The disruption caused by COVID-19 in the United States saw college and university administrators use the disruption to reduce 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), was just one of many schools to use the excuse of the pandemic for whole programs (and their tenured faculty) to be axed. This allowed them to move towards cheaper and more exploitable adjunct laborers.
As we face these threats it is clear that adjuncts as well as tenured faculty will only be in a position to defend their jobs from the onslaught of neoliberal university administrator. If we organize ourselves in one union wherever feasible and act as one unit where necessary, even if our voices are not allowed to be heard, we will be able to protect our institutions.
The Adjunctification of Higher Education
A professor approached me at my college graduation ceremony in 1991 to share some good news. He had a report that predicted that there would be five jobs available for every four applicants by the time I finished graduate program. 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 SciencesWilliam G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University, 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 did manage to get a job, which allowed me to survive the last two decades, when tenure-eligible positions began to disappear and contingent positions rose to make up 75% of the faculty workforce. But, I understood that contingent positions were increasing in number to make up 75 percent of the faculty workforce. my good fortune was a matter of luck not merit,I will never forget the lessons we were all taught. Faculty can be divided by rank (those with job security or those without), and all of us are 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 & 2.0
The American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) special report entitled “COVID-19 and Academic Governance,”Pandemic Opportunism: 1.0 was published in May 2021. 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. COVID-19, like many others, was an accelerant in this regard, making the gradual erosion and reorganization of campus shared governance 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.
According to the AAUP report, Pandemic Opportunism 1.0 ravaged both tenured and adjunct faculty. it is also clearThe first and easiest victims in this country have been adjunct faculty. It is not difficult to rehire someone you have never promised to rehire even if they have served you and your students for decades.
Pandemic Opportunism 2.0 has arrived, and it is happening at both some institutions and 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, no one loses his 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. A person cannot sue alone. There’s a cumulative, generational cost, but that doesn’t trigger the same kind of conflagration as firing an incumbent.
Of course, “nonreplacement” It 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.
After the 2008 recession, retirement incentives were all the rage. They are back in full force. However, there are more aggressive ways to reduce salaried positions. Consider the following: Point Park University to eliminate the positions of 17 faculty membersHowever, their courses would be canceled. The adjunct sections would continue to exist. The union took the administration to arbitration where the arbitrator sided in favor of the faculty union. American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Local 2121, which represents City College of San Francisco (CCSF), fought a similar attempt at replacing full-time faculty members with part-time workers. 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:
There will be no full-time faculty for entire departments. 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 be unable to access faculty support and office hours. The structure that keeps our college alive as a community and intellectual resource will be destroyed.
This is evident in the form Pandemic Opportunism 2.0 took at Portland State University. Although our union reached a memorandum with the administration to ensure that no new initiatives were taken during the crisis, it was not finalized. 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 we call “curricular reform, reduction or elimination”. “ReImagine PSU.”
After I had accepted the fact that my department was being eliminated, I was struck at how these programs were renowned on campus for refusing tuition dollars by exploitative labor practices. My concern was apparently confirmed when my question about how departments were identified. I was informed that the first set consisted of simply multiplying the total number of student credits hours (which is translated into student tuition dollars), by the average term full time equivalent cost of all faculty.
This is some shockingly crude math that ensures that departments that provide student credit hours as cheaply and easily as possible look like paragons. Those that are committed to providing a decent living so that instructors can devote themselves to the university’s students and instructors 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 warn that corporatization is coming for their tenured counterparts. Pandemic Opportunism 2.0 must spell the long overdue death of tenured faculty’s inability to grasp this basic fact.
We Only Need One Union
We are all in precarious situations now, and it would be a good idea to organize ourselves into one union. Back in 2014 Jamie Owen Daniel wrote:
The administration is the only group that can benefit from faculty comparing themselves to these increasingly arbitrary divisions and not as faculty. 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.
Portland State has both tenure-track and non-tenure track full-time faculty. Adjunct faculty, however, are in a separate union, PSU AAUP. If the administration attempts to eliminate programs, will the interests between these two unions be merged? Full-time faculty may be required to have them, but adjunct faculty should not. Let me reiterate the point. In Fall 2021, PSU-AAUP had 843 tenure-line and non-tenure-line instructional or research faculty. PSUFA had 785 adjunct faculty. This was according to an email I received from my university.
This is not true at the University of Oregon, Eugene. There, interests have been aligned ever since 2013, when faculty of all ranks were formed. United Academics. The raw numbers are quite different from those at Portland State, perhaps not by accident. 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 contract bargaining that required adjunct faculty to be promoted to career positions after three year 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.
Rutgers AAUP/AFT is another place to find inspiration and a way forward. 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 goodwas to transform the university of neoliberalism into something more democratic and just. In spring 2021, AAUP/AFT union leaders Todd Wolfson & Donna Murch wrote in “Reclaiming Paul Robeson in the Time of COVID-19”:
The unprecedented pain and disruption that COVID-19 caused has helped to build a united front of unions, something that was 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 result of the solidarity that has been built over the last few years is precisely the type of increased unionization needed everywhere unions are possible. On May 18, 2022 the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union collected the necessary signatures demand that their union be allowed to merge with the full-time faculty unions.
Rutgers administrators will find it much more difficult to pit academic laborers against each other if the academic laborers succeed in bringing about a single union. Portland State is a place where whole programs and their tenure-line faculty are being eliminated, but adjunct sections aren’t. I hope that the adjunct union will join the tenure-line and full time non-tenure line unions to fight the neoliberal policies proposed by our Provost. The adjunct membership might tell full-timers to take a stroll when they have their hats in hand.