SAINT PRECARIA AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA by Chris Hables Gray
This coming Halloween, the contract between the University of California and its thousands of lecturers, represented by the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT, who also represent UC librarians), will expire. For over a year the two sides have been locked in negotiations over the expiring contract, which has already been extended once. The administration considers lecturers “at will” employees (like McDonalds workers!) and has refused to accept that the precarious working conditions of lecturers now is not just unfair to them, but is also bad for the University. It is also in opposition to the consensus in higher education academic policy circles that the precarious employment of contingent faculty (adjuncts, lecturers, never-to-be-tenured professors, visiting appointments that last decades, and graduate students) has to come to an end. The working conditions of all these precarious faculty, the majority of those teaching at US and Canadian universities and colleges, are the learning conditions of almost every college student in North America.
And what is behind the resistance of higher education administrators to regularizing and valuing the work of the majority of their instructors? Are there any academic studies that show that underpaid highly trained professional university and college teachers do a better job than those that are well compensated? Are there new results from higher education scholarship that demonstrates that the very faculty who are evaluated on their teaching (as opposed to mainly their research) should be part-time, at-will, temporary parts of their communities, marginalized and encouraged to move-on after a few years of paid-by-the-class piece-work? Have middle-level Deans and other bureaucrats shown that underpaying, disempowering, and churning trained university instructors with advanced degrees and excellent evaluations really does save money and yet keeps instructional quality high? Of course not. There are no such studies. The relentless pressure to keep contingent teachers precarious comes from the short sighted desire of small minded academic officials who want to keep all possible power in their hands.
Consider the latest in a long line of teaching and financial scandals at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB). The Math Department there has decided to fire (they’d say “not rehire”) their best teacher for teaching too well! Alexander Coward has been the best teacher in Math at UCB since he started, as is revealed by their own metrics. Not only do his students out perform all others in end-of-term calculus testing, but they love him. Almost 3,000 have promised to come to a protest when the University reviews its firing. Coward been teaching at UCB for several years but remains four years away from a continuing appointment.
In 2003, UC lecturers won one of the very best adjunct contracts in the US, after a massive campaign that included rallies, marches, strikes and incredible support from students, other faculty, alumni and many elected officials. It not only included some of the highest pay ever for such teaching, but also some job security for a minority of lecturers (continuing appointments after six years probation) and some other protections. But that was 12 years ago. Since then those protections have been eroded by a relentless campaign by parts of the administration to weaken the union through taking many grievances all the way to arbitration (UC-AFT almost always wins, but has to pay half the costs anyway), churning (firing excellent lecturers before they can achieve continuing status, as with Alexander Coward), creating fake job titles to keep people out of the union, and undemocratic academic practices, even purges of teaching artists and musicians –such as the campaign to eliminate practicing arts and performance at UC Santa Cruz because of one Dean’s idea of what the U. of California should do… and it doesn’t include doing art, actually dancing, or making music. But theory about art, dancing and music is fine. So much for praxis.
The bigger picture isn’t any better. Because of the recession and declining support from the State of California, the UC has gone through a traumatic time the last dozen years, that has included cut backs, sell-outs (especially of California students), sell-offs (of research to corporations) and speed-ups–not just of the work of lecturers and librarians, but for everyone except the higher administration, which continues to grow despite everything. Inevitably, tenure track faculty numbers have declined and contingent faculty have been increased to fill the gap. This kind of thing is happening all across North America. Some places it is even worse, with direct political attacks on great public universities in Wisconsin and North Carolina, for example. But the University of California should not just be “not as bad” as North Carolina. It needs to do much better. It should lead the way toward regularizing so-called contingent faculty because that is the only way to sustainable excellence.
Yet, instead of agreeing to stop churning, to give new lecturers excellence reviews (why are they against documenting and rewarding excellent teaching?), to give lecturers stable hiring processes, to cut the probationary period of continuing appointments from six (!) to four years, to stop increasing workload, and to give lecturers a real voice in academic decisions, they so far are offering nothing. Pretty much nothing.
But the point is, as UC-AFT struggles for a better contract for Lecturers at the University of California, it is important to remember that UC-AFT is not just trying to improve the situation of UC Lecturers. Their professional treatment directly impacts the mission of the University of California, the people’s university, established in the Constitution of the State of California. The UC administration has, under UC-AFT pressure, given lecturers a half-way decent wage (now in need of adjustment) and has created a professional development fund. But it is especially derelict in its duty when it resists attempts to shorten the Lecturer probation period (from the outrageous six years) and deal in other serious ways with job security, grievance procedures, churning, and other crucial conditions of lecturer work.
A while ago in Italy contingent workers, all those workers without secure and sustainable employment (almost everyone these days), started carrying around their invented saint, Saint Precaria, a saint for precarious workers. Lecturers, adjunct faculty, part-timers, freeway flyers, the frontline teachers at the universities and colleges of North America now also call on St. Precaria for succor. After all, she is the saint of those fighting for more democracy, justice, to educate the next generations well, and to honor the work of the mind. And above all, she is the saint of those who help themselves.
Chris Hables Gray is a continuing lecturer at Crown College of the University of California at Santa Cruz and a probationary lecturer at College 10 and for the writing program, also at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He is the elected Vice-President for Organizing of UC-AFT. This is not an official UC-AFT statement.
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