RECLAIMING THE IVORY TOWER
December 9, 2005
Review by Martin M. Goldstein
Santa Monica College
My father, a New York lawyer and political liberal of
long standing, used to refer to certain airy intellectuals as people
who were "very smart, but had no brains." This concept kept coming
back to me as I read Joe Berry's analysis of the current state of
higher education in America. His discussion centers on a workforce
transformed in one generation from one of almost exclusively
full-time tenure track positions -- the traditional "Professor" --
to one where such positions are now the minority.
Sometime in the mid-90's a majority of college teachers became contingent laborers, as either part-time or full-time temporary -- not counting the routinely abused grad students, or the growing for-profits and non-credits, where contingency comes standard. This new class of professors have fewer benefits (like job security or health insurance) and lesser pay, and are doing the majority of the work.
If such a thing happened to auto workers or nurses or elementary school teachers, we'd have seen them permanently weakened as union bargaining units. Rather, this happened to college professors, very smart people who seemingly did not have enough brains to prevent their job positions from eroding before their eyes, effectively disappearing in their working lifetimes.
All of this and more is covered eloquently in Joe Berry's new book, which clearly lays out the current situation and focuses in on the largest and most exploited part of this new professoriat, the contingent academic laborer, the part-time teacher, the fabled freeway flyer who is more often in LA a gridlock groaner. Part historical analysis, part organizing handbook, Berry's book places both the problem and the solution on the table.
Essentially a market force model has been introduced to the academy, and when that happens, you get a situation like Santa Monica College where I teach, a highly-respected community college which now has 286 full-time teachers, and 995 contingents who teach a little over 50% of FTES's, although state law mandates a 75/25 FT/PT floor for this ratio. Money talks, and market forces have spoken louder than state appropriations, public pressure, or union negotiations in the last three decades. So much for the Master Plan -- this is cheaper.
But there are signs of change, and the defeat of Gov. Schwarzenegger's anti-labor initiatives recently may be a turning point. It gives one pause, however, to imagine how that election would have turned out if the firefighters and nurses and grade-school teachers had let happen to them what happened to the professoriat. Fortunately, they had enough brains not to.
This new force for this change comes mainly, as would be expected, from the exploited class, which is developing a class consciousness, and good old fashioned labor organizing is shaping it into a movement. Joe Berry is a contingent labor activist of long-standing in California and Chicago, one of the founders of COCAL, the Conference of Contingent Academic Labor, a national coordinating group for the burgeoning movement, as well as a teacher and organizer in the Chicago area. He knows whereof he speaks.
The "do's" and "don'ts" of organizing on your campus and in your region is the heart
of Berry's book, and his decades of experience in the trenches of labor organizing show up in the completeness and the conceptual rigor of his analysis. If you are mad as hell and don't want to take it any more, don't go to a window and shout. Rather, buy this book, read it carefully -- and then do something about it!
It's that kind of a book. Berry's clear sense of moral purpose, as evidenced by his title, comes through on every page. This is someone who is not just complaining or explaining, but working to better the world of higher education while doing both those things. It's a truly admirable task, and he has written a truly admirable book about it.