Thursday, August 27, 2009

Write US Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

If you caught the August 25 NPR broadcast of Neal Conan's "Talk of the Nation" and listened to the end, you might have heard the secretary's response to a listener's (the astute Betsey Smith of Cape Cod Community College) email about contingent faculty inequity. The secretary's response, while indicating some awareness of the complexity of the problem, seemed more informed by management's perspective and priorities than by thoe of contingents. So I wrote her the letter below, which I encourage you to adapt to your own situation and experience of contingency and send off as well. Secretary Solis's repeatedly expressed sympathies for labor would make her seem predisposed to empathize with us, so a little nudge from the laborers might help. And check out some of these suggested readings yourself, if you missed them: they're recent, and even many of the print sources (from the Wall Street Journal, e.g.) are Googleable.

26 August 2009

Hilda L. Solis, Secretary
Department of Labor
200 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20210

Dear Secretary Solis:

I was dismayed to hear you disparage the commitment of part-time faculty to their institutions on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” yesterday. Will all due respect to your concern for those who labor in other professions, your former position as trustee for a community college seems to have given you an elitist’s view of the education industry and its very particular labor problems, which are as intricate as they are increasingly severe. In fact, contingent faculty (including part-time and full-time teachers off the tenure track, whose shorter-term contracts are CONTINGENT upon enrollment and funding), are the blue-collar laborers of academia.

Your assertion that such faculty are “gonna go where they can get their salary paid” makes us sound mercenary, a common perception among the tenure-stream colleagues and administrators whose sabbaticals and six-digit salaries our per-course payments enable. Course by course, we’re paid less than a quarter of what tenure-stream faculty are given, according to estimates by American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors; in November 2008, US NEWS & WORLD REPORT'S estimate of $8,000/$1,800 is closer to a fifth, not to mention ratios of job security, professional advancement, and respect that can’t even be calculated, since our measure of these is so close to zero.

Nevertheless, teaching is a giving profession, those drawn to it motivated less often by money than by a love of learning, truth, and students. Contingent-faculty colleagues I’ve known in three US states and abroad since 1984 have met with students in their cars or coffee shops when their institutions didn’t provide them with adequate office space; in recent years we email from home on holidays and weekends as well as on the days we can’t be on campus. Certainly adjuncts are sometimes too rushed (“freeway flyers” is the term you were groping for with Neal Conan, the common California term, though I’ve done it in this state and Wisconsin, where I once drove 200 miles to the furthest of three campus of the same university system I taught for that semester) to provide the best education it’s in us to give. You can’t stand up in front of expectant students day after day and NOT give that much. So the generalization that holds truest from these workers’ perspective, if not from management’s, is that we make up for the inadequacies of our working conditions ourselves before passing them on to our students.

You were right that contingent faculty need to participate more fully in the faculty unions that purport to represent our interests but -- since they’re often run by the tenured faculty who perceive contingents as a threat to tenure itself -- often don’t. An exception is your own state’s California Faculty Association, the full- and part-time union that in negotiating with the C.S.U. has gotten ALL its faculty at least on the same pay scale, which is almost nowhere else the case. The gaps between what have come to be known as the “two tiers” of academic faculty can be seen more clearly in my own employer’s, the State University of New York’s, system: here, part-time faculty are not even paid from the same pool of money as other employees; our salaries come out of a separate fund for incidentals, like chalk. And my own union, despite some substantial past gains like health insurance for contingents teaching at least two courses, has been unable even to wrest salary negotiations from the local campuses, where market forces are allowed to rule.

So some 800,000 contingent faculty members nationwide – who teach 49% of undergraduate courses in American public institutions, according to Dept. of Education figures -- need some protectors, particularly those who would claim to represent workers. Months ago, many of us were heartened at your nomination, assuming from your background and “working people” rhetoric that you’d be an ally. Maybe that was naïve and presumptuous on our part. But please educate yourself and request your staff to investigate further this extremely difficult issue in higher education that AFT calls a “crisis” and the Modern Language Association leadership, in a direct plea last April to chairs of departments that rely on adjunct labor, called “the biggest challenge facing … our profession.


Steve Street
Lecturer, State University of New York – Buffalo State College
Part-time Representative, United University Professions, B.S.C. chapter


Bousquet, Marc.“Summer School for Faculty.” Brainstorm: Lives of the Mind. CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. 3 Aug. 2009."(see also his book HOW THE UNIVERSITY WORKS and companion web site

“CAUT President Highlights Threat Posed by the Casualization of Academic Work at the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education.” Canadian Association of University Teachers. 13 Jul. 2009.";

Clawson, Dan. “Tenure and the Future of the University.” Education Forum: Infrastructure. Science 324. 29 May 2009. 1147-48.

Gulli, Bruno. “Knowledge Production and the Superexploitation of Contingent Academic Labor.” Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor 16 (2009).

JBL Associates, Inc. “Reversing Course: The Troubled State of Academic Staffing and a Path Forward.” American Federation of Teachers. 2009."

Lesko, P.D. “The Single Biggest Threat . . . Bill Scheuermann’s Own Members.” 08 Jan. 2008.

Maguire, Daniel C. “Seeking the Path to Adjunct Justice at Marquette University.” THOUGHT & ACTION. Fall 2008. 47-55.

Monks, James. “Who Are the Part-time Faculty?” ACADEME (Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors). July-August 2009. 33-37.

Musil, Caryn McTighe. “Red Blood Cells on Reserve.” Association of American Colleges and Universities. On Campus with Women. 37.3 (Winter 2009).

“Policy Statement on Fairness for Contract Academic Staff.” Canadian Association of University Teachers. 2009.">

Porter, Catherine, Sid Smith, and Russell Berman (Modern Language Association President, First and Second Vice Presidents, respectively). Letter to Department Chairs. April 2009. “Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom & Tenure.” 2006 American Association of University Professors.

Riley, Naomi Schaefer. “So You Want to Be a Professor.” De Gustibus, WALL STREET JOURNAL. 24 April 2009.

Street, Steve. “Mad About Numbers.” The Adjunct Track. THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. 11 Dec. 2008 (and columns in March 2009 and July 7 2009).">


  1. wow - wish i knew how to redirect forwards anonymously

    worth it for the reading list too. i'm reading my way through it: hope she does too. i didn't catch the npr broadcast live but will look for it online.

  2. Hi anon ~ there are ways to redirect mail, links etc anonymously ~ could be handy for those discretion is the better part of valor / name withholding occasions. Unfortunately, I don't know what they are. I'll try to find out ~ might make a good post.

    Have you read Jack Longmate's article of similar title?

  3. PS speaking of resources, check out the Resources page compiled by NFM Resources Committee on the New Faculty Majority website (dis is da blog).


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