A Report on the Conference on Contingent Academic Labor
Charles A. Zappia, April 2001
Editor's Note: Charles A. Zappia represented the AHA at the 4th annual National Conference on Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), held at San Jose City College, San Jose, California, January 12—14. His report on the conference is printed below.
The conference was attended by about 160 academics from throughout the United States and Canada, most of whom are teaching on an adjunct basis. Although higher education was represented in its diversity—research universities, liberal-arts colleges, and state and private institutions, community college faculty, particularly from California, seemed to constitute the largest single cohort.
There were about 18 or 19 sessions in all, several of them plenary, the rest of them "breakouts." Several California lawmakers and many representatives of faculty unions and newly organized adjunct groups were on the program. Although there were speakers who are visibly active in the Modern Language Association and the American Sociological Association, I was the only person actually representing any of the large discipline organizations, something several people commented upon favorably.
Although there was some of the ventilating very familiar to long-time adjuncts, by and large the tone of the conference was serious and hopeful. Many speakers emphasized that the exploitation of adjuncts is part of the "corporatization" of higher education, and that the trend must be reversed not only to improve the professional lives of part-timers and preserve and expand tenure lines, but also to protect higher education and its place in our culture. The recent Coalition on the Academic Workforce study has certainly focused the debate, and many were active throughout the conference in trying to build and expand their coalitions to more effectively organize. The "municipal organizing" model constructed by the Boston COCAL seemed to appeal most, especially to those coming from areas (like Boston) where there are many private institutions, or from "right-to-work" states like Texas.
The panel on which I spoke constituted part of the Saturday afternoon plenary. The other speakers were Jim Richardson, a sociologist who is past president of the AAUP, Cary Nelson, the Illinois English professor and MLA activist who probably has gotten more press on adjunct issues than anyone of late, and Susan Griffin, a long-time UCLA American Federation of Teachers activist who serves on the union's University Council. All the speakers were well received, as each of us talked about the academic labor problems within our own disciplines. I focused my remarks on the efforts the AHA has been making to address adjunct issues and to come up with some strategies for improving the situation. I reported on the session I chaired in Boston ("Addressing the Academic Employment Crisis: Legislative and Organizational Strategies"), talked about the Professional Division's concerns, reviewed the history of the Committee on Part-Time Faculty, and itemized the resolutions proposed by the committee and adopted at the business meeting in Boston. Since Cary Nelson talked a bit about the insurgency in the MLA leading to that organization's increased efforts to advocate for adjuncts and grad students, I stressed that the AHA had experienced no such insurgency, and that much of the initiative for the part-time committee came from well-established, senior, tenured faculty. My point, of course, was that the increased use and exploitation of adjunct labor by colleges and universities is a problem for every thoughtful member of our profession, including those who are now most secure.
After the session ended, several historians approached me and thanked me (really, they thanked the AHA ) for the efforts we've been making. All had been unaware that the AHA was in any way interested in the plight of part-timers. I was impressed that the people at the conference were pleased that the AHA had made such resolutions at all. In summary, the conference was a positive step toward building effective coalitions to contest the current direction of higher education by the corporate elite (or by administrators who think like the corporate elite).
—Charles A. Zappia (San Diego Mesa Coll.) is Perspectives' contributing editor for the Professional Issues column.