Make Two Tiers Toast

[This essay by Joe Ramsey was originally published on Facebook, 12 October 2018]

The other day, while walking to my bike after 4 hours of teaching at UMass Boston, I had to walk through one of those fancy catered events in the ISC (our new-spangled Integrated Sciences Center). It was an administration event held to celebrate newly tenured faculty–I could see the power point slides with all the names up on the giant projector screen– complete with what looked to be an open bar, and trays of hot appetizers circulated on the shoulders of workers in black tie. There was a dark curtain I’d never noticed before pulled across the cafe area, dividing the ‘food preparation’ area from the ‘fancy event’ area. Workers scrambled in the back, as folks in front lifted glasses of well-earned wine–toasting their colleagues.

Suddenly something hit me. This deep gross ambivalence in my gut. Here was a room full of my colleagues, an event celebrating academic achievement, teaching and research and service and so many things that I hold in high esteem. No doubt I would be among the first to celebrate the work so many of these folks had done to earn their cherished laurels. And yet…I felt radically excluded. Like I was walking through a country club to which I was not a member, through an exclusive party to which I had received no invitation. (I’ve gone back and checked; I was not emailed for this one.)

I somehow knew those hot apps weren’t for me.

I flashed back to UMB’s Convocation several weeks past, an event that became notable for the massive protest and petition delivery of our Save UMB Coalition, which interrupted the proceedings for 8 minutes, to make clear to UMass President Marty Meehan, as well as interim Chancellor Katherine Newman, that students, faculty, and staff alike are not going to sit back as parking fees are jacked up to the point where our working-class commuter students are pushed out of our public urban university. I am proud to be part of a place where many folks take ideas about equity and service to the public seriously.

But I flashed not to the demonstration, but to another, less remarkable, moment from that day–another occasion for pomp and circumstance– a moment that came during Katherine Newman’s opening speech, her first formal address to our entire UMass Boston Community. It was a good speech, in many ways, full of statements about the progressive public mission of UMB, and sincere remarks about our sacred commitment to serving our diverse first-generation, low-income, predominantly working-class student body. I found myself agreeing with so much of what she said. Even as I was preparing to stand and protest the parking fee hike, I couldn’t help but be moved by Newman’s speech: so many shared values, so many moving phrases articulated so well.

But then came this. The moment where Newman took time to introduce all the “New Faculty” that were joining us at UMB that year. Each faculty member from each college got a kind, personalized, and detailed introduction from their respective dean at the podium. They stood and we clapped and they were acknowledged, and then they sat, and the next one rose, and so on. Each new faculty member receiving their due.

And here is the thing: there was not one mention of us Non-Tenure track faculty the entire time. Not one mention of us, the newbies or the veterans, not one acknowledgment of the people who compose more than half of the UMB faculty, those who do perhaps 75% of the actual teaching of students at our institution. (Since a full-time NTT person teaches 4 courses per semester to the tenure-track person’s two; contrary to the misnomer, most of us are not “part-time”…we are more often “double-time.”)

Over and over the term “faculty” came off Newman’s lips, and each time it meant not me, not us. It meant only the tenure-stream faculty. Hundreds of hard-working, devoted, degree-holding, self-sacrificing, decades-committed but alas un-tenurable faculty were rendered invisible in the very moment when ostensibly our new chancellor was paying homage to the sacred teaching and research mission of our public urban university.

And another thing hit me:

Here I had just completed an article for Labor Notes on the critical struggle of 1500 local gas workers, who are standing up to National Grid, specifically by refusing to allow their employer to deny future workers the benefits that they themselves had fought for and enjoyed. Before they were locked out, these United Steelworkers expressed a willingness to strike rather than give in to the company’s demands that new hires won’t get the same health benefits and pension package that the current workers get. (See our piece in Labor Notes for the details.)

Since that article appeared, I’ve received a number of nice emails, including some from faculty saying something like “good job with that piece” “good for you for standing up for those locked out workers.” At times it sounds like the kind of writing I was doing was being seen kind of service work or charity for the under-privileged. (Certainly not the kind of thing that wins you tenure these days! :0 )

But then this hit me.

Maybe rather than thinking of ourselves in higher ed as the ones who have something to “give” and “to help” these locked-out gas workers, we should look to them and try to learn something ourselves. Maybe contrary to our self image of being the left and the enlightened ones, we in academia should realize that these workers are the ones who have something to teach US. As Marx put it, maybe “the educators need to be educated.”

To the point: Imagine if the tenured faculty of our profession followed the example of these United Steelworkers and refused to accept the management plan for creating and expanding a two-tier academic labor system. Imagine if tenure folks a generation ago, or those protected by tenure today, saw clearly that by allowing university administrations to create more and more non-tenurable positions–more and more teaching positions without benefits, or livable salaries, or pensions, or academic freedom, or support for research–they were ultimately undermining their own power on campus, as well as the future of their (our!) profession. Imagine if these protected and relatively privileged academic workers had the foresight, the solidarity, and the courage to stand and refuse to disown their present and future colleagues (and students!) coming up behind…

Wouldn’t we be in a radically different place today?

This is why, when I received a note of thanks for our piece from the president of one of the locked out locals, of course I accepted his thanks, but I thanked *him* right back. And then I wrote him this:

“It hit me the other day that those in my own profession of college professors have for over a generation now *failed* to live up to the kind of solidarity that you Steelworkers are showing towards not just one another, but towards the next generation–workers that you don’t even know yet.

“Tenured professors in higher education, with too few exceptions, have failed to stand together, or to fight together for the next generation, as you are doing. And the result has been the creation of a vicious and unfair two-tier system in colleges and universities, where most professors don’t have job security or a fair salary, many don’t have benefits, and some are reduced to relying on food stamps even as they teach at institutions that charge students an arm and a leg. This two-tier system is bad for higher education in general, and even for these tenured profs themselves, who now find their numbers (and thus their power) dwindling (and their service loads rising) in the face of aggressive administrations bent on running colleges like corporations.

“Meanwhile, most of the professors in the USA are scrambling to make ends meet, working at 2 or even 3 institutions at a time, often not knowing where we will be teaching a year from now. It’s a crisis, and in a way, it was enabled when highly ‘educated’ and often ‘brilliant’ professors failed to see what you and your union brothers and sisters are seeing so clearly: that an attack on the future generation is an attack on you as well, and on your profession as a whole, and on the public you serve.”

I am thankful to be at a university where we have a union, one that represents (or tries to!) all faculty on campus, NTT and TT alike, and also to be in a department where I am treated with respect, like an actual colleague–even if my teaching schedule often makes it impossible to attend department meetings! :0. But, let’s be honest, we still have a long way to go–at UMB and beyond. Even here NTTs still have no representation on our Faculty Council, are not eligible for various pockets of travel money (regardless of the research we are doing), and on and on….

But what concerns me most I guess, and where I’d like us to start right now, is with the unacceptable fact that too many of us, even those whom I see as model comrades and allies on so many fronts, often tacitly accept the idea that the two-tiers dividing higher-ed faculty are something natural, to be accepted and adapted to–perhaps ameliorated–rather than something to be abolished.

*
I look forward to the day when I can toast the tenured accomplishment of *all* my colleagues without a gnawing grossness in my gut.

 

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