“The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square. What is your income?” ~ Oscar Wilde’s formidable Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Act I.

And how about traditional higher education in America? What is our income?

After reading the steady stream of contingency narratives that expose unfair labor practices, the stigma of adjuncting, and attempts to quell organized advocacy, one thing is certain: the state of higher ed reveals intentional structural economic violence. It’s time to focus attention on the laws governing contingent labor and hold institutions, boards, and legislators accountable.

According to the United States Department of Labor, Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, Section 5: Contingent Workers, two general recommendations are made:

  1. The definition of employee in labor, employment, and tax law should be modernized, simplified, and standardized. Instead of the control test borrowed from the old common law of master and servant, the definition should be based on the economic realities underlying the relationship between the worker and the party benefiting from the worker’s services.
  2. The definition of employer should also be standardized and grounded in the economic realities of the employment relationship. Congress and the NLRB should remove the incentives that now exist for firms to use variations in corporate form to avoid responsibility for the people who do their work [my emphasis].

Here is a visual of “The Changing Academic Workforce” that shows the economic realities:

Banner showing adjunct disparity

Over the course of 40 years, the profession devolved from one largely founded on respect and security to one that standardizes unfair labor conditions and creeping corporate gain. Clearly, the tolerance of this issue marginalizes all faculty. Foremost, we need an ideological culture shift, and then we may confront the real issues that undermine the profession, with restored ethos, voice, and action.

This too is clear: all university laborers are burdened by this issue despite the fact that some are more insulated than others. Increasingly, faculty from all tiers advocate for change. Unfortunately, a portion of the 1.5 million contingent academic workers in our nation remain silent and anonymous for an understandable reason: coming out in academe is potentially thorny because many of us lack the rarified security of tenure. Silence breeds complicity, though, and the sooner all faculty collectively confront the issue, the sooner we can all get back to research, teaching, and service with an emphasis on impactful student learning.

Faculty have nothing more to lose and much to gain by banding together on this labor issue that also bleeds into social, race, and women’s issues. For example, all pregnant workers should be eligible and covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act — which is really a human rights issue dodged by the legalese of at-will employment “contracts”. This issue in particular needs exposure.

Now it’s fair enough that some elect to adjunct free of economic necessity, but circulating the “happy adjunct” myth is absurd. Yes, some adjuncts do want to work part time only, but they should only do so for equitable pay. Certainly, adjuncts with an ongoing record of employment merit basic job securities; the University of Denver’s approach acknowledges this. As core faculty, we are valuable. Why, then, are the majority of us still not justly compensated? Because faculty haven’t rocked the boat in unison and administrators won’t institutionalize equity until we do.

Pushing for fair play in the workplace needn’t be contentious. Indeed, this is another myth, as nearly everyone from all the tiers that with whom I’ve discussed the elephant-in-the-room agree: this is an ugly issue, so now what?  Increasingly, it is beyond anyone’s public or private denial that balance must be restored. But brick-and-mortar models that continue to manage costs by cutting and fracturing instructional labor are fundamentally flawed, which inevitably fuels a rigorous debate about the role and function of higher ed in society.

The Delta Cost Project reports that

“Full-time faculty salaries have grown little in recent years, making them an unlikely culprit behind rising higher education costs. Other personnel costs, including employee benefits and compensation for staff providing non-instructional services, have grown faster. Although reliance on adjunct faculty has held down instructional costs, it has not been enough to offset these other costs,” (“Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education,”).

As administrative positions and their professional staff multiply, the problem just gets bigger and the walls shrink given the bulge. And this is not hearsay. The findings in this 2014 report are researched and published by an independent, nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization, the American Institutes for Research.

It seems logical that many schools need to scale back to optimal working, teaching, and learning conditions, find the funds to accommodate equitable and ethical expansion, or explode into “new” and/or MOOC territory. Arizona State University’s New American University and MOOCs promise to serve exponentially more students; and what’s terrifying — besides ASU’s Orwellian “Office of Knowledge and Enterprise Development” — is that Jeb Bush and Bill Clinton show bipartisan support for the idea of a new university: they endorse the book. These respective brands of education minimize human instruction (buzzword: innovation), maximize enrollment (buzzword: inclusion), and stress global impact (buzz-phrase: universal education), made possible by the use of Learning Management Systems that deliver content, but fall short on instruction. (Of course, the New American University and the rise of MOOC models are distinct and complex entities.) At least Hillary Clinton acknowledges that “Technology is a tool, not a teacher.”

I think the question for any institution is: what model is sustainable for your particular mission and community? And for learners, competition is a driving force in our economy, and choice is a good thing; there isn’t a monopoly on higher ed. But so long as accreditation and prestige matter to hiring bodies, institutional choice matters. What’s emerged from the higher ed bulge is an interesting pool of hierarchical swimmers. And if/when status and/or face-to-face education cease to be relevant or don’t factor into one’s choice, why not self-educate, sign up for a MOOC, or enroll in Oplerno’s cost-friendly, transferable courses? The only sure bets for survival are the elites. Oxford is amused.

The vexed state of traditional higher ed begs exposure and reform foremost because it poses a significant threat to student learning and faculty earning conditions, but the for-profit sector — once considered a transformative force that adapted to student needs and career-track gaps — has also steadily failed students, faculty, and taxpayers. Here’s a snapshot of the shadiest case in the spectrum of higher ed schemes: a veteran returns home eager to transition into civilian life and school with the G.I. Bill. She Googles “media design” or “dental hygiene” and within 2-24 hours aggressive for-profit college recruiters hook her into debt with false promises. This is wrong, and this is why the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions prepared “For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment  and Ensure Student Success” (July 30, 2012) . The report reveals that 37% of all Post-9/11 G.I. Bill dollars flow to for-profit schools that notoriously exploit their part-time faculty (on the low end 80%, but up to 100% of all faculty) and prey on vulnerable students. The numbers tell a dirty story: the sector received $7.5B in Pell grants in 2009-10 and $32B, 25% of the total Department of Education student aid program funds, but student failure rates are high and job placement, dismal. It’s maddening.

No matter what type of institution one attends or works at, the central message is the same: don’t get bullied on the playground. Equality is worth fighting for, and with gravitas we all stand to gain. It’s useful to take pause and consider: what must the student body think of us if we fail to negotiate and restructure, and in doing so further compromise their education in an age where the odds are already stacked against them in the form of student debt and a highly competitive job economy in flux? Should we sit idly, or should we model behavior and dialogue instead, the foundation of sustainability and security for all? There are several creative and ethical ways to start the conversation.

I entered the national discussion March 24th, 2014 as a speaker in an Adjunct Action Town Hall at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. with SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, Congressman George Miller (D-CA), and Kerry Danner-McDonald, Adjunct Professor of Theology at Georgetown. In this town hall, Rep. Miller and President Henry urged adjuncts in the room to exercise democracy. My message to adjunct faculty: we’re not passive victims in the marginalization.

Rep. Miller also dispelled myths about the alleged higher education budget crisis: “There’s plenty of money in higher education. It’s just not being directed at front-line teaching,” he said. But the truth is, until more of us are moved to action, nothing will change. Honestly, change is a welcome relief for everyone involved in the higher ed crisis, and the open-minded search for solutions signals positive progress.

When I asked Rep. Miller if he could “pressure accreditors to push for adjunct equity,” he said: “You want a fight? Nothing gets university administrators more heated than mention of accreditation.” This can happen, he assured us, but adjuncts must mobilize for equity first. This is a ground-up struggle against the grain of a broken business model that’s been built on our backs.

And now nearly one year after the town hall in Washington, D.C., SEIU announced Faculty Forward in a teleconference on February 5th, 2015. The proposed Faculty for 15K campaign ignites another round of national conversations and collective action for all faculty. As Gary Rhoades, Head of the Department of Educational Policy Studies & Practice, and Professor and Director of th Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, says: “This really forces a conversation about where we put our money, if not in the core mission of higher education.” Yes, it sure does.

One thing that keeps me afloat and verbal in the struggle is the company of heroes. Among those, Jesse Stommel, who unflinchingly says he will “fight to the death of [his] own tenure” in support of colleagues like me, is super heroic. And Adrianna Kezar, Professor of Higher Education, University of Southern California, researches transformational change in higher ed and moves the needle on faculty working conditions. The work and social media presence of reformers with the ideological vision to authentically redesign higher education show us just how critical and influential insight and external pressure are in this debate.