fight for fifteen, part two

In my last post I described my participation in last month’s Adjunct Action rally in Saint Louis. Adjunct Action is a project of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). I’ve since participated in two meetings between adjuncts and upper administration on the Saint Louis University (SLU) campus and learned with some considerable sadness that the effort to organize adjuncts at Webster University across town has failed for the present.

I am an adjunct, though not a typical one. I teach only one course, a senior seminar. As a retiree I have benefits such as health insurance, and I do not need to make my living as an adjunct. I am what is termed a volunteer professional in the current iteration of the Jesuit Just Employment Policy, which we adjuncts at Saint Louis University are asking our administration to adopt. But I have met many young adjuncts since I first became involved in this movement who are making their living as adjuncts, teaching (some of them) upwards of eighteen classes a year at several universities and colleges in order to make ends meet in their busy lives, serving as part of the pool of just-in-time casual labor on which most universities rely to do most teaching of basic courses, and sometimes more, these days.

I have found these young people to be bright, energetic, competent, and savvy. It is not their fault that their academic careers did not open with tenure-track jobs upon their graduation with terminal degrees. It is a mournful fact that the majority of graduates of today’s graduate schools find that their academic careers end with the acquisition of terminal degrees. Marc Bousquet has documented the phenomenon exhaustively in his 2008 book, How the University Works. This result is produced by an insidious system that protects the privilege of “professional” faculty, who don’t have to teach much (which is just as well since many of them find teaching distasteful) and the sometimes redundant graduate programs that employ them as specialists, and of the now vastly inflated administrator class in colleges and universities.

The relegation of responsibility for core mission to a cheap and disposable cadre of casual employees benefits institutional bottom lines as well, which benefit leaves trustees and legislative overseers free to pursue more important concerns such as athletics, property, and alumni relations. In short, today’s university system is designed to serve the interests of everyone but students, their parents, who often pay exorbitant amounts to send their children to colleges and universities whose faculties and administrations hold them in contempt, and the casual faculty itself.

If you think this is extreme, take a look at at a piece in yesterday’s Huffington Post, in which Keith M. Parsons details his message to a group of college freshmen. My Western Civ professor years ago ended the year by telling us ignoramuses that he had “enjoyed” casting his pearls before us swine. This is about the level of Professor Parsons’ discourse. Professor Parsons claims that his students are adults and therefore need only to be led to the fountain of learning (a rhetorical confusion if his audience is a student audience—to whom is he preaching?). Why not treat his students as adults and speak to them as adults. Why the condescension, the posturing, the self-aggrandizement?

I am your professor, not your teacher. There is a difference. Up to now your instruction has been in the hands of teachers, and a teacher’s job is to make sure that you learn. Teachers are evaluated on the basis of learning outcomes, generally as measured by standardized tests. If you don’t learn, then your teacher is blamed. However, things are very different for a university professor. It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job — and yours alone.

To be clear, I am seriously opposed to high-stakes testing and its consequences, particularly the sort of teaching to the test that is becoming standard in schools. But arrogance is arrogance—Professor Parsons is a beautiful illustration of the fact. And begging his pardon, learning is a shared job, in university as in school. To assume the mantle of professor is to assume a huge responsibility. Professor Parsons, rather than accepting that responsibility and taking it seriously, seems intent only upon asserting his superiority to the great unwashed. But Professor Parsons is not an anomaly. He represents the norm, or one aspect of it. He represents the regular part of the professoriate, tenured (or tenurable), privileged in the sense of being allowed relative autonomy to practice his craft (which somehow doesn’t exactly include teaching), and relatively well paid.

But here is how the casual faculty lives and works. Their wages are kept low; the academic job market is a buyer’s market after all, and individual adjuncts have no power to negotiate better wages. (The norm for adjunct compensation at SLU is $3000 per course.) Adjunct employment is restricted at part-time, which restriction avoids the necessity for paying benefits and the possibility of de-facto tenure in the case of adjuncts employed year in and year out. Many universities are now employing their own PhD graduates as adjuncts for a year or two, sometimes more. This is especially true for universities who created PhD programs during the 1970s when post World War II expansion seemed to promise endless economic growth on campus. Many of these mediocre graduate programs no longer have a market justification, but of course their faculties have to be kept busy.

A normal adjunct is employed to teach, and the mere fact that now more than half of the teaching in colleges and universities is done by low-paid adjuncts indicates more than any other fact or set of facts just how seriously colleges and universities take their teaching responsibility. The contempt with which university trustees, administrators, and professional faculties view the basic teaching function is, I believe, primarily to be measured by the fact that what is becoming a majority of the university teaching faculty is being forced into academic peonage. Adjuncts are typically disdained by regular faculty. They do not attend faculty meetings as a rule. They have no vote on matters of policy that concern them. And the best that administrators seem to be able to come up with as an improvement to this system of peonage is to continue it in one form or another, perhaps offering adjuncts yearly contracts with some benefits and a better wage but continuing to enforce their serfdom.

Higher education in America is under grave stress. On the one hand there is much to criticize in the behavior of our major universities and elite colleges. And on the other, every few weeks now we read of wantonly destructive policy changes aimed at these treasured institutions by venal trustees and politicians out to score points with Americans who are presumed to have no affinity for learning or to disestablish academic institutions in the interest of right-wing ideology, junk science, or no science at all. But a more important problem may be that colleges and universities expanded too far too fast after World War II and produced a system that would inevitably have proved unsustainable at the end of the baby-boomer generation. Professor Parsons and others like him for whom the professoriate is an entitlement rather than a responsibility are protected from market forces by the scores of adjuncts who have neither status nor tenure nor job security but do the work of generalists in today’s system of higher education.

Adjuncts are organizing all over the country now, and are winning concessions from university administrations. This is important, I believe, because I am persuaded that higher education in America is in decline and the competition to control the decline is serious and fierce. I am further persuaded that adjuncts are the voiceless in today’s scheme of higher education. I see SEIU Adjunct Action as potentially giving adjuncts a voice, potentially a place at the negotiating table as we as a people attempt to manage the dislocation and human destructiveness of a declining system.

—and that is why I have joined up.

fight for fifteen

Two days ago I participated in my local ““fight for fifteen” (a union effort asking $15.00 an hour for various groups of hourly wage earners, and $15k per course for adjuncts who do most of the teaching in today’s colleges and universities). By all accounts the event must have been pretty effective around the world. Our event in St. Louis began in a variety of locations and culminated in a large rally at Washington University (Washu) followed by a march to the Delmar Loop that was joined by groups from Tennessee and Arkansas.

Here I am with Rev. Teresa Danieley, the Rector of my church, and Brendan Lambert, a co-parishioner, as we assembled around 2:00 at the Clock Tower at Saint Louis University (SLU) before walking to the president’s office to deliver a petition with over 600 signatures asking the university to recognize our union effort and allow organizing to go forward without interference.

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Here are some forty of us in an anteroom at the executive suite in Du Bourg Hall with a placard that showed 500 of the names affixed to the petition.

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And here’s a shot of the sheaf of pages containing all 601 signatures we delivered. Note how many on this page are students.

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My involvement with this movement goes back over a year to a meeting I attended at the Missouri History Museum, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), when I heard the first serious discussions with which I have had any personal contact about a nationwide effort to organize adjunct faculty in colleges and universities. That meeting and one other I attended, in Chicago last October, focused on organizing adjunct faculty in the Catholic colleges and universities. I’m going to write another blog post about moral and political issues at stake in this effort for higher education and particularly for Catholic higher education. Today I want do my best to display yesterday’s events and point with pride.

The effort to collect signatures at SLU contiues and is of course part of a larger effort that we hope will eventuate in the formation of an SEIU local at SLU. Parallel organizing efforts are underway at a number of St. Louis colleges and universities. Washu adjuncts have formed a union and are presently negotiating with the Washu administration over slaries, benefits and working conditions. Adjuncts at Webster University are about to vote whether to organize. The effort to hold a union election at Saint Louis Community College has presently been blocked by the administration in Jefferson City, but it is hoped that an election can be held this summer.

Here are some photos I took on the way from the clock tower to Du Bourg: A nicely chalked wall in front of the Center for Global Citizenship,

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and some of us passing underneath the archway at the main Grand Bloulevard crossing just adjacent to Du Bourg.

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After we delivered the SLU petition our SLU group dispersed for various other activities and eventual transportation to Washu. Kathleen joined me after her class at about 3:00. We drove out to University City, and parked in a large grocery store parking lot, where we got T shirts, hats, and a ride to Brookings Hall at Washu. Here’s Kathleen at Seafood City with a small group of rally participants.

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And here she is again just as we arrived at Washu. The place looks pretty empty so far, but this is early.

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The Washu rally had been scheduled to begin at 4:15 (get it?), but we didn’t start on time because many groups (I suspect the groups from Tenessee and Arkansas among them) were caught in the late afternoon traffic snarl around Forest Park and arrived late. The schedule didn’t matter though, because the crowd at Washu was plenty big and made a beautiful noise (The Post-Dispatch estimates there were around 300 assembled as the rally culminated on the steps of Brookings Hall.

Here are a few photos I shot before the rally began.

Milling around:

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Solidarity:

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Kathleen with poster:

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Making impromptu posters:

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Some of Washu’s finest, coming through:

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Media observed:

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“What do we want? FIFTEEN! When do we want it? NOW!”

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After this things moved pretty fast as some large groups of folks arrived. This one was the most dramatic. It seemed they streamed all the way back to Forest Park, which would be in the far background of some of these photos if you could see through the trees.

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Here’s another group arriving. I’m at the top of the stairs, looking down.

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And here’s a shot of the thick of the crowd.

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There was cheerleading and speechifying. Here are a few of the performers.

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Here’s the day’s best T-shirt slogan.

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And at the end of it all, T. Eliot’s grandfather, the founder of Washu. The monument sits just under the arch that formed the background of the rally. I couldn’t resist ending with it.

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We left after the rally, tired and hungry. I hope somebody else got some photos of the do on the loop. More later about why I’m in this.