Editorial Introduction

On April 13th of this year, non-tenured faculty at Washington University in St. Louis reached a tentative contract agreement with the school that ensured wage increases, greater job security, access to office space, and funds for professional development. The contract was ratified on May 2nd by non-tenured faculty, a clear victory for those who teach over half the classes at Washington University and for contingent faculty across the country who teach over 70% of the classes at universities nationwide.

Michael O’Bryan is an adjunct English instructor who helped represent non-tenured faculty in their negotiations with the university. Before the settlement was reached on April 13, Kevin Watson, an independent English scholar, conducted an email interview with O’Bryan for Contrivers’ Review. While Watson and O’Bryan have known each other since graduate school, they have different perspectives on what counts as a victory for adjunct faculty, and these differences come through in the interview.

As someone who is currently employed as contingent faculty, O’Bryan feels an urgency to do what he can right now to address the low wages and lack of job security faced by non-tenured faculty. Watson holds a more conservative and, as he acknowledges, elitist perspective. He laments that the search for truth for its own sake, which defines the academic profession for Watson, has been denigrated, becoming a means to some other, more “marketable” end. Respect is Watson’s keyword, and both the necessity of Washington University’s contract and the fact that faculty of any kind needed to join the Service Employees International Union are signs of how far scholars have fallen in the esteem of the public. The reader may think him a little too preoccupied with issues like job titles as O’Bryan does, but his concern for the devaluation of the life of the mind and scholarly work that may never be “marketable” speaks to an important and worrisome cultural shift.

In the long run, improving compensation and job security may be a way of enshrining contingent faculty over tenured faculty as the new “norm” in American colleges and universities. As more than one commentator has suggested, such a result would irreparably damage academic freedom, create a classroom environment where students are customers, and sap the creative vitality that has made American universities and colleges some of the best in the world. These arguments have their merits, but if the fate of the university hinges on whether or not non-tenured faculty join the SEIU, then higher education may be past saving and it is difficult to blame people for fighting for fair wages and job security. The differences between O’Bryan and Watson’s perspectives on the contingent faculty cannot be reduced to concerns with long-term over short-term goals but speak to a deeper divide about what role the university and university faculty should play in society. In addition to highlighting these differences, the following interview reveals the ground Watson and O’Bryan share in critiquing the status quo.

Peter Sinnott, Jr.

Kevin Watson: Can you tell us what issues were presented to the university in yesterday’s [April 12, 2016] negotiations , and what the difficulties are to resolving them?

Michael O’Bryan: The current issues we’re discussing are the last ones we need to reach agreement on before concluding the contract. There are a few administrative issues to work out, but the substantive discussion is about wages and benefits. We’re adamant that adjuncts need to have minimum per-unit compensation raised to a living wage1, and to receive access to benefits in proportion to their teaching loads at the University. We can’t reach agreement because the University so far doesn’t want to raise course compensation even to a minimum that matches the minimums at other SEIU-organized universities, even ones with a tiny fraction of their financial resources, much less to a level that could be called just by any reasonable measure.

KW: I have read soundbite answers to the question “why is this adjunct thing important?”, perhaps because newspapers can’t devote a page of text to the issue. But, to your way of thinking, doesn’t the current status of adjunct/contingent faculty threaten the integrity (both philosophically and psychologically) of the academy; its ability to carry out its mission of education?

MO: Yes, the increasing dependence on adjunct labor is one sign, among many, of a swelling dysfunction in higher education (others being, off the top of my head: growing student debt, graduate programs with insufficient accountability for career placement, decreasing public funding for education, and attacks on the democratic governance of the university). Left unchecked, this is a dysfunction that is eventually going to have disastrous and wide-ranging consequences in our society. The most direct impact of “adjunctification” on education results from the heavy course loads that adjuncts are forced to take on, which limits their ability to advise and work with students outside the actual hours that they are in a classroom. This connects directly to compensation. Nobody teaches five or six college classes a semester because they enjoy being horrendously overworked—they do it because they have to do it to live.2 And these terrible workloads, often at multiple universities, mean less time for appointments outside office hours, extra attention to projects, and general life and career advice that students need.

KW: How, as a movement, can the issues which illustrate the plight of adjunct/contingent faculty create a substantial presence in the national media?

MO: You know, if you look at where we were at just two or three years ago, I think this issue is getting a lot more traction in national media than it has had, and pretty quickly. Partly, I think this is because SEIU has had such success with adjunct unionization campaigns across the country. The issue is covered pretty consistently in education trade mags, but you’re also seeing a lot more of it in more prominent sources: Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan, who does a lot of class stuff, has been writing about the adjunct labor fight recently, Slate has Rebecca Schuman writing education articles a lot, and I’ve seen a lot of great coverage of the issue in The Atlantic, The New York Times, our particular campaign even got a sympathetic write-up in The Wall Street Journal, of all places.

KW: Rarely do articles in favor of adjunct faculty emphasize or even mention a distinction between graduate instructors and the contingent faculty member’s possession of a terminal degree (e.g., MFA or PhD, etc.). It is contemporary fashion to be anti-elitist, but haven’t those of us who are or have been adjunct/contingent faculty actually earned the honorific “Doctor” or “Professor”? Doesn’t the degree actually say “confer … the rights and privileges thereof”?

MO: I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed this stylistic feature of reporting on higher education, but I don’t know that I’ve ever looked. Certainly, I think anyone who has a PhD is entitled to be called “Dr.” if they ask. But personally, I tell my students to call me by my first name anyway (which is probably partly a privilege of male instructors), and I make a point of calling senior colleagues by their first name now that I have the degree. So I guess I’m one of those people following the trends of anti-elitism. Actually, in contingent faculty organizing, we often face this problem where people let informal social hierarchies with little practical meaning keep them separate from other groups with whom they share practical and substantive economic interest. So, as far as grad students and adjuncts being lumped together, in our bargaining unit specifically—and I think many of them—some grad students actually are adjuncts. But even when they aren’t, the situations of grad students and adjuncts are closely related while also somewhat different in complicated ways. Those complexities are actually something not talked about enough in discourse around academic casualization. At any rate, what’s much more important to me than if someone calls me “Dr.” is whether I get a living wage and some small measure of job security.

KW: To press the point a little further, aren’t we obligated, because we are advocating for equality, to emphasize how we are equal?

MO: Yes, but couldn’t you argue that stressing our academic ranks is a way of reinforcing inequality?

KW: The last two questions were inspired by US News and World Report which lists student to faculty ratios in its rankings based on full-time faculty rather than including adjunct/contingent professors. Because it really is the only national publication about universities which is actually read, should adjunct advocacy groups start pressing the point of honesty in advertising?

MO: Those kinds of ranking should absolutely include several different stats about adjunct instruction at an institution. This is a part of the reason that many of our direct actions try to expose parents and students to the realities of how adjuncts function in a university system. I think another sign of our growing inroads with national awareness is that I’ve seen savvier parents actually ask tour guides and administrators about the role of contingent faculty at universities.

KW: Are such publications complicit (along with the universities) in creating a new American under-class?

MO: I’m not sure if you mean an underclass within academe specifically, or if academia is part of a broader social process of growing inequality. I mean, the answer is “yes” in either case. As for the wider question, yes, the adjunctification of higher education is part of a spreading trend of economic inequality across the country. There have been some fantastic articles about this recently—Caroline Fredrickson had one in The Atlantic I believe—about how the growing dependence on adjunct labor is really taking a page from the playbook of the casualization of many working-class occupations, like Uber drivers and FedEx employees. And now the trend seems to be spreading further into so-called “white collar” professions like the law where short-term contracts, misclassification as part-time, and wage theft become the norm. This is the world our students are graduating into, and it’s one of the ways that adjuncts and their students share a community of interest.

As for the more specific question, yes, US News and World Report and such rankings are complicit with university administrations in creating an under-class specifically within academia. Probably in a lot of ways, but I’ll mention two. First, the rankings trawl for research productivity associated with a university’s name when they evaluate it, but, so far as I know, they don’t bother distinguishing whether the person who produced the research is a tenure-line faculty member. So you’ve got all these adjuncts desperate to secure better academic employment at some point by pursuing their research agendas, and the rankings are rewarding the universities for it, but the universities aren’t paying them for the work. We actually brought this up with the University’s bargaining team in negotiations a few weeks ago, when talking about how adjuncts make substantial contributions to the University outside their teaching, but they aren’t compensated for it. The response was “but that’s not what we pay you for, so if that’s what you do, that’s not our problem.” And it’s not their problem, but it’s to their benefit. They get the reward for free, so why would they pay for it? That’s the sort of ruthless logic we’re up against.

Second, there’s a lot of blame placed these days on administrative bloat for rising tuition costs, and there’s a decent amount of debate about the extent to which it’s responsible, and what exactly constitutes “bloat.” Often, I run into people I know who have administrative functions, and they’re like “Do people mean me when they say that?” And there is a lot of evidence that there is some inefficiency in university administration generally, but look, I was an accountant for a university between college degrees, and I know how necessary support staff can be. But university ranking lists can create this “keeping up with the Joneses” effect over all kinds of completely non-essential things: dorm amenities, athletic facilities, that kind of thing. And it’s important to remember that the new gym with climbing wall, pool, and state-of-the art exercise machines isn’t just a one time fee, it requires equipment managers, coaches, trainers, its own accounting staff, all kinds of overhead. And university administrations feel like they’ve got to have these state-of-the-art amenities to stay up in the rankings and keep drawing students, and the only way they can pay for that is tuition increases and keeping instructor overhead down. And, on the one hand, I believe in worker solidarity and all employees having dignity, but, at the same time, there’s something pretty perverse about a school that covers competitive rates for its world-class tennis coaches and classically-trained chefs by paying table scraps to over a third of its faculty.

KW: This question may go too far afield from the issue, but I feel it may be a contributing factor to the national antipathy towards education. Is the current spirit of anti-intellectualism (politically and socially) a stumbling block to the advocacy of equal respect for a once admired, albeit privileged, class? It is after all a common criticism that intellectuals sit in lofty lounges, in the comfort of ivory towers, contemplating the theory of navel dust.

MO: Well, I’m hesitant about tacitly signing on to any jeremiad about the closing of the American mind, but yes, I do sometimes encounter enmity to our position in the general public. I do think this is because of poorly-grounded assumptions about the working conditions of a university instructor. It comes back to the growing economic under-class of the entire country, really. So many people have watched their professions decline for decades that there can be class resentment that kind of reflexively lashes out at people assumed to be better off. You know, I see plenty of people say to activists affiliated with us, “hey, maybe adjuncts have it bad, but I’d like to see more focus on actual low wage workers.” But look, we’re in the same union as most of the low-wage workers on campus. And an adjunct at Washington University in St. Louis teaching a three-course load every semester makes only a few thousand a year more than a custodian working full time at the University, and the custodians get health care whereas the adjunct doesn’t. Both groups deserve more money, but they’re also not that far off from each other. Fortunately, there’s a pretty direct solution to this sort of objection, which is offer the facts of the situation, as I just have, and I find that often clears things up.

KW: Please explain how you and your colleagues intend to move forward in your advocacy and activism for adjunct/contingent faculty rights at Washington University, and what you hope for the movement in the future.

MO: Well, we have two more bargaining meetings scheduled, and we’re really hoping that the University sees reason and offers a meaningful compensation increase. The adjuncts would very much would like to conclude this negotiation with an amicable agreement. But we’ve already begun organizing efforts for a student walkout and adjunct faculty strike on 4/14, held in concert with the national day of action for low wage workers and in solidarity with a number of groups like Fight for 15. We’ve begun collecting support signatures for that event, and we’ve already cleared 800 with two weeks left to plan, so we’re very optimistic about our support from students, alumni, full-time faculty, and other brothers and sisters in SEIU. But again, we actually would like to have an agreement before then. If we do, the movement continues in a few ways: SEIU is active at other schools, so there’s still plenty of work to be done here on the adjunct campaign specifically, but we’re also committed to standing in solidarity with other low wage workers in the community, especially the Fight for 15 and other low-wage workers in SEIU, both of whom have been very supportive of us.

  1. According to a March 20, 2016 article in The Wall Street Journal, average pay per course for adjunct faculty is $2,700 and most adjunct faculty earn $22,000 per year. [eds.] 

  2. A report by the American Association of University Professors,

    defines the ‘maximum teaching loads for effective instruction at the undergraduate . . . level’ as a ‘teaching load of twelve hours per week, with no more than six separate course preparations during the academic year,’ and ‘[f]or instruction partly or entirely at the graduate level, a teaching load of nine hours per work,’ based on an academic year of not more than 30 weeks of classes.
    This amounts to three courses taught per semester or six courses in an academic year. In other words, teaching six classes a semester or twelve classes a year doubles the recommended workload. [eds.]