Contingent faculty and academic freedom in the age of Trump

Organizing the disenfranchised is the key to success

By Bob Samuels, President, UC-AFT

Now that more than 75 percent of the instructors teaching in higher education in the United States do not have tenure, it is important to think about how the current political climate affects those vulnerable teachers. Although we should pay attention to how all faculty are being threatened, non-tenured faculty are in an especially exposed position because they often lack any type of academic freedom or shared governance rights. 

In other words, they are a class without representation, and they usually can be let go at any time for any reason. This type of precarious employment, which is spreading all over the world to all types of occupations, creates a high level of professional insecurity and helps to feed the power of the growing managerial class.

This new higher education faculty majority often relies on getting high student evaluations to keep their jobs or earn pay increases. The emphasis on pleasing students not only can result in grade inflation and defensive teaching, but it also places the teacher in an impossible situation when dealing with political issues in a polarized environment. While some students want teachers to talk freely about politics, many students will turn against an instructor who does not share their own ideological perspective. This type of political disagreement can appear in student evaluations as vague complaints about a teacher’s attitude or personality.

The only way to protect the quality of instruction in higher education is to generate the collective power of the sdisenfranchised faculty.

In this fraught cultural environment, practically everyone feels that they are being censored, silenced or ignored. Some of my conservative students have told me they feel like the real minorities on campus, and even though Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, they still think th cannot express their true opinions. Conversely, some of my self-identified progressive students believe that political correctness makes it hard to have an open discussion. From their perspective, since anything can be perceived as a microaggression, people tend to silence themselves. Moreover, the themes of political correctness, safe spaces, trigger warnings and free speech have become contentious issues on both the right and the left.

This creates an educational environment where almost everyone is afraid to speak. Non-tenured faculty members fear losing their jobs, conservative students see themselves as a censored minority, and progressive students are afraid of being called out for their privilege or lack of political correctness. Making matters worse is that students are often socialized by their large lecture classes to simply remain passive and silent.

While we appear to be facing a perfect storm where free speech and real debate are no longer possible, one obvious and readily availabley of countering this is to stop relying on student evaluations to assess non-tenured faculty. If we change how non-tenured faculty members are evaluated and rely much more on the peer review of instruction, teachers will not have to be afraid that they will lose their jobs for promoting the free exchange of ideas in the classroom.

Non-tenure-track faculty should be empowered to observe and review one another’s courses using established review criteria, with experienced faculty having expertise in pedagogy involved in the peer-review process of teaching. All faculty members can and should examine and discuss effective instructional methods.

The majority of faculty members no longer have academic freedom or the right to vote in their departments and faculty senates. To change this undemocratic situation, and to protect free speech and open academic dialogue, tenured professors must realize that it is to their advantage to extend academic freedom and shared governance to all faculty members, regardless of their tenure status. Either we work together to resist the current authoritarian political climate or we will all suffer together.

Unfortunately, during the last round of contract bargaining for the UC-AFT lecturers, our team was unable to win a reduction the role of student evaluations in assessing the performance of non-tenure-track faculty. Although we presented solid evidence that these assessment tools often undermine education and are sometimes based on racial, gender, and age discrimination, the university administration told us that it would be too costly and time consuming to develop a different model of performance evaluation. When we asked them why they did not support the peer review of instruction, they responded that tenured faculty did not have the time to perform these reviews.

We cannot know if the administration is telling the truth about the views of tenured faculty because these faculty members are rarely involved in bargaining.

Thus, we are left with a confrontation between contingent faculty and professional administrators, and it is because of this structure that we need to push for all contingent faculty to be unionized.

In short, the only way to protect the quality of instruction in higher education is to generate the collective power of the disenfranchised faculty. Since the future will surely test our ability to organize and fight together, we must act on the principle that our power comes through organization and collective action.