An Adjunct Bill of Rights

November 29, 2006

Academic freedom has been pushed to the front burner in higher education. Since September 11, amid concerns about national unity and security, state lawmakers and college administrators have taken to criticizing professors for views expressed both on and off campus.

Meanwhile, a campaign by David Horowitz to pressure universities to adopt his Academic Bill of Rights, has been opposed by the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association, who view the bill as "a political tool to deny the academic freedom and free-speech rights of faculty and students."

Yet the biggest threat to academic freedom comes from the fact that nearly two-thirds of all college faculty members nationwide now teach without any job security whatsoever.

Since the AAUP has said that "faculty tenure is the only secure protection for academic freedom in teaching, research, and service," ("Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession," 2003), how can 500,000 adjuncts -- who have no job security, let alone tenure -- be said to truly possess academic freedom?

When adjuncts step into a classroom without the benefit of tenure, isn't that akin to a trapeze artist working without a net?

This is not a new issue. Back in 1999, in an article called "To Many Adjunct Professors, Academic Freedom is a Myth," The Chronicle cited numerous cases of non-tenure-track instructors who had lost their jobs and felt they had been denied academic freedom and due process. Many had been let go without explanation.

Even when part-timers discover that a complaint has been lodged against them, they may have no chance to confront the allegations, since they may not be entitled to a grievance procedure, let alone to a formal hearing with a jury of their peers. And even where part-time faculty members can file grievances, they may run into major obstacles, especially if their union represents both part-timers and full-timers.

Teresa Knudsen, an adjunct who taught English at Spokane Community College, co-wrote an article with me that highlighted the disparate treatment between part-timers and full-timers in the Washington state community college system ("Colleges Exploiting Part-Time Professors, The Spokesman-Review, February 13, 2005). Two weeks after it was published, Knudsen said she was called in and informed that the full-time faculty members were "insulted" by the article, and that, as an employee, she represented the college. Knudsen said she was told there were limits and consequences to free speech, and that someone as unhappy as she was ought to quit.

When Knudsen refused to resign, she says that college administrators made several trivial (and false) charges against her and terminated her. College officials told The Spokesman-Review that the decision not to renew her contract had nothing to do with her right to free speech.

Knudsen says she had an unblemished teaching record for 17 years prior to the publication of her opinion article in the local newspaper. Although she was covered by a union contract with an academic-freedom clause, as an adjunct, her rights to appeal were severely limited. She thinks it unlikely that she will ever teach at the college again. And she is convinced that she would still be teaching there if she had been tenured.

P.D. Lesko, editor of The Adjunct Advocate, wrote in the September/October 2006 issue that she has a long list of adjuncts who have recently lost their jobs because of academic-freedom issues. Tenured faculty, she noted, rarely face the loss of their jobs when questions of academic freedom arise, the exception being Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado, whose dismissal was recommended by the university's interim chancellor last June: "The difference between these [adjunct] lecturers and Ward Churchill, of course, is that in the case of most of these temporary faculty members, no one convened a committee to examine the charges against them. They were not afforded due process, or one imagines, given a real opportunity to defend their actions. They were summarily sacked (or resigned) as a result of something they either said or wrote."

Tenured professors may well be in the best position to champion academic freedom for both full-timers and part-timers. After all, they are far less likely to lose their jobs for speaking out.

However, Judith Wagner DeCew, a professor of philosophy at Clark University, has pointed out that most full-time faculty members have not seen fit to concern themselves with the increased hiring and exploitation of part-time faculty members. In Unionization in the Academy: Visions and Realities (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), she writes: "While some full-time faculty members speak out for and support part-timers, there is a sense that most full-time appointees are concerned about their own salaries and working conditions, whether unionized or not. . . . Numerous studies have shown that the difficulties that part-time faculty confront can often be attributed to the fact that full-time faculty in academia are primarily concerned with protecting their own professional positions and privileges, not employment equity."

Ken Jacobsen, a Democratic state senator from Seattle and a frequent advocate for part-time faculty members, has said that the reason the Teamsters struck United Parcel Service back in 1997 was because the full-timers felt the increasing use of part-timers would mean less work for them, since UPS could always choose to call in the lower-paid temporary workers. But since tenured professors are guaranteed a full-time workload year after year, Jacobsen says, they have not felt threatened by academe's increased hiring of part-timers, and thus have looked the other way, feeling that the adjuncts' plight does not affect them. Full-timers, Jacobsen said, have their piece of the pie, and their primary goal is to hang on to it, and to make sure that no one else takes it away.

College professors cannot teach successfully if they are in constant fear of losing their jobs because of something they said in class or wrote in a published article. They cannot enforce high standards, if they fear doing so will cost them their livelihood. It is high time that we begin to extend job security, and even tenure, to contingent faculty members of all stripes.

In Washington State, Senator Jacobsen has introduced legislation to give continuing annual contracts to all 11,000 part-time faculty members who teach in the 34 community and technical colleges. His Senate Bill 5970 would require each two-year college to develop a new "associate faculty" position for part-timers, who would be eligible for annual contracts after three years of teaching half-time or more (full-time faculty members in the system achieve tenure in three years). The contracts would be renewable each year, although the college could move to revoke them for cause, in which case the associate faculty member would have full due-process rights, including a formal hearing.

In addition, associate faculty members would be able to teach up to a full-time load; if their classes were cancelled for low enrollment, they would have the right to bump faculty members with lower seniority; they would be paid a third of their contract in the event there were no classes for them to teach; their names would appear in the college's biennial catalogs; and the associate status would be bestowed on all adjuncts who had taught for three years or more prior to the passage of the bill.

Jacobsen first submitted the bill in 2005, and it sat in committee, which offen happens with new legislation. He will resubmit it when the Washington State Legislature opens its session in January. Both immediate past AAUP president Jane Buck and current president Cary Nelson have offered their public support for the bill. Indeed, Nelson has urged the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association to join in in supporting it. Neither has done so thus far.

For far too long, accrediting associations, college administrators, and union leaders have ignored the fact that academic freedom and tenure are inextricably linked. You cannot have one without the other. The best way to ensure that adjuncts have academic freedom and due process is to pass legislation like Jacobsen's, which would extend the real Bill of Rights to all faculty members by giving them the security they need in order to do their jobs.

Keith Hoeller, a part-time faculty member who teaches philosophy in the Washington State community college system, is a co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and a member of the AAUP's national Committee on Contingent Faculty and the Profession.