Blaming the Victim: Ladder Faculty and the Lack of Adjunct Activism

From Chronicle Vitae:

In April 2013, I attended Adjunct Action’s first symposium in Boston, where the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was kicking off its efforts to organize adjuncts at area universities. In a little over a year since that meeting, I’ve watched from the sidelines as fellow attendees—part-time faculty at Tufts, Lesley, and, most recently, Northeastern University—have voted yes to unionization. And I’ve seen the SEIU’s metro-organizing strategy spread to cities across the country.

As a full-time adjunct professor, I am not currently eligible to vote in a union election. The adjunct labor movement has necessarily prioritized the working conditions of part-time faculty, many of whom are living below the poverty line. But adjuncts need not be card-carrying union members to benefit from these victories, which have transformed academia’s once-invisible underclass into its most vocal majority. The inequalities in academic employment may still be firmly in place, but thanks to these unionization efforts, contingent faculty are now active participants in the national conversation about the future of higher education.

As adjuncts have found a collective voice, however, they have also brought into sharp relief the silence of another group of faculty: tenured and tenure-track professors. This silence is particularly notable given that humanists and social scientists have a long history of speaking up for those who have been denied a voice—advocacy made possible by the protections of tenure. My own field of American studies has been transformed by the work of intellectuals who view scholarship and sociopolitical activism as deeply intertwined endeavors. When the American Studies Association passed its controversial resolution to support the boycott of Israeli universities last December, for instance, its stated purpose was to take a stand against violations of academic freedom in “the pursuit of social justice.”

Yet despite this professed commitment to activism, few tenured scholars have taken adequate action against the inequalities that form the bedrock of higher education in America. Why do established scholars, who speak openly about other social and economic injustices, refrain from allying themselves with those of us who are denied academic freedom by virtue of our identities as adjuncts? How are we to explain this silence?

One answer may be willful ignorance. Most tenured faculty, especially those not directly involved in the hiring of part-time workers, display a surprising lack of knowledge about the professional and economic realities of contingent colleagues in their departments and in the profession more broadly. Senior scholars have assured me, for instance, that all faculty experience their share of inequitable treatment, that disparities and resentments exist at every level of the institutional hierarchy.

There is some truth to this claim, which has the potential to give common cause to tenure-line and non-tenure-track faculty. Instead, most ladder faculty—whether wittingly or not—transfer some share of their burdens to adjunct labor. The rationale that all faculty face disparities ends up being used as an excuse for maintaining the institutional status quo. It uses one form of exploitation to justify another. And it overlooks the fact that, in purely economic terms, the exploitative employment practices affecting ladder and non-ladder faculty are hardly comparable. With job mobility practically nonexistent for adjuncts, it can no longer be argued that we are simply “paying our dues” like everyone else once did until better opportunities arise.

When I have expressed concern about the tenuousness of my own academic future, I’ve been cautioned that my expectations for better job mobility and security may be interpreted as too ambitious, even “uppity,” coming from a career contingent (and, though it’s left unsaid, a woman). Tenured colleagues tend to view my predicament as singularly inexplicable. As an adjunct with research credentials to match those of many tenured scholars, I am often described as an “anomaly.” That’s probably intended as praise for my productivity, but it effectively undermines my solidarity with other adjuncts. I wonder, too, how many other non-tenure-track scholars with extensive publication records and active research agendas are being told that they are “anomalous,” and whether such exceptionalism has in fact become the rule.

Tenured colleagues who confess surprise at my contingent status suggest that I don’t belong among the lower ranks because adjuncts are “lazy.” Those adjuncts who complain about their circumstances and lack of security are dismissed as “whiny” and “entitled.” To many research faculty, adjuncts are “failed” scholars who were unwilling to put in the time and hard work necessary to land a tenure-track job.

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