCHA. Labor historians’ studies of workplace control, precarious labor, and organizing provide a context to understand disparities and assess adjuncts’ challenges in what has become a higher education industry.

Much of the necessary response to this deteriorating academic workplace will happen outside of professional associations. Contingent faculty have responded, often by organizing. Sometimes this response takes the shape of informal associations within specific institutions—collections of contingent faculty gathering to advocate for changes in faculty manuals, to secure benefits, to seek security through longer-term contracts, and to raise awareness. In other cases, and in ever growing numbers, contingent faculty have been working with labor unions on metro-area organizing campaigns and to form collective bargaining units. Unions active in organizing adjuncts include the AAUP, AFT, CWA, NEA, SEIU, UAW, and USW. Advocacy organizations such as the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, and the New Faculty Majority also have been important voices in this organizing. Recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board have helped to propel organizing on a wide range of campuses, from public universities to liberal arts colleges.

But organizations such as LAWCHA and the OAH can be important partners in these challenges. The LAWCHA ad hoc committee is eager to hear from members of other associations that have taken up these questions. What policies have others put in place to address the needs of contingent faculty and to increase participation? What new practices have been attempted, in order to shift organizational cultures? In the process of developing proposals for LAWCHA, the committee also hopes to offer direction to other groups confronting this new landscape of contingent labor.