Teeth for the C.A.W.

Over the last forty years, there has been a dramatic shift in the instructional staff at US colleges and universities. Increasingly, institutions of higher education have hired faculty members who are not on the tenure-track and, in large part, are hired in part-time positions (see app. for more detailed data on these trends). In 1970 faculty members in part-time positions represented only 22.0% of all faculty members teaching in US colleges and universities; in 2007 they represented 48.7%. Of faculty members who are full time, well over a third do not have access to tenure. When graduate teaching assistants are included in the calculations, barely one quarter of the instructional staff are full-time and have access to tenure. The shift toward a more contingent workforce is occurring at all types of institutions in both the public and private sectors.

Coalition on the Academic Workforce, “One Faculty Serving All Students.”

This is a nice summary of what is arguably the most important set of facts about U.S.education at the university level. It’s presence in a mainstream organization’s report, sponsored by the Modern Language Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, among others, isn’t exactly new, but it does represent the fruits of a decades long struggle led by graduate students, starting just as the internet began to take off in the early 1990s. It’s their voices hidden between these lines.

It’s also a remarkably soft take on the sorts of policies that have led to this mess. Noting that the recession is likely to accelerate these trends, the reports says that universities respond in one of two ways: “Some institutions increase their hiring of contingent faculty members to cover enrollment growth. Others reduce the number, resulting in increased class size and workload for full-time faculty members.” Surprisingly, what follows isn’t a critique or a list of better money saving alternatives.

Instead, the report writers launch into a defense of part-time teachers, as if the issue wasn’t the ongoing destruction of an independent academia, but the “‘dissing of the part timers.” Never mind academic freedom of speech, or tenure, or even the quality of instruction, the problem is respect! I suppose I shouldn’t be so cynical; this is certainly a step in the right direction. But its tentativeness is only going to feed the suspicion, hinted at recently in the MLA Newsletter, that not everyone wants change.

Respect is necessary and welcome, but it’s not even a starting point for the change that needs to happen. Here’s three things they could do immediately. The CAW needs to call for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and for the end of university policies, such as hiring union busting firms, designed to prevent teachers from organizing. The CAW needs to call for policies that would either freeze or cut the salaries of the highest paid people, not teachers, at universities under financial duress. That’s respect with teeth.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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