Report on AAA adjunct rights resolution

[Savage Minds welcome guest columnist Andrea Morrell, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Guttman Community College in NYC. Andrea was our eyes and ears at the AAA business meeting as the Executive Committee received the Committee on Labor Relations' resolution on contingent faculty. Ironically underpaid adjuncts are the very group least likely to afford to attend professional conferences, so we are very grateful to Andrea for her contribution that a more inclusive audience might learn about our Association's ongoing efforts.]

It will likely come as no surprise to readers of Savage Minds that the number of adjunct and contingent faculty (a group that includes part-time or adjunct faculty, grad students and teaching assistants, postdoc appointments, and full-time non-tenure track faculty) teaching courses in U.S. colleges and universities has nearly doubled since 1975. The predominance of contingent and adjunct academic faculty has serious implications for the integrity of college teaching and for academic freedom, but for adjunct and contingent faculty members the most pressing issue is often the material difficulties of making only $2500 per course. Teaching a full load—at many colleges three courses per semester—an adjunct would earn a mere $15,000 a year. Sometimes it is far less.

In addition to the poverty of these wages, the nature of the adjunct or contingent academic’s relationship to their employer is by definition precarious: wages cannot always be relied upon semester to semester and year to year. This precarity is hard for our families, it is hard on our bodies, and it is, quite simply, hard to pay the rent.

So what does this mean for us as anthropologists and for our largest professional organization, the AAA?

Under the leadership of AAA Past President Leith Mullings, the Committee on Labor Relations presented a resolution in support of the rights of contingent faculty at last month’s annual meeting of the AAA. The resolution was passed unanimously both at the Annual Business Meeting and by the AAA’s Executive Board. For Mullings, calling attention to the working conditions of the swelling ranks of adjuncts stems from her work as an anthropologist. She writes,

My own work focuses on structures of inequality and resistance to them. As President of the AAA, I could not ignore the astounding exploitation of our colleagues and former students… While the resolution is primarily a statement of support for adjunct rights, it will function to educate our membership and create a foundation for informed action.

Under Mullings’ leadership, the Committee on Labor Relations, which formed as an organizational response to the lock-out of San Francisco Hilton workers prior to the 2005 Annual Meeting, grew the scope of its role within the association. The committee still serves the function of reviewing contracts and labor conditions at potential meeting sites, but has also taken on the issue of the growing adjunctification of academic labor.

Sharryn Kasmir, the chair of the Committee on Labor Relations, writes,

The resolution was just a first step. In the coming year we’ll work to move the ball forward. AAA members have contacted us because they would like to be in communication with adjunct faculty on other campuses who have organized or who are organizing, and others want to access materials that they could use for teach-ins. We are also considering what policy initiatives might be appropriate and affective at this juncture.

At the annual Business Meeting, not a single audience member spoke or voted against the resolution. In doing so, we resolved as an association that we would commit to the principles of fair compensation, job security, and participation in faculty governance for adjuncts and contingent academic workers. While our associational roles are clearly important, our work must extend beyond the AAA and into our departments, our faculty senates, and most crucially, our unions.

As the New York Times reported this week, many U.S. unions are working to organize adjunct faculty into bargaining units in order to secure a basic level of job protections and benefits. The NYT reports that unionized adjuncts tend to earn 25% more per course. In my own union, the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York, adjunct faculty can qualify for health insurance after a year of teaching and are paid for a weekly office hour if they can maintain a two course per semester load. The pay and job security, however, remain dismal.

How can we as anthropologists, whether employed in varying locations within this hierarchy or unemployed and on the outside looking in, take part in building a more equitable system of academic labor?

If you don’t have a union, consider starting an adjunct organizing group on your campus. And if you are a member of a union, work to make sure adjunct faculty are represented at the collective bargaining table, in grievance procedures, and in union leadership.

For full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty (a group which I just barely and just recently joined) there are ways we can make professional life a little easier for our contingent colleagues. Make sure adjuncts in your department have access to computers, desks, phones, and union reps. Educate yourself so that you know the rules that govern the working conditions of your institution’s adjunct faculty as well as you know the rules that govern your own work. Take steps to include adjuncts in faculty meetings, professional development seminars, and see that they have fair access to all institutional resources.

These are just some suggestions. What do you think are the solutions to building a more equitable university?

Matt Thompson is adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University and a student in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee. He was once cast as a soldier in Andrew Jackson's army in a theatrical production on an Indian reservation.

5 thoughts on “Report on AAA adjunct rights resolution

  1. This is a great report … thanks Andrea. Among the things I am still left to wonder is whether or not anyone pointed out to the AAA that while we’re prepared to propose policy changes and support adjuncts more broadly, the costs of belonging to the Association and of attending its meetings are still prohibitively expensive for most of us adjuncts. Wouldn’t it make the organization’s commitment to these initiatives more compelling (and less token) to actually make changes to address these problems for its own members?

  2. It’s a good start. But until full time tenured faculty speak out in their departments and to the administration against the exploitation of their colleagues, that’s all it is. Demand parity from the administration. Demand more tenure lines. Demand they do their job to find funding, instead of pawning the lobbying off on academics. It’s all very well to support us in resolutions. What happens in your home departments? That’s where we need the support.

  3. Will, I was a presenter in the CoLR workshop on contingent faculty. One of the things I talked about was the high cost of AAA membership and meeting attendance, and I did a brief comparison with the AAPAs and SAAs (the AAAs are the most expensive). So it did get pointed out…FWIW.

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