Statement in response to President Obama's August 22, 2013 Speech at SUNY Buffalo
While New Faculty Majority appreciates the efforts of the Obama administration to address the critical problem of the skyrocketing cost of higher education and its effects, particularly on the students and faculty who are saddled with crippling student debt, we call on the administration to consider more carefully the full ramifications of the policies it is currently advocating.
Ironically, the majority of the faculty at colleges nationwide work in conditions (making less than $25,000 per year working full time hours) that do not allow them to repay their own student debt, if college teaching is their primary source of income. Like other workers in the US, college instructors have seen their profession turn into low-wage, part-time, unbenefited jobs rather than into respected employment capable of supporting a family. The policies that the president is advocating in his new plan would exacerbate, not alleviate, this problem.
If the president wants to hold colleges accountable, then he should demand that they disclose the numbers and working conditions of the majority of the faculty, and acknowledge the significant research that shows that faculty working conditions are among the most critical factors affecting student success. He would admit that graduation rates are meaningless at institutions where faculty are discouraged from holding the highest standards possible by adjuncts' economic precarity and lack of access to meaningful due process protections, and by tenure-track faculty's out-of-control tenure requirements.
If he were to talk to students as we do on a daily basis, he would learn that they don't want MOOCs and other quick fixes that are being implemented without input from students or faculty. He would learn that the vast majority of students, especially the most disadvantaged, crave what students at elite institutions take for granted: accessible, supported faculty able to engage in the basic human interaction and mentoring at the heart of good teaching, the intellectual research at the foundation of good teaching, and the intelligent use of technology -- not as a substitute for real teaching and learning, but as a tool in the service of human beings rather than as a cog in the machine of what has become the big business of higher education "reform."
Students spoke in this recent Public Agenda report http://www.publicagenda.org/files/student_voices.pdf, but interestingly it was barely noticed by anyone in higher education. Among its findings: "Advisors, counselors, and faculty members who offer support and guidance that is accurate, accessible, and tailored to students’ educational and career goals are in high demand and can be hard to come by." They are hard to come by because institutions have created working conditions that place significant obstacles to their accessibility.
Higher education has a history of imposing "high quality/low cost" strategies without regard for their hidden and long term costs. Employing 75% of the faculty on a temporary basis has been the most devastating in terms of fiscal and human costs, and we are alarmed by the likelihood that policies currently being proposed will perpetuate such effects. The employment of faculty on temporary contracts has extracted quality teaching out of dedicated faculty members not because of a basically exploitative employment structure but in spite of it. It has devastated a valuable human resource, churning through several generations of college faculty and turning college teaching into something that people do only if they can afford to, and at the high cost of respect, proper remuneration, and retirement. And of course significant research compiled by the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success (www.thechangingfaculty.org) shows the detrimental effects of degraded faculty working conditions on student learning conditions, especially the learning conditions of the most vulnerable, least advantaged students.
We call on the president to listen to an authentic cross section of student and faculty voices and to consider both the quality of education, and the quality of life of the majority of the faculty, in devising higher education policies going forward.
We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague, Steve Street, who died on August 17, 2012 of cancer in Buffalo, NY. Steve was an NFM Board member. He was also a wonderful writer, fearless advocate, and cherished friend. His friend and fellow activist Don Eron has called him the movement's "poet laureate," a beautiful and apt tribute. Here is the message that Maria Maisto and Anne Wiegard sent to the adj-l listserv, where Steve was a frequent participant:
August 17, 2012
I am deeply sorry to have to let you know that our dear friend and colleague, Steve Street, died this morning at a hospice facility in Buffalo, NY.
Many of you may have known that Steve was battling a second round of cancer, but he was persistently optimistic and had even planned to attend COCAL and to continue teaching this fall. I think none of us knew how truly serious it was, and last week he took a sudden turn for the worse and was admitted to hospice where he died in the company of his brother. Some of his friends and colleagues were able to send him messages of love and support, including Ross Borden who made a six-hour round trip to visit him last night. It is our hope that he had some comfort in the knowledge that he was so respected and cherished by all of us. As you know, he was active in COCAL, on this list, in UUP (United University Professions), and NFM.
Like all of us, I am devastated. Steve was a hero to me, and a personal mentor who gave me confidence when I got started in this work. I had the privilege of collaborating with him on an essay on contingency published in Liberal Education and on other pieces of writing as well, and always thought that not only was he a beautiful writer and sharp, perceptive thinker, but that he was extraordinarily generous and encouraging as a responder and collaborator. I can't help thinking of the thousands upon thousands of students who benefited from his teaching and mentorship.
Steve was a clear and forceful thinker and writer, someone who was never afraid to speak truth to power. (He was also a talented and award-winning fiction writer.) In part because of his persistent, fearless insistence that adjuncts deserve a living wage and health benefits, his union, UUP, was finally able to negotiate health insurance for adjuncts teaching at least two courses. That is what allowed him to survive his first bout of cancer. He endured some colleagues' irritation with him for constantly advocating for adjuncts but recently acknowledged to me how grateful he was that attitudes have changed enough for FT and PT faculty to really begin to work together to do the right thing for adjuncts.
My friend Anne Wiegard, who worked closely with Steve in both UUP and NFM, had this to say:
Steve's perseverance as an activist inspired his UUP colleagues for many years, both at the local and statewide levels. His unerring moral compass did not mean he was unwilling to compromise in order to achieve practical gains, but it did mean that his humane principles and deep commitment to academic freedom never faltered. We will sorely miss Steve's brilliant ability to frame concepts and to capture and analyze the subtle nuances of the complexities of contingent employment issues. But we will miss even more his warm friendship, great kindness, and razor sharp wit.
We intend to honor Steve's memory in many ways, but most especially in re-dedicating ourselves to the struggle to secure the dignity of proper working conditions for all contingent faculty in higher education. I hope you will all help us to grieve and to celebrate Steve by sharing your thoughts and memories on this list, the venue which made it possible for so many of us to meet him, delight in his writing and be inspired by his courage.
Maria and Anne
As part of its National Unemployment Compensation Initiative, NFM seeks volunteers to help advise contingent faculty who are applying for unemployment benefits or appealing claims denied. Contact us to let us know that you can help!
Help spread the message: we need your help communicating the facts about contingent faculty working conditions to targeted audiences. The TEACH Task Force coordinates and implements message campaigns.