Does anyone have a megaphone?

There’s been a lot of progress in the two years that I’ve been advocating for contingent faculty within the Society for Classical Studies (SCS).  We’re now represented by our own committee, have a seat at the table in Professional Matters, and are about to gain greater protections–at least in theory–through a revised Statement of Professional Ethics.  As one of the people driving these changes, I’ve learned that the biggest puzzle is figuring where you can reasonably apply pressure.  Funding for professional organizations is often limited, and that significant restraint is outdone perhaps only by their restricted purview: although individual and institutional members are nominally bound to uphold a society’s values, there aren’t very many ways to enforce them.  I still have a few aces up my sleeve that I’m going to try to play before the end of my term as Chair of the SCS Committee on Contingent Faculty, but today I want to talk about a broader issue–namely, the difficulty of finding a platform to broadcast these concerns to a wider audience.

One of the first ideas that was mentioned when the SCS convened what was then known as the “Advisory Group on Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Issues” was unionization.  Though I’m not opposed to this in theory, there are a number of practical concerns that make it unlikely to succeed.  For one thing, many faculty–especially those at institutions in the South–are barred by law from collective bargaining.  Whether right or wrong, the last thing people in contingent positions can afford to do is lose their job for trying to organize or incur the cost of a trial for violation of state labor laws.  But more important is the issue of leverage.  Sure, Classics could try to create a union of contingent faculty across the US, but then what?  Push for a general strike if individual colleges refuse to negotiate?  The idea of any school responding to this threat is laughable.  If anything, it would just lead to programs being shuttered and an exacerbation of the existing shortage of Classics jobs at the college level.  So a Classics-specific union is right out.

Another idea would be to coordinate efforts with other professional societies.  Whether understood in the limited sense of sharing information and coordinating efforts or in the broader one of creating a cross-disciplinary union of contingent faculty–at least in states where doing so is legal–this seems to have more merit.  The issues faced by teaching professionals who work outside the tenure track are largely the same regardless of discipline, and much of the data related to them groups people from various fields together.   Moreover, a general strike of humanities and social sciences professors might actually get somebody’s attention: students often need courses in these areas to graduate, and few groups hold as much power over college administrators as undergraduates and the parents who (primarily) foot their bills.

When I instructed members of my committee to reach out to our counterparts I expected to find out that Classics was late to the game.  The field is conservative in many ways and doesn’t have the best reputation for being in-touch with new developments.  So it came as a great surprise to me when I learned that there has been almost no effort by other groups to take the lead in advocating for contingent faculty rights.  On the contrary, most have been content to release internal documents and guidelines that–as I found out in the case of the SCS–largely function as a wish-list rather than an enforceable set of rules.

But there are further complications, too.  Those who feel stymied by the limited influence of groups like the SCS have suggested that what contingent faculty need is representation by a higher-level entity, ideally a lobbying group that can voice our concerns to politicians at the state or federal level.  At least to me, this passes the initial smell-test: attempts to address problems related to working conditions and compensation at lower levels haven’t panned out, so it makes sense to go above the heads of deans, college presidents, and the like.  Ultimately, however, I suspect this is also doomed to be a non-starter.  Contingent faculty are already overworked and underpaid, and thus aren’t in a position to make the contributions of time and money that are necessary to obtain professional representation. An easier solution would be for a coalition of societies–the SCS, the Modern Language Association (MLA), and others–to contribute to such an effort, but tax rules currently prevent them from funding political lobbyists. And while it’s of course possible that a well-funded private citizen could take an interest in the issue and fund such efforts privately, the odds of finding a good candidate seem so slim that it’s not worth the effort of seeking one out.

The only remaining recourse, then, is to yoke our cause to a horse that’s already in the race.  The most likely target is the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).  Their One Faculty campaign collects data on contingent faculty and serves as a general advocate for related issues, though there are some reasons to think their efforts in this area are pro forma.  For one thing, their focus seems to be on collective bargaining, which as I said above is impractical in states that have “right to work” laws.  Moreover, their advocacy materials are hidden behind a member-only paywall even though few contingent faculty will have the resources to purchase access.  It obviously makes sense for the AAUP to represent its members rather than people who don’t pay dues, but this practice still leaves contingent faculty in a bind: those who are already struggling to find meaningful representation are even cut out of the one group that purports to lobby on their behalf.

At this stage the path forward for contingent advocacy remains unclear.  There are a few things that could pan out, but most depend on the generosity of individuals–either from those outside of academia or from those in established (i.e. tenured) positions in higher education.  Further complicating the equation is the Trump administration’s attitudes towards education and labor: while the president’s positions seem liable to change at any time, it appears unlikely that his secretaries in those areas would welcome discussions of increased rights or compensation for contingent faculty.  My personal hope is that organizations like the SCS can still find a way to coordinate with groups like the MLA or AAUP, and I plan to use the nine months I have left on the SCS Committee on Contingent Faculty to do just that.  In the meantime, we’ll have to take consolation in the small victories we achieve–at least until we can find a megaphone loud enough to convey our needs and concerns to an entity that’s sufficiently powerful to address them.


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