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We are all contingent

On Campus
Summer 2014
Feature Story

By Gary Rhoades

The shape of higher education, as of society, is changing. In our not-for-profit institutions, policymakers and managers are working to reorganize academic employment to at-will, just-in-time, pay-for-“performance” work. They are reorganizing colleges and universities to operate like businesses seeking to maximize institutional revenues and minimize investment in instruction. This model serves corporate business’s needs. But it’s a disservice to a large portion of our student populations, particularly the growing number of low-income, underserved populations that are seeking educational opportunity.

At the same time, academic employees are pushing back. We are working collectively to re-establish working conditions—including academic freedom—that enhance educational quality, student learning and success. We are also working to reorganize colleges and universities: to prioritize students’ education, reduce students’ debt and expand affordable, high-quality higher education for all. The battles raging in education are like those in other service sectors, with whom we must form common cause.

Transformation of the professoriate

Over the past four decades, a systematic deterioration in the structure and working conditions of the professoriate has occurred. This has coincided with a systemic disinvestment in public higher education and, in particular, in instruction. The disinvestment is such that there is a structural deficit, evident in massive student debt. Access to higher education is increasingly stratified by class, and educational opportunities for un- and underserved potential college students—a group growing in number—is increasingly compromised.

The changes in the professoriate are well-known:

  • The disproportionate growth of faculty working in part-time positions, such that they now account for roughly half of the professoriate. 1
  • The growth in full-time nontenure-track positions, with these faculty accounting for 19 percent of the professoriate. During the late 1990s, full-time nontenure-track faculty accounted for 58.9 percent of new full-time hires in the professoriate. 2
  • The growing reliance on—but diminished employment prospects of—graduate teaching assistants, graduate research assistants and postdocs. At one time, graduate employee and postdoc positions could rightly be considered apprenticeships leading eventually to tenure-track appointments. That is no longer the case.

If you do the math, then you see that most professors are teaching off the tenure track, without hope of tenure and with limited to no job security. They are teaching at the will—and too often the whim—of the employer. That means they are teaching without the protections of academic freedom and without substantial involvement in basic academic and educational governance matters.

Losing ground on governance

Underlying the numbers story is professors’ declining influence in the various realms of academic and educational decision-making. Partly in response to state disinvestment in higher education, demands for accountability, and the infusion of high-technology delivery systems, administrators have increased their exercise of “strategic” managerial discretion. That discretion has involved applying the logic of the market to academic decision-making, thereby reducing—and not uncommonly, overriding and replacing—the role and plans of faculty in various academic and educational matters.

Managerial discretion has expanded into educational and even pedagogical realms, in ways that dramatize the reduced influence of faculty on the direction of their colleges and universities. These realms include enrollment management, the development of offices of instructional assessment, teaching centers, and centers for learning and instructional technologies. Contingent faculty are completely excluded from these processes, while tenure-track faculty frequently opt out of them, partly because of speeded up demands for teaching and research productivity, and partly because they recognize that they have no real influence on these decision-making realms.

Whatever the cause, the effect is that faculty are losing control over even that most basic realm of their jurisdiction, the classroom. Managers make various decisions about course management systems, about the purchase of new instructional technologies, and about the outfitting of classrooms—places where faculty reign, but over which they have little or no control.

Reduced faculty control is particularly clear in traditional distance education, massive open online courses, and decisions to outsource segments of the general education curriculum to Pearson or other third-parties, often for-profit providers. In each of these cases, academic managers have developed structures and created mechanisms to bypass effective faculty decision-making related to the curriculum. Exceptions can be found, and collective bargaining agreements can build in protections against this. But the pattern is a strong one, and the growth of these high-tech infusions is linked to the furthering of contingency in academe. The model of high-tech employment is a just-in-time, just-in-the-classroom, just-at-the-manager’s-will type of employment.

Building coalitions to regain our ground

The way forward lies in emphasizing not our plight or our specialness but our commonality with many other employees in the service economy.

Despite the trend line in reorganizing academic professions and institutions in ways that reduce academics’ role, organizing gains give us reason for hope. Not since the initial introduction and explosive expansion of unionization in the academy in the 1970s has there been such interest in—and animus toward—faculty collective bargaining. On the one hand, we are in a time of an unprecedented assault on the rights of public sector employees, including faculty, to collectively bargain, notably in the heartland states of organized labor. On the other hand, we are also in a time of the greatest foment in collective bargaining for members of the academic workforce in three decades, including, notably, in the private sector of independent colleges and universities.

In the first half of the 2000s, for instance, 78 new bargaining units were formed, an increase of 15.7 percent. 3 Units representing only part-time faculty were at the core of this growth: Indeed, by 2012, more than 147,000 faculty in part-time positions were in collective bargaining units, 21 percent of the overall academic workforce.

Moreover, consider the range of organizing targets and strategies that emerged during and after the Great Recession. The distinctive dynamism of the times is expressed not simply in the growth in bargaining units, but also in who is organizing, where organizing is taking place, and why. For example, the first union campaign that I authorized at the American Association of University Professors as general secretary in 2009 was for a group of physicians, dentists and basic science faculty at the University of Connecticut Health Center. It would be the first stand-alone unit of a health center in the United States to unionize.

The issue that triggered the organizing was a proposal to sell off the academic health center to a private company. Sound familiar? It echoes in the scheme of politicians to privatize the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The successful mantra of United University Professions in this battle, “Keep it open, keep it public, keep it serving Brooklyn,” points the way for a broad, coalitional, public interest unionism that holds much promise.

The public purpose of public institutions

The fate of faculty and professionals is inextricably linked to keeping high-quality, affordable healthcare and higher education available to people of modest means, who are the growth population and the majority in the schools. These are the people privatized higher education is turning its back on more and more, tracking them into dead-end, short-cycle certificates, or turning them over to the predatory for-profits that are only too happy to sweep up their Pell Grant money.

Recently, for the first time in two decades, faculty at two large public research universities have unionized—the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Oregon (both in joint AFT/AAUP campaigns and units, and in Illinois in conjunction with the IFT). Both sites featured significant solidarity among contingent and tenure-track faculty.

What is more, the successful two-day strike this spring at UIC highlights what is at stake—the public purposes of public universities. As UIC United Faculty leaders Lennard Davis and Walter Benn Michaels wrote in the online magazine Jacobin:

“Unlike the flagships of state universities around the country…we don’t think our job is mainly to educate the children of the upper middle class. … [W]hen we [the faculty and the administration] put together a ‘Strategic Thinking Report’ back in 2005 we explicitly said we’re not looking to recruit ‘better’ students; we want to do a better job of educating the students we have. The UIC faculty is committed to that mission. And the whole point of the strike is to help us fulfill it.” 4

Davis and Benn Michaels also make the point that although they are part of a union that uses the tag line “A Union of Professionals”—professionals, as distinct from workers—“what we’ve all begun to realize is that, whatever it meant in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the 21st century that distinction is pure ideology. Professionals are workers—and professors are workers.” That identification is at the heart of the work UIC faculty have done in coalition with various other workers on and off campus.

Metro organizing

In the new world of successful organizing, there is a dimension of coalition building and an explicit connection with students. Building coalitions requires faculty to show how what is happening in higher education involves turning the academy away from its public mission. Faculty have framed their working conditions as significant not simply for them but for the students and communities they serve. More than that, though, at the core of the coalitional strategies is faculty positioning themselves not as special professionals above the fray, but as professionals and workers who are committed to serving the sons and daughters of the urban working class, lower-middle and middle classes, and underserved populations.

The broad-based, coalitional approach to unionization is also evident in a new sort of organizing campaign. The aim is to organize adjunct faculty in the geographical space in which they work, which ranges across various institutions within a metropolitan area. The metro campaigns target private universities and seek high levels of union density to raise the “industry” standard across the metro area. The AFT’s metro campaign in Philadelphia goes beyond campus-by-campus card campaigns and focuses on building a community network of union activists across the region, in coalition with various groups in that region.

Notably, current successful organizing taking place in the academy is turning our weaknesses into strengths. It takes the deteriorating conditions of faculty employment and influence over a range of decision-making realms as a starting point for asserting a collective project that is part of the larger labor movement. It also involves taking the conditions of adjunct faculty who are distributed across and yet deeply embedded within metro areas as the basis for strong organizing across traditional boundaries. For while we recognize the unique burdens imposed on adjunct faculty today, we are coming to realize that all in this academy are contingent.

Like so many others in this post-industrial economy, in some sense, we are all also service workers, fighting against the push to make all employment at-will. We need to form common cause to change that, as workers in the early 20th century did in a manufacturing economy. The path to that collective success is not through framing ourselves in terms of our plight, our lost professional and privileged status, or the fact that we have lower wages than our education merits. The path lies in aligning ourselves and our conditions of work to the students and communities we serve and to the growing populations of underserved prospective students. Such a stance will put us on the right side of history, in the position of working toward a time when, in the words of the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme.”


1. Gary Rhoades, brief amicus curiae for Pacific Lutheran University and Service Employees International Union, Local 925, No. 19-RC-102521 (NLRB filed March 29, 2014); and Gary Rhoades, “Disruptive Innovations for Adjunct Faculty: Common Sense for the Common Good,” Thought & Action 29 (Fall 2013): 71-86.

2. Martin J. Finkelstein, Robert K. Seal, and Jack H. Schuster, The New Academic Generation: A Profession in Transition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

3. Joe Berry and Michelle Savarese, Directory of U.S. Faculty Contracts and Bargaining Agents in Institutions of Higher Education (New York: National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, 2012).

4. Lennard Davis and Walter Benn Michaels, “Faculty on Strike,” Jacobin, February 14, 2014,