Interview by Gwendolyn Beetham
Welcome back, Academic Feminists! This edition of the Academic Feminist features Marisa Allison, doctoral student in Public and Applied Sociology at George Mason University and a Researcher at the New Faculty Majority Foundation (NFMF), the research arm of the New Faculty Majority. Her research and advocacy work address the academic labor conditions of adjunct and other contingent faculty positions – positions that now make up over 75% of the total faculty in universities and colleges across the U.S. She is currently working with colleagues at NFMF and the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education on collecting the responses of colleges and universities to the Affordable Care Act mandate that would extend healthcare to many of their part-time faculty. Most recently she has worked with colleagues at GMU on one of the most comprehensive studies of contingent faculty working conditions to date, which they will be donating for open source use to the NFMF. She “likes” to call herself a future contingent faculty member.
Your research examines the “feminization of higher education.” What is that exactly, and how did you come to be interested in the subject?
My interest in the academic labor conditions of women began in a feminist research methods course I took in the Women and Gender Studies and Sociology Department’s at George Mason University. During the year-long course, we were asked to conduct research that would illuminate the gender climate amongst students on campus. I decided to focus my research on women who were at the end of their doctoral degree programs to find out what their plans and aspirations were post-graduation. The majority of the women I spoke with were already teaching multiple courses, many at several different colleges and universities, in contingent faculty positions while finishing their degree programs. Though most of these women wanted to go on to full time, tenure track positions in higher education, those who were on the job market, especially in the humanities and social sciences, fully expected that they would be teaching in these piecemeal, adjunct/contingent faculty positions for years to come because of the condition of the academic job market. It was from this research project that I became more broadly interested in the working conditions of contingent faculty in U.S. colleges and universities, many of whom are women.
What we know about women who work in academia is that they reside heavily in the lower faculty ranks. According to American Association of University Professor’s (AAUP) most recent report, 51% of female faculty ranked at the assistant level and below, while only 33% of male faculty members ranked at the same levels. In the highest faculty rank, 40% of male faculty members had reached full professorship, compared to only 21% of female faculty members. When we look at contingent faculty (named so because of the precarious nature of their work), the composition of faculty in their ranks is often hidden in national data or goes unreported by colleges and universities because they are often given employment on a semester by semester basis. That being said, we would not be surprised to find that a majority of contingent faculty are women because they are largely coming from disciplines in the humanities and social sciences that have higher numbers of female students, like English and History. This can be seen in the responses of national organizations like the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Historical Association (AHA) who have, in recent years, started addressing the issues surrounding the increasing use of contingent faculty from their disciplines.
You also work with the New Faculty Majority Foundation, a coalition dedicated to education and advocacy surrounding working conditions in academia today and their effects on adjunct and contingent faculty. What have been some of your most surprising findings in undertaking this work?
One of the most surprising things I discovered during the time I have worked with the New Faculty Majority Foundation is the growth of contingent faculty in U.S. higher education. Last year contingent faculty made up 76% of the total faculty in U.S. colleges and universities, according to the AAUP 2012-2013 annual report. That percentage has risen from about 40% in 1975. Like other precarious workers their plight is often hidden and their employers are not held accountable for the conditions under which they work. Students often have little idea that most of the faculty members teaching their classes are making less than a living wage, are given little time to prepare the courses they are teaching, have little to no job security, no benefits, and often have no office, phone or computer to use. The average pay for a contingent faculty member last year was $2,700 per 3 credit hour course. Many contingent faculty will teach courses at multiple colleges and universities trying to piece together a living. In order to keep these workers part-time, many universities will not allow them to teach more than 3 courses a semester. Hypothetically speaking, this means that contingent faculty would have to teach an average of 8 classes a semester in order to make the lower starting salary of a tenure track faculty member in the social sciences, and this is without any benefits. More recently, to get out of their responsibilities under the Affordable Care Act, many colleges and universities have cut back on the amount of courses a part-time faculty could teach from 3 courses a semester to 2. Instead of using this opportunity to expand healthcare to these faculty they have put them in an even tougher financial position.
What is most intriguing to me about the growth of contingent faculty is that it has coincided with the growth of women in doctoral degree programs. In 2002, women in the U.S. surpassed men in doctoral degree conferrals becoming one of the last degree categories (along with professional degree programs) where women have exceeded men. Since students in doctoral programs are being groomed for positions in the academy, it is particularly important for us to keep our attention to the academic labor conditions experienced by women. In this respect, institutions of higher education have a power that other institutions do not as they have the ability to flood their own labor markets and that is exactly what is happening.
How much has the higher education environment changed since you started working on this project? Where do you see it going in the future?
In the past five years, it seems that the working conditions of contingent faculty are getting more attention and much more action is being taken to improve their working conditions, but it is still hidden. Following the recent death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University, Daniel Kovalik reported that the caseworker she was assigned to at Adult Protective Services was astonished to discover that she was a professor. Following her death, students and parents flocked to social media sites shocked that a professor at a university could make less than $25,000 a year and could be fired after 25 years of service while going through treatment for a terminal illness with no retirement and no severance package because she was deemed ”no longer an effective teacher.” Stories like Margaret Mary’s are shocking and appalling.
What we know from our research at the NFM Foundation (and elsewhere), however, is that Margaret Mary’s experience is the norm, not the exception. Her story is the story of many faculty who have given their all to their profession and to their students because they love the work they do. Recently, the solidarity campaign #iammargaretmary popped up on twitter, with other faculty members sharing stories about their working conditions. We should be concerned about the future of higher education. The academic labor force is already flooded and a whole host of students are in the pipeline to join them. Tenure track positions are getting more and more difficult to find with people in some fields reportedly being on the market for upwards of 5-7 years. Although there’s no clear solution, recently there has been success in unionization strategies across the U.S. Here in the D.C. metro area, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has recently introduced a metro strategy that has successfully unionized part time faculty at George Washington University, American University, and most recently at Georgetown. SEIU is employing similar strategies at Boston area colleges and universities as well.
How can students get involved in supporting adjunct and other contingent faculty members – in being part of this solution?
Contingent faculty activists often say, “Our working conditions are student learning conditions.” This is certainly the case. Students are impacted when their instructors do not have private offices to meet with them or if they can’t make the copies they need for classes. Students with special needs are impacted when their instructors have not been trained or given the time needed to ensure their materials are accessible for everyone. Students are impacted when faculty are only given a few weeks to prepare to teach their classes. Students are impacted when their instructors are homeless or have unresolved health issues from being underinsured and students have a platform from which they can speak because both they and these faculty members deserve better. Some of the most successful strategies for helping to organize contingent faculty members have come from students themselves. Concerned students at American University and Georgetown created videos that they spread on social media supporting collective bargaining rights of their contingent faculty. Some argued that the campaigns would not have been successful without their support. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has been largely involved in organizing campaigns for campus workers’ rights, advocating through campus chapters across the U.S. for collective bargaining rights for contingent faculty. Whether students join an on-going campaign on their campus or start one themselves, they really have one of the strongest voices to advocate for their faculty and for their own education.
This interview originally appeared in Feministing on October 14, 2013.