Popular discussions of higher education in the United States today are primarily organized around narratives of decline—from “The Fall of the Faculty” to “The Last Professors”, from “University Inc.” to “The University in Ruins.” Writing about the more than 70 percent of all college instructors who are off the tenure track—with poor pay and little if any job security—tends to fall squarely within this framework. Journalists’ exposés frequently make problematic popular comparisons between fast food workers and college instructors, and turn the humbling of white collar workers into a spectacle of misery that naturalizes the low status of blue collar work through titles like “The Academics Who Are Treated as “Less Than Janitors””.
If this narrative of decline is presented as anything other than inevitable, it tends to promote labor unions for the knowledge economy as the primary solution to address faculty exploitation and contingency. For example, every contributor so far to the Process series on labor and academia has so far promoted labor unions, labor law, and labor history as means to resist the race to the bottom for faculty in higher education.
This optimistic rhetoric is aspirational, borne out of faculty organizing campaigns. The number of faculty who are represented by labor unions has grown by 14 percent in the last ten years. Reflecting this growth, the most prominent advocates on behalf of adjunct faculty are themselves affiliated with labor unions: from New Faculty Majority to SEIU Faculty Forward, from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association to the American Association of University Professors. Their and others’ campaigns have inspired observers to describe faculty unions as “The Solution to Higher Ed’s Bad Pay”; a means to “end teacher exploitation and restore the quality of education without new laws or onerous regulation”; and as a force that is “Paving the way for a new reality in academia.”
But the reality, as any adjunct faculty member of a labor union can tell you, is not so simple. Left out of most media exposés about exploited adjunct faculty, and calls to arms to end faculty exploitation, is the fact that 25 percent of all higher education faculty in the United States, and 35 percent of U.S. faculty at public colleges and universities are already represented by labor unions. At community colleges, which have been at the vanguard of replacing tenure track faculty with adjuncts, union rates are even higher. Because many of them are public employees who are dependent upon state law for their collective bargaining rights, two thirds of all unionized faculty are located in five states that have historically been supportive of organized labor: California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan.
How have those faculty unions fared at responding to the well-documented push by higher education administrators to lower the wages and degrade the working conditions of college instructors? Arguably, they have slowed the decline of faculty pay and job security more than they have reversed it. They have improved the working conditions of adjunct faculty, but have been unable to prevent the use of adjunct faculty to replace tenure track lines. And through collective bargaining agreements that formalize the previously informal positions of lecturers, unions have inadvertently rationalized and deepened the academic caste system that treats tenure track and non-tenure track faculty as separate and unequal.
A comprehensive study of the effects of labor union resistance to the decline of tenure remains to be written. But in the meantime, a short history of the decline of tenure at the largest public university system in the U.S.—the California State University system, with 23 campuses and over 400,000 undergraduate students, 60,000 graduate students, and 25,000 faculty—can provide insight into how faculty in labor unions have struggled to prevent the use of adjunct faculty to replace tenure track lines.
Fifteen years ago, the labor union representing CSU faculty—the California Faculty Association, or CFA—won a historic victory that promised to reverse the race to the bottom for college faculty. But unanticipated events, primarily related to state government’s declining commitment to public higher education, wiped out the union’s accomplishments, and turned what would have been a model for the rest of the U.S. into what stands today as a difficult lesson on the limits of labor unions to reverse the decline of tenure in an age of austerity.
During the 1990s, the CSU lost over 1,000 tenure track positions by replacing retiring tenured faculty with lecturers. In response, CFA faculty union activists, one of whom described the CSU divestment from tenure track faculty as having created a “treadmill to oblivion”, developed a two-pronged campaign to protect tenure and provide job security to lecturers.
Over the course of the 2001–2 school year, the CFA successfully lobbied the California State Legislature to compel the CSU to commit itself to achieve 75 percent tenure density by 2010. At the same time, through collective bargaining, according to a 2002 press release by Peter Phillips, then CFA Vice-President at Sonoma State, “the CSU agreed to hire 20 percent more tenure-track faculty each year, reversing a long-term trend and agreeing in the contract language that a higher ratio of tenure-track faculty is beneficial to the quality of education.” The results were felt immediately. From 2001–03, the CSU hired over 1,700 new tenure track faculty, roughly 15 to 20 percent of whom had previously served as lecturers in the CSU system.
But public employees’ contracts depend upon support from the state legislature. During the three years of the path-breaking contract, the California state legislature cut the CSU’s budget by $500 million, forcing the school to reduce enrollment and cut its “non-instruction budget areas to minimal levels.” Though the state restored some of that funding over the 2005–8 school years, the CSU never met its ambitious goals to reduce its dependence on adjunct faculty, and from 2001–8 added only about 120 new tenure track positions per year after accounting for retirements, deaths, and resignations.
The recession of 2008–11 wiped out the minimal gains in tenure density that the CSU system had made over the previous seven years. The state legislature slashed its funding for the CSU budget by one third between 2008 and 2012, triggering a wave of layoffs and increased workloads across the system. The CSU’s recovery strategy then passed the costs of budget cuts onto the consumer while reducing its investment in teachers. This has involved increasing student tuition and fees, increasing enrollment, freezing staff and faculty salaries, and hiring thousands of low-wage temporary faculty to teach the new influx of students. The CSU then channels the revenue generated by these practices into backfilling state budget cuts, while hiring a slew of top-paid administrators and giving them big raises to oversee the austerity measures.
As a result, in just fifteen years, the CSU system has inadvertently gone from being a potential model for reversing tenure decline to becoming one of the worst examples of it. Since 2010, the number of part-time lecturers in the CSU system has increased by 30 percent, while the number of tenure track faculty has declined by 1 percent. This past school year, the CSU reached its lowest tenure density in its history. Since the announcement of its ambitious plan to reach 75 percent tenure density by FTE by 2010, CSU tenure density has dropped from 63 percent to 55.6 percent by FTE, and from 46 percent to 40.5 percent by headcount. At a couple CSU campuses (Dominguez Hills and Channel Islands), fewer than 30 percent of all faculty are on the tenure track.
How has the California Faculty Association responded to the CSU’s declining commitment to tenure? In part, it has created what Donald Rogers called a “gold standard” for contracts that protect and reward contingent faculty. Its collective bargaining agreement requires:
- wage floors and opportunities for salary increases that take seniority into account;
- health benefits for faculty who teach a 40 percent load or higher (two courses per semester);
- annual contracts for lecturers who work at the University for more than a year;
- three-year contracts for lecturers who work at the University for more than six consecutive years;
- commitments to provide lecturers with the same number of courses per year based on the previous year’s average teaching load (depending on enrollment); and
- a formal reappointment process based on evaluation criteria that are written down and shared with faculty in advance.
Regardless of questions of contract enforcement (and I can say as a former CFA organizer that too many lecturers do not know their rights), these provisions provide a decent amount of job security to longtime adjunct faculty, along with opportunities for periodic raises for all faculty.
But the union’s strategy for assisting lecturers has managed austerity more than it has reversed it, by shifting the costs of erratic state support for higher education onto lecturers with the least seniority. Because of the CSU system’s low tenure density, half of all CSU faculty (over 12,500 college instructors in the state of California) now gross less than $38,000 per year. Even though this figure does not include the second and third jobs of part-time lecturers who also teach or work outside the CSU system, this scale of faculty impoverishment is outrageous.
The workplace culture produced by the decline of tenure is deeply problematic, and can increase divisions between faculty even when they belong to the same union. The CFA-CSU contract requires that department chairs allocate courses first based on tenure status, and then based on lecturer seniority. This means that if tenure track faculty and senior lecturers have courses that under-enroll and need to be canceled, department chairs must take already-allocated courses from lecturers with less seniority and assign those courses instead to more senior faculty. In the process, lecturers can lose their income and sometimes even their health benefits as late as the first week of class. This system so naturalizes the precarity of part-time lecturers that some departments will treat lecturers as if the union contract does not apply to them—for instance by not providing lecturers with annual contracts, or by not telling lecturers that they are eligible for health benefits. These contract violations are not widespread, but they are more common than they should be.
What can the decline of tenure at the CSU thus tell us about the challenges faced by faculty unions more broadly?
The biggest lesson that I take from my brief experience in the CSU system during the 2015-16 school year—first as adjunct faculty, and then as a temporary union organizer—is that college faculty in labor unions currently lack the power to effectively resist or reverse the decline of tenure. This is a systemic issue more than a problem specific to certain unions, and highlights the challenges faced by labor unions that seek to work within neoliberal constraints. Without identifying a new source of revenue to improve faculty wages and reduce their course loads, providing adjuncts with increased wages and job security will not stop the race to the bottom as much as it will produce a somewhat better experience for those at the bottom.
As the CFA experience indicates, faculty unions can bridge the divides between adjunct and tenure track faculty by uniting them in a fight that produces major victories for all faculty. Just this year, the CFA won a 10.5 percent raise over two years for more than 26,000 faculty, librarians, coaches and counselors in the CSU system. But even the largest faculty union in the country, in the state with the most unionized faculty in the country, will be hard-pressed to sustain those victories in the face of capitalism’s boom-bust cycle, especially when state politicians remain committed to passing the costs of recessions onto working people.
One way or another, the fight to convert adjunct lines to tenure track lines, create a teaching tenure track, or promote other institutional reforms that can end the race to the bottom for faculty in the U.S. will require a broader struggle to find new sources of revenue for higher education. Faculty unions cannot overcome the forces that are increasingly turning them into poorly-paid temps without participating in a larger social movement to replace austerity politics with a more equitable system of governance.
 While the CFA tends to demonize the administration for its role in overseeing budget cuts, it is much less critical of its Democratic Party allies who systematically under-fund public higher education. The CSU administration has failed to properly protect faculty and students from state budget cuts, but an independent study found that the CSU tuition increases (and, arguably, various budget-cutting measures) during the recession were primarily driven by declining state revenue and not by administrator raises or hiring sprees. Administration bloat is a problem, but its costs are dwarfed by the state government’s problematic spending priorities.