We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.

There is a story that has been making the rounds on the internet.  If you are an academic, you should read up on it.


Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to return.


As you can see, there are many sides to this story (though as far as I can tell, there has no been no official response from the university).  It might appear that every angle has been explored in the various comments sections on the above pages.  I know, a good rule of thumb is to never read the comments.  I try to live by that rule when playing around on the internet.  But in this case, I think you should read the comments.  Not for what they address, but for what they ignore.


Many commenters believe that “W” was treated poorly, while others assert that the university handled the situation appropriately.  I have no interest in taking a stand either way.  For starters, I don’t think there’s enough information available.  But more importantly, I think that most people commenting and/or blogging about this story have missed the larger point.


This is not a story about how search committees operate.  Nor is it a story about the preparation (or lack thereof) of job applicants for academic positions before hitting the job market.  It’s not about proper negotiating, academics who are out of touch with “the real world,”* or even the realities of the tenure-track job market.  Nor is it about the difference between “teaching” and “research” institutions.  I know it seems like it’s about all those things, but it isn’t.  And I didn’t realize that until just today.


I was discussing this story with some friends of mine, both academics, neither of whom are on the tenure track.  And it wasn’t until this conversation today that I realized that this story is a perfect example of how willfully ignorant many academics are to the realities of the academic labor force.  This is not the first time I have turned my attention to the academic labor problems, and I suspect it won’t be the last.  Feel free to scour the web for stories about the changing face of the academic labor force, but really all you need to know right now is that non-tenure-rack faculty make up the majority of educators in higher education, and this trend is not going to change.**


“W”‘s story highlights one of the central – and often unacknowledged – problems with the move toward a permanent force of temporary academic laborers.***  The fact that it’s even possible for academics to negotiate their contracts for tenure-track positions is a stark reminder of the fact that adjuncts have no such ability.  There are many commenters/bloggers who are outraged that Nazareth would not even consider negotiating with “W,” many of whom provide anecdotes and/or “real world experience” as evidence that Nazareth acted poorly.  There are many more who argue that “W” asked for too much, that she didn’t understand the nature of her bargaining position, and should have asked for less.  What both sides of this debate take for granted is that “W” should have the ability to negotiate terms.  That is, it’s simply expected that finalists for tenure-track positions will try to improve the terms of their contracts.^  Adjuncts, however, are expected to simply accept the terms of their employment.  It’s common for PhD advisors and other professionals to offer detailed advice on how to negotiate tenure-track job offers.  But, as far as I can tell, no such system is in place to help adjuncts negotiate the terms of their individual contracts.  (Yes, I will mention unions later on.)


But it’s become commonplace that adjuncts not negotiate the terms of their contracts.  In fact, I have never heard of such a thing happening.  I myself have never done so, and I have adjuncted at multiple schools.  I simply accepted that the job paid what it paid, and I had to live with it.  When I wanted to make more money, I asked for more courses.  During the same years that I was earning my PhD and being coached on how to negotiate tenure-track job offers, I was also adjuncting at another local university and had never once thought to negotiate my contract.  Hell, I have been on strike as a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters – a strike that attempted to convert part-time jobs into full-time jobs – and I never once thought about even asking to negotiate my adjunct contracts.


There is an adjunct at my university who has been working at the same job, teaching the same classes, for nearly 25 years.  In all that time, he has never once asked for a raise.  Not once.  This is not because he couldn’t use the money.  It’s because nobody expects adjuncts to negotiate.  It’s also because adjuncts are painfully aware of the temporary nature of their employment.  Adjuncts don’t have to get fired; they can simply not be renewed.  Those on semester-by-semester contracts are essentially re-hired for their jobs every 4 months.  In the SUNY system, there are also 3-year renewable positions; those who hold those positions must be reappointed by their departments every 3 years.^^  The terms of these contracts are set by SUNY, and are non-negotiable.


So what I’ve been wondering is, why are so many people on the internet so outraged over “W”‘s experience?  The vast majority of college faculty hold positions with non-negotiable terms.  The vast majority of academics have contracts that nobody expects to be negotiated.  And for all the outrage that has been expressed over “W”‘s situation, where is all the outrage regarding adjunct contracts?  It took less than 2 weeks for a petition to be posted demanding that the American Philosophical Association “Publicly condemn the actions of Nazareth College and amend the APA Handbook on Placement Practices.”^^^  That is, it took less than 2 weeks for someone to be pissed off enough to demand that the field take notice and press their professional organization for change.


Where is the outrage over the use and abuse of contingent labor?  Where are the petitions demanding that universities be publicly condemned for creating, growing, and relying upon an army of faculty who are not expected to have any negotiating power with respect to their contracts?


In other words, why are so many people pissed off that this is happening to finalists for tenure-track jobs, but so few people are outraged that this has been – for years – standard operating procedure for the hiring of adjuncts?  Or if they are pissed, where are their petitions and blog posts?  As one of my friends very astutely pointed out: people are outraged because (potential) tenure-track faculty are now being faced with (one small part of) the lived reality that contingent faculty have faced for years.  The underlying argument seems to be that we need to fight right now in order to save tenure-track jobs (and their current contractual realities and working conditions) and ensure that these privileges for tenure-track faculty do not erode.  But the truth is, they have long-since eroded, as with each passing year universities move toward an ever-expanding contingent labor force.  Those of us like myself who are lucky enough to hold tenure-track positions are the minority, and in all likelihood we are the last generation of tenure-track faculty,^^^^ unless universities make significant changes.


I have been an academic for most of my adult life.  I spent nearly a decade holding adjunct positions at universities (before and during my time in a PhD program).  I have been on strike for labor issues.  And I have spent some time this past year (since earning tenure) reading about, writing on, and advocating for adjuncts.  And I didn’t realize any of the above until just today.  And this is because, for all my interest and concern, I too have been ignorant to the realities of the academic labor market.  I am ignorant, and I have been paying attention.  I, like most of my colleagues, have come to accept the following:

1. That adjuncts are a permanent part of the academic labor force;

2. That adjuncts will not enjoy equity in the academic labor market (pay, benefits, advancement, support, etc.);

3. That adjuncts will not be expected (or in many cases allowed) to negotiate for better contracts.

Unionization might be a good step in the right direction.  However, adjunct unionization does not change the underlying problem, which is the acceptance of adjuncts as the future of higher education.  While I do believe that unions can be successful in improving the lives of adjuncts, I fear that adjunct unions will only solidify the reliance on adjuncts as the primary workforce for higher education instruction.


Unfortunately, I have no solution to offer.  No grand idea that will change the world.  I will only reiterate what I have written before: work to clean up your own backyard.  It’s not glamorous.  It’s not sexy.  It will take time away from your research.  And some of your colleagues will resent you for it.  But it’s the right thing to do.  And if you work for a department that doesn’t rely on adjunct labor – or has been working to decrease reliance on adjunct labor – please share your experiences.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Academics, on the whole, have simply accepted that it is.  And if there are places where this is not true, we should learn from them.

*A phrase I hate, by the way.  I may blog about this later, but I can assure everyone reading this that I live in the real world.  I have a job.  I have bills.  I am subject to the various social and political tensions that exist in the world.  There is no Ivory Tower.  Or if there is, I haven’t yet found it.  And believe me, I looked.

**Previous posts on this issue have different links.  By all means, check them out.  There’s plenty of information available for those looking to learn more about the topic.

***Yes, I phrased it that way on purpose.  Think about it: permanent temporary employees.  Yes, it is possible to spend one’s career in academia, holding one position, in one department, at one university, for 25 years, and still spend one’s entire career as a “temporary” employee.

^This was certainly true in my case.  However, because I am a bad negotiator, and felt I had no leverage, I did not do so when I was offered my job.  I have no idea what, if anything, I might have been able to negotiate.  But honestly, I don’t care.

^^I am still trying to change the voting policies in my department because, as of right now, contingent faculty are not allowed to vote on the reappointment of contingent faculty.  This, in my opinion, is pretty idiotic.  But it’s also SOP.

^^^As of today, that petition has 50 signatures.

^^^^At my institution, most open tenure-track faculty lines are not filled.  The last university president announced one year that we no longer have “faculty lines,” and that academic departments should no longer expect to be able to replace tenure-track faculty.  He explicitly noted that departments will need to rely on contingent labor to meet their curricular demands.  Our current interim president has asked all departments (academic and otherwise) to submit reports explaining why they should be kept at current staffing and why their ranks should not be reduced.  Even among the faculty, there is an assumption that we cannot even ask for tenure-track labor; one department is attempting to build a new minor that will be run entirely on contingent labor.


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