Welcome to Paradox

As I write this, a hearing is going on in Harrisburg between the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) and Temple University, over whether or not adjunct instructors at Temple should be allowed to vote on joining the current full-time faculty union. During this hearing, Temple University has presented a list of reasons why, according to university administration, adjuncts do not share a “community of interest” with other faculty – the most important of which is that, according to the administration, adjuncts aren’t faculty at all.

You might wonder why this matters – especially if, like most people in America, you don’t teach at a university. But this hearing is vital to anyone with even a passing interesting American education, because it exposes in quite revealing detail the current paradoxical condition in which higher education finds itself. This hearing demands that Temple University make plain a perspective that it has long held, but which it likes to keep secret. For the first time, at this hearing, Temple counsel and witnesses stated openly that “adjuncts are not faculty.”

Why would Temple feel the need to make such a brazen statement? After all, at Temple – as with many universities across America – adjunct faculty teach more than half the classes. They often teach the same classes as full-timers or tenure-track faculty. In some departments they write syllabi, sit on committees, and design entire courses. And, because they staff most of the General Education courses, which combine disparate sections of the student body, they have a much greater impact on the overall student experience than even their numbers suggest.

Why in the world would Temple hand over such an immense responsibility to people who are “not faculty?”

The answer is almost entirely economic. It’s become a commonplace to talk about the awfulness of adjunct pay, but it bears repeating; at Temple, most adjuncts make roughly $1,300 per credit, and their employment is capped at two classes a semester. The most an adjunct can hope to make at Temple per semester in gross pay is $10,400 – roughly $20,000 a year, unless one picks up summer classes (which are rarely awarded to adjuncts). Adjuncts, who are paid by the credit, can be fired at will, and receive no benefits. Taken together, each adjunct represents serious administrative savings and flexibility.

But there’s a tremendous downside to this economic logic. Low pay makes it necessary for adjuncts to work at other schools, which diverts their energy away from Temple students and (despite any individual adjunct’s herculean efforts) lowers the quality of their teaching. Because adjuncts are contingent, easily fired when classes don’t fill, adjuncts must always have backup plans, and commit to more courses than they can reasonably teach. It isn’t uncommon for Temple adjuncts to teach at three, four, or even five schools to make ends meet – further diluting their focus on Temple students. Naturally, for such an exploitative system, turnover is enormous; most adjuncts last for only a few years before the bad pay and lack of benefits drive them out of academia. Again, the students lose, because they rely on instructors for mentorship, letters of recommendation, and institutional help, all of which are lost when their professors disappear.

This presents the university with a dreadful paradox. Like any institution of higher education, Temple strives to attract the best undergraduates it can find. Its reputation for academic excellence is a precious part of its success. This is why, at a hearing primarily focused on denigrating the accomplishments of a large part of its teaching population, Temple’s counsel and witnesses felt the need to reaffirm the university’s “commitment to great teaching.” But how can a university like Temple argue that it is committed to teaching when its economy is built around a contingent teaching force to which it is no way committed, either financially or institutionally?

So far, the administration has made every attempt to ignore this uncomfortable paradox. However, the growing national adjunct unionization effort has made this impossible. So the university has developed a new strategy, which it rolled out during today’s hearing. Temple University is now attempting to re-define the limits of who is or is not a faculty member.

Faculty, they insist, do research; they serve on committees; and – and this is the most damning piece of evidence – they are committed and loyal to Temple University, whereas adjuncts, who teach at several schools, are not. Both witnesses and counsel have repeatedly stated during these hearings that adjuncts are simply not to be trusted; they might pass on sensitive Temple information to other schools, and therefore it would be irresponsible to admit them to the bargaining table.

(Let’s set aside the fact that many adjuncts do research, sit on committees, and are highly committed to the Temple community.)

By separating faculty from non-faculty, Temple is attempting to shift its paradox onto the shoulders of adjuncts. It argues that by spreading their energy too thin, by not taking up the mantle of research or committee membership, adjuncts have rendered themselves ineligible for the “community of interest.” They may be essential to the functioning of the university, but their contingent nature makes them incapable of responsibility.

By doing so, Temple hopes to re-affirm its essential mission, only with limits. At Temple, they maintain, we care about our teachers: provided our teachers fulfill certain requirements – as if the very economic conditions they created were not the ones which make adjuncts incapable of fulfilling these requirements. It is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy. In attempting to shift the paradox at the heart of their new business model onto the figure of the adjunct, Temple is blaming them for their own exploitation.

In this new, surreal world of higher ed, a certain kind of descriptive fatigue sets in. What can we say about the adjunct plight that hasn’t been said already? So much is expected of them, and so little given; through their service in Gen-Ed classes, their work affects a massive percentage of the university’s undergraduate population, and without their labor the teaching arm of the university would simply not be able to function. And yet they cannot survive on the money Temple pays them, and so they go to other schools to fill out the gaps – which allows Temple to define as them as less committed, less effective, less than faculty.

Make no mistake: Temple is to blame for the paradox at the heart of their educational mission. You simply cannot claim to value teaching while ruthlessly exploiting your teaching force. The attempt to place that paradox on the shoulders of the adjuncts themselves – turning their very existence into a paradoxical condition – is unfair to students, logically specious, and morally indefensible

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