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Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education


Reviews & Interviews

  January 2006
You May Say that I'm a Dreamer...
Perspective (CFT)
  A yellowing Doonesbury cartoon adorns the office wall of many a contingent faculty member in higher education—that is, the contingent faculty member who actually has an office. The comic strip depicts a contemporary academic version of the infamous “shape-up,” the arrangement whereby hungry longshoremen in the pre-collective bargaining days of the early 1930s would arrive early in the morning at the docks, hoping to latch on to a day’s work through begging or bribing the foreman. One of Gary Trudeau’s crowd of desperate instructors holds up a sign, “Will Teach for Food.”

This is the only slightly exaggerated face of “the new majority faculty,” and Joe Berry, in Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education, provides an excellent brief analysis of who this is and how things got this way. But the real contribution of Berry’s book lies elsewhere, in his demonstration that something can be done about it. The five chapters of this slim (162 pages) but dense book revolve around the proposition that the only way to stem the erosion of higher education work into casualized labor is to organize. Berry thinks contingent
(non-permanent) academics should unionize, and accept—albeit cautiously—the help that established unions can offer in this direction. But the author is insistent that contingent faculty must do the bulk of this work themselves. As Berry puts it, “movement building, as opposed to narrow institution building, is what is needed.”

Practicing what he preaches, Joe Berry (with bullhorn) helps lead a contingent faculty demonstration during the COCAL VI conference held in Chicago in summer 2004.

For people who are often teaching in several institutions at once, trying to patch together a living while attempting to maintain some semblance of a life outside the classroom, this path is not an easy one, as Berry well knows. His insights and observations are rooted in a decades-long personal involvement with contingent higher education employment. His analysis draws strength from its combination of academic rigor (the book emerged from Berry’s late bloomer PhD dissertation) and Berry’s experiences teaching and organizing among contingent faculty (including many years as a Califoria community college instructor, CFT activist and local AFT staffer).

In a passage typical of the book’s praxis-based approach, we learn that less than 40% of new hiring today is for full-time tenure track (FTTT) positions. Immediately afterward Berry recounts how he has been told on numerous occasions by FTTT faculty that “if on the job market today, they would not have the qualifications demanded by the hiring committees on which they serve.”

Sounding the waters of higher education employment statistics, Berry enumerates their murky inadequacies; his best guess is that “sometime in the 1990s the majority of teachers became contingent.” He reviews the hierarchical taxonomy of higher education labor, from elite graduate degree-granting institutions down through fly-by-night diploma mills (finding more than a few similarities in their employment practices). He sketches the impact of corporatization, identifying its two main effects as forcing traditional higher education institutions to become more profit than ser-vice- oriented, and to cater to the needs of big business over the needs of students. In his view, “The casualization of the faculty workforce is the leading edge of this corporatization.” Elsewhere Berry refers to this process as “proletarianization,” and describes the complex consequences of such a shift in class position for a generation of well-educated would-be professionals. Numerous anecdotes convey the human costs of doing professional quality work under unprofessional conditions. But the heart of the book is its hard look at examples of and prospects for organizing contingent faculty. One chapter lays out the issues and examines a variety of strategies employed by contingent faculty in addressing their deteriorating conditions.

Another studies organizing over a couple decades in the Chicago area through oral histories with organizers—some union staff, but also faculty who found themselves, to their own surprise, in that role. Along the way Berry acknowledges and praises the CFT’s historic efforts to organize and provide support for contingent faculty, including its CCC part-timer committee, the Cervisi decision, and its orientation toward combined full-time/part-time faculty bargaining units. (One irritating flaw in the book is its inadequate index, which lists but one reference to CFT; the body of the book contains several.) He honestly assesses various unions’ attempts to organize (or resist organizing) contingent faculty, and measures collective bargaining’s institutional limitations in its efforts to improve contingent members’ lives.

In “A Metro Organizing Strategy” Berry synthesizes these experiences to propose a flexible design for organizing that might meet the immediate needs of contingent faculty while
attempting to save higher education from its own self-destructive administrative trends. The metro strategy combines institution building and movement creation within a regional organization that delivers the goods for members
(the service model) while placing advocacy for all contingent faculty within a broader project of alliances and class consciousness (the solidarity model).

A utopian project in the best sense of the term, Berry’s model borrows from actually existing workers’ centers and union halls in other industries around the country and extrapolates to include virtual and physical sites where contingent faculty could come together to organize. At these sites contingent faculty would find not only each other but also the tools needed to create and sustain campaigns and a movement.

A problem with this otherwise useful and suggestive chapter is that it slides, almost imperceptibly, between a general model for contingent organizing and a specifically Chicago-area discussion, as if the author (or his editor) can’t quite decide which it is.

In his final chapter Berry provides an “organizer’s toolbox:” a compendium of advice and pointers on everything from committee building and legal definitions of bargaining units to communications tips for the far-flung contingent workforce and how to deal effectively with divisions between FTTT and contingents over bargaining.

And then, handbook-like, the narrative abruptly ends. (Berry appends a useful “resources” section.) For Berry, the stakes could not be higher. As he puts it, “The future of higher education depends on how well we do this.” Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change
Higher Education doesn’t have all the answers to the problems it describes, nor does it pretend to. But in gathering best practices in contingent faculty organizing and synthesizing their lessons, Joe Berry has given a gift to
every community college part-timer who, five years into disposable teaching, has moved past asking “why is this happening to me?” to the crucial question: “What can I do about it?”

Fred Glass






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