By Joe Ramsey, English and American Studies
(Originally published at The Chronicle Review. Art by James Yang.)
Walking to my bike recently after four hours of teaching, I had to pass through one of those fancy catered events in our new, spangled Integrated Sciences Complex. It was an administration event held to celebrate newly tenured faculty — I could see the PowerPoint slides with all the names up on the giant projector screen, complete with what looked to be an open bar, and trays of hot appetizers circulated on the shoulders of workers in black tie. A dark curtain I’d never noticed before was pulled across the cafe, dividing the food-preparation area from the party. Workers in the back scrambled, as folks in front lifted glasses of well-earned wine, toasting the proud Professors of UMass-Boston.
Here was a room full of my colleagues, an event celebrating academic achievement: teaching and research and service — all things that I hold in high esteem. No doubt I would be among the first to celebrate the work these folks had done. And yet, my gut was seized with ambivalence. Despite my six years of full-time service to UMB, I felt radically excluded. Like I was walking through a country club of which I was not a member.
A memory flashed up from UMB’s convocation in September, where our Save UMB Coalition interrupted the proceedings in protest of plans to jack up parking fees so high that working-class commuter students might be pushed out. At UMB, we take community inclusion seriously.
But I was remembering a less remarkable moment from convocation, during the opening speech by our interim chancellor, Katherine Newman, her first formal address to our entire university community. It was a good speech, in many ways, full of statements about the progressive public mission of UMB, and sincere remarks about our sacred commitment to serving our diverse first-generation, low-income, predominantly working-class student body. Even as I was preparing to stand and protest the parking-fee hike, I couldn’t help but be moved by Newman’s words: so many shared values, articulated so well.
But then Newman took time to introduce all the “faculty” that were joining us at UMB that year. Each new faculty member from each college got a personalized and detailed introduction from their respective dean at the podium. They stood and we clapped and they were acknowledged, and then they sat, and the next one rose, and so on. Each new faculty member receiving their due.
And here’s the thing: There was not one mention of us nontenure-track faculty the entire time. Not one acknowledgment of the people — newbies or veterans — who compose more than half of the UMB faculty, we who do the majority of the actual teaching of students at our institution. (Here at UMB, a typical full-time nontenure-track person teaches four courses per semester to the tenure-track person’s two, and we don’t get sabbaticals. Contrary to the misnomer, most of us are not “part-time;” more often we are “double-time.”)
Over and over the term “faculty” came off Newman’s lips, and each time it meant not me, not us. It meant only the tenure-stream faculty. Hundreds of hard-working, devoted, degree-holding, self-sacrificing, decades-committed but, alas, tenure-barred faculty were rendered invisible in the very moment when ostensibly our new chancellor was paying homage to the sacred teaching and research mission of our public urban university.
Remembering this, I thought about an article I had just completed for Labor Notes on the struggle of 1,500 local gas workers who are standing up to the utility giant National Grid, specifically by refusing to allow their employer to deny future workers the benefits that they themselves enjoy. Before they were locked out, these United Steelworkers expressed a willingness to strike rather than give in to the company’s demands that new hires won’t get the same health benefits and pension package that current workers get. The gas workers did so not only because it was the right thing to do, but because they saw clearly that allowing the company to degrade the conditions of future employees would ultimately undermine their own power as well, and their profession as a whole.
Imagine if the tenured faculty of our profession followed their example and refused to accept the management plan for reproducing and expanding a two-tier academic labor system.
Imagine if tenured folks a generation ago, or those protected by tenure today, recognized that by allowing university administrations to create more and more teaching positions without benefits, livable salaries, job security, or support for research, they were ultimately undermining their own power on campus, as well as the future of their profession.
Imagine if these protected and relatively privileged academic workers had the foresight, the solidarity, and the courage to stand and refuse to disown their present and future colleagues — not to mention their students — coming up behind.
Wouldn’t we be in a radically different place today?
Having failed to fight together for the next generation (with too few exceptions), tenured professors now find their numbers, and thus their power, dwindling, and their service loads rising, in the face of aggressive administrations bent on running colleges like corporations. Assistant professors, and those seeking that special status, hustle full-time, desperate not to fall back into the invisible ranks of the adjunct. Meanwhile, most of the actually existing full-time faculty in the United States scramble to make ends meet, working at two or even three institutions at a time, often not knowing where we will be teaching a year from now. Why is it that so many our most esteemed professors can’t see what the unionized steelworkers see so clearly: that an attack on the future generation is an attack on the profession as a whole — and on the public we serve?
I am thankful to be at a university where we have a union, one that tries to represent all faculty on campus. I am thankful also to be in a department where I am treated with respect, like an actual colleague — even if my teaching schedule often makes it impossible to attend department meetings. But even here, at UMB, nontenure track faculty still have no representation on our Faculty Council, are not eligible for various pockets of travel money (regardless of the research we are doing), and are often denied equal pay for equal work. We have a long ways to go.
Where to begin? How about here: Too many of us, even those I see as model comrades and allies on other fronts, tacitly accept the idea that the two-tier system dividing higher-ed faculty is something natural, to be accepted and adapted to — at best something to be ameliorated — rather than something to be abolished.
I look forward to the day when I can raise a glass to tenured achievement, standing beside all my honored colleagues, without this gnawing ambivalence in my gut.