On Tuesday I posted the first of two posts on the New Faculty Majority Summit on Contingent Labor in Higher Education that took place in Washington,DC this past weekend. That post was, as I said then, in a descriptive vein. I promised a second one in a more meditative vein. This is the post that reflects what I was actually preoccupied with most of the time I was sitting in the Summit. And that is: how far all of this is from the world I knew as a tenure-line and tenured professor.
One phrase kept coming into my mind throughout the day. The phrase was: “two societies.” Two societies, that is, separate and unequal. Or, in its original form, from the Kerner Report of 1968: “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
The Kerner Report, as it is known, was a study commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots.
When it came out, the report was a damning indictment of white America and its abandonment of the black community. It became an unexpected best-seller. Its Introduction summarized its findings:
Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.
This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.
To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.
The alternative is…the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.
This alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.
The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.
Setting aside any astonishment, in 2012, that a government-sanctioned committee would produce a document that included these words, I suppose it’s obvious why I found that phrase “two societies—separate but unequal” resounding in my mind the day of the Summit. How much of a stretch is it to apply this to the tenure-line vs. NTT faculty context? Let’s try it and see.
Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of university life; they now threaten the future of every university.
This deepening status division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for an administrative and pedagogical resolution.
To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the university community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic educational values.
The alternative is…the realization of common opportunities for all within a single higher educational context.
This alternative will require a commitment to action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every university administrator and faculty member it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.
The vital needs of the university must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new funding models enacted.
This is a truth I know in my bones.
The fact is, as a tenure-track and tenured professor, I never gave adjuncts a second thought. They and their circumstances, their needs and goals, were of no concern to me. I knew on the one hand that the job market was brutal, and that it was by no means a foregone conclusion that I should have ended up employed on the tenure track, or that others of my acquaintance would not. I did not believe that I was significantly more brilliant than others who ended up unemployed or adjuncting.
At the same time, by virtue of the fact that I DID succeed in gaining a permanent, full-time, tenure track position at Ph.D.-granting departments at a R1 institution, I was in the elite class.
I hasten to add that I didn’t feel “elite” particularly, and certainly not elitist, which is counter to my basic ethos in life. And I was painfully aware of how, at the perennially cash-strapped University of Oregon, I enjoyed far, far fewer resources than peers at Ivy Leagues and upper crust institutions.
But on another more core level, I was elite indeed. Because I was in the top tier—a tenure-line faculty at Ph.D.-granting departments at a R1 institution with a low teaching load and access to excellent funding for my research and writing. I was being paid a (barely) liveable wage with benefits to do what was ultimately the work of the mind—to publish my research for the benefit of the discipline, and to teach it for the benefit of students.
At the time my identity hinged almost entirely on that elite status. Not consciously, mind you. It wasn’t that I felt others were inferior. It was that they were irrelevant. I was a player, and they were not. I was in the game of academic status and competition and they were not. I was credible, I was legitimate, I was competitive (for grants, awards, and honors) and they were not. The people I “saw” (ie, who were visible to me) were the others who, like myself, were in the competitive status game.
Now, I hasten to add that even labeling that context a “competitive status game,” is to descriptively fail. Because at the time, in that world, it wasn’t conceived of as a game but as sober and serious “work.” It also didn’t feel competitive in an immediate sense since collegiality was common, and collaborations were also possible.
And above all, status was never, ever openly discussed.
So “competitive status game” is what I call it only now, with the benefit of hindsight. At the time I was simply totally engaged in the impulse to produce and to get ever-increasing recognition and rewards for what I produced.
It was grueling, but it was also deeply, profoundly gratifying, and frankly, pretty fun. After all, I did love what I did. I loved my field, and my work, and my intellectual mission, and my pedagogical coolness (I was one of those young, hip assistant professors so beloved of the undergrads). I loved campus life, and tooling about importantly heading off to conferences and meetings. I loved meeting colleagues for coffee and talking intently. I loved, really inordinately loved, being able to write off for free desk copies. I felt powerful. My world was, in short, completely absorbing. I had drunk the Kool-Aid.
And so it seemed to be for my colleagues, especially the junior ones. We made wry jokes about looming deadlines, recalcitrant funders, and intractable reviewers. But those jokes were the language that communicated our membership in a single tribe. We were the people who “mattered.”
And to a large degree we were treated as such—the people who matter—by the members of administration who actually noticed us (which were not many). We were, after all, the capital-generators, the content-producers of the university industry. Without us and our “research productivity” and grant money, the university had nothing to brag about or use to solicit endowment gifts.
So our idiosyncracies and self-absorption were more or less tolerated and enabled by the managers/administrators in charge of capitalizing on our talent.
I go into this detail to try and give a sense of the habitus of what was, ultimately, a position of enormous privilege. And as with all positions of privilege, this one was invisible to us, its holders. Because we only “saw” and engaged with others equally privileged, those outside that world were rendered invisible. They were not people who mattered.
I’m not proud of this. But I bring it up to articulate, with difficulty, my sense that because we occupied two societies, the tenure-line and the non-, the needs and concerns of the non- were utterly invisible to me.
More to the point, looking back now, I do not know how I could have found any place of common interest with NTT faculty at the time, or indeed through most of my career, extending well past tenure and even into my administrative career as department head. As a department head wrestling with criminally inadequate program funding (albeit in a department that almost never hired adjuncts because we had a pool of graduate students for our grunt-work), I mainly just wondered how fast I could find one when needed. I don’t know when a space for common interest would have arisen, in what context, or what would have compelled it.
What did eventually happen was this: as my absorption in this world declined for a constellation of reasons both personal and vocational, my ability to “see” those off the tenure-track increased. When I stopped drinking the Kool-Aid (and this was a painfully slow, difficult, and shame-ridden process indeed), the rotten structure, the crumbling edifice of the whole system became visible, and in fact, inescapable. A growing friendship with a NTT faculty member on campus, and hearing her story and daily experiences, brought it into relief. After a time I couldn’t see anything BUT those who are excluded and marginalized by the system of privilege I had once uncritically inhabited. And that status began to stink, and I didn’t want it anymore. By the time I had the opportunity to leave, I was ready.
What astounded me most then was the dawning realization of my previous total lack of critical perspective on the academic world and its structures of privilege. After all, all of my scholarly “work” had been dedicated to the critical analysis of social privilege and power. How was it that someone totally committed to a “critical” ethos was able to spend 15 years in a profession and never turn that critical eye onto it? How was it that power and class status were something I analyzed, but not something I inhabited?
Let me hasten to add that I was well-versed in the issues of white privilege and class privilege as they applied to myself in “society.” I was very conscious of my backpack. It’s just that I did not make the connection to the equivalent privilege and status in *the university setting* itself. Status differentials there –outside of the authorized ones of assistant-associate-full-dean-provost-chancellor—were invisible to me.
I think they are invisible to most tenure-line faculty, even the most avowedly Marxist. As the Japanese proverb goes, darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse. There is something profound at the heart of the university enterprise, particularly in the liberal arts, that mystifies its members to the structures of money and power that organize it. I don’t know what it is. But it apparently persists long after the economic justification for it has evaporated.
The Kerner Report went on:
Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.
What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it.
Indulge me a moment longer in this exercise of translation:
Segregation and poverty have created in the adjunct ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most tenure-line faculty.
What tenure-line faculty have never fully understood—but what the adjunct can never forget—is that the educational institutions are deeply implicated in the ghetto. The educational institutions created it, educational institutions maintain it, and educational institutions condone it.
Tenure-line faculty enjoy a position of sanctioned ignorance about the conditions in which the NTT labor, and the degree to which tenure-line positions and salaries, not to mention funding for research, are paid for by the labor of others who may be going without health insurance, adequate medical care and food, and sufficient money to pay for rent and clothing in the same month.
“We have no adjuncts here” say faculty and administrators on campus after campus, apparently believing it, according to Adrianna Kezar, Associate Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, who spoke at the Summit. To acknowledge adjuncts’ existence next to you on campus, doing identical classroom work but getting paid 1/20th of the salary, is to acknowledge that what you do is a form of employment with an economic rationale. And to acknowledge the existence of a shadow economy on your campus, the underbelly of the university ideal. Is this why so many tenure-line won’t meet the eyes of NTT they pass in the hallways?
As one tenure line assistant professor at the University of Oregon said to our campus union organizer, “please don’t come talk to me about a union. If you make me think about how little I’m paid and how little I’m respected, you’ll take away the last, the very last illusion that I’m clinging to—that this is more than just a job. Without that illusion I don’t think I can go on.”
While I think that tenure-line faculty are not actually privileged enough, in the present moment of the neoliberal university, to be able to afford not to have common cause with the NTT faculty, I believe that few of them are prepared to relinquish the sanctioned ignorance (or willful delusion) that derives from their invisible (to them) privilege. Based on my former career and experiences, I believe that like Lyndon Johnson, most –with some notable exceptions—will continue to deny the existence of the two societies in their shared community, and hold fast to the status quo.
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