Open Letter to the President and Board Chair of the University of California System

February 29, 2020

I just sent this letter to President Napolitano and Board Chair Perez.


President Napolitano and Chairman Perez:

I’m a faculty member in Pennsylvania who has been following the situation at UCSC (and now Davis and Santa Barbara). Yesterday, news broke of the termination of 54 graduate workers because of their participation in the strike.

The union I belong to, APSCUF, sent you a statement on Thursday in which we pointed out, among other things, that firing striking graduate students accomplishes nothing useful. It doesn’t get the work they’ve been withholding done any faster. It doesn’t make housing more affordable for the people you hire in their places. It serves no purpose whatsoever except to be punitive. Worse, you’re punishing people whose concerns you’ve agreed with but refused to redress, and firing them seems like an effort to erase the problem rather than fix it.

I can assure you, having participated in a strike, that nobody takes the decision lightly. It’s a terrible thing to have to do. Furthermore, while I recognize that they are violating policy, the fact that they have to violate policy to do it should be reinforcing the desperation they’re feeling rather than, well, whatever you’re attributing to them that makes you treat them as disposable.

Therefore, I’m writing–as an individual faculty member, not claiming to represent my university, my system, or my union–with these calls.

First, rescind the firing letters. That was a terrible mistake. You are damaging the lives of people who have worked hard to redress a serious issue, and dismissing them accomplishes nothing.

Second, work in good faith with the students to solve a serious problem that you, as leaders, have the power to address and so far just haven’t. The simple fact of the matter is that the labor situation for graduate students at these universities is untenable, and nothing will change that except supporting them better.

I sincerely hope you can understand why your decision to fire 54 students who are desperately trying to improve their working situation so that they can serve your institution better is Orwellian and needs to be reversed. And I hope you’re noticing that national and international press are covering the situation. We’re all looking to you to do the right thing.


Seth Kahn, PhD

Professor of English

West Chester University of PA

Tenure isn’t the problem; exceptionalism is the problem

January 25, 2020

Making the rounds on Facebook currently is the article “Tenure is Not Worth Fighting For” in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

The title is clickbait. Historian Greg Afinogenov isn’t arguing that nobody should have due process protections or academic freedom, or that we should just give in to the anti-intellectual forces of hegemonic neoliberal capitalism (the new normal!), that tenure is anti-innovation, or any of the conventional anti-tenure nonsense we’re all too familiar with.

Instead, he makes two points, one that shouldn’t be controversial, one I can see why it raises some hackles.

The uncontroversial claim: every worker deserves workplace protections against at-will firing and capricious discipline. I won’t invite you to “fight me” on this because I don’t even want to know if you don’t agree.

The more controversial claim: faculty don’t do anything all that special to confer/demand protections other people don’t get.

When we advocate for increasing tenure-track hiring, we do so in the hope of breaking down at least some of this hierarchy. But why should graduate students [and non-tenure-track faculty!] — who have been leading unionization drives and campaigning against abusive and harassing faculty members around the country — be left out of the charmed circle of academic freedom? What about other campus workers, such as janitors, administrative personnel, and food-service staff, who keep universities running and know more than most faculty members about what goes on behind the scenes? The idea that there is a neatly bounded group of people whose occupation entitles them and only them to speak to civic concerns is hard to sustain.

He doesn’t use this term, but he’s calling out tenured faculty for a kind of exceptionalism. I’m not going to spend a whole bunch of time unpacking the term exceptionalism; in short, it’s the idea that a class or group of people (often a nation) is special and thus excepted from rules/norms that govern everyone else.

Afinogenov isn’t calling on tenured faculty to forego the protections that tenure offers. He’s calling on us to stop claiming those protections for our own and not fighting for others to have them also.

Reversing the cancer of academic neoliberalism and upending the increasingly rigid hierarchy of faculty positions would require the kind of financial and political investment that can only be produced by a broad-based social movement with a much more sweeping agenda. There are signs that a movement like this is building today, but it is hard for academics to take part in it as long as we demand privileges that other workers won’t share.

You might buck against the term “privileges,” believing that academic freedom and due process are necessary for academic work. Academe needs them (I applaud the thousands of NTT faculty and graduate instructors who work without them and do well–but you shouldn’t have to). Again, the problem is when we make ourselves the exceptional class of workers who need and deserve such strong protection.

Maybe you, if you’re a tenured faculty member (or a tenured K-12 teacher), haven’t had this conversation, but I’ve had it dozens of times.

Person at busstop/gym/coffeeshop when they learn I’m a professor: Tenure is silly. Nobody deserves to have a job for life.
Me: That’s not really what tenure is. Tenure ensures we can’t get fired without due process, and that we have the autonomy to make professional decisions about our work. Why shouldn’t everyone have that?

A meme circulates on union social media feeds from time to time that says, basically, “Don’t complain about my union wages. Organize and fight for your own!” I feel that, but Afinogenov is helping me clarify some discomfort I’ve also felt with it.

The part I fully feel: don’t blame unions for the fact that your boss can screw you. The part I’m queasy about: go fix it yourself.

I’m not queasy about the claim that the protections of tenure are important. And to be clear, I don’t think many of us go out of our way to deny similar protections to other workers (although I’ve seen a lot of faculty claim that others “don’t need it”). But when we claim them unto ourselves and don’t fight for them more broadly, the practical effect is the same: we sound like we’re declaring ourselves exceptional, and thus shouldn’t be surprised when others think we’re being self-aggrandizing and arrogant.

Abusing Contingency for the Sake of Political Expediency

January 12, 2020

Four years ago, I wrote a post called Abusing Contingency for the Sake of Logistics, in which I argued that it’s an abuse of human decency to use a contingent faculty member’s (or any contingent worker’s, for that matter) contingent status as a way to solve a problem that has nothing to do with the faculty member’s performance.

Friday morning, the AAUP’s Academe blog reported on the firing of an adjunct faculty member at Babson College in Massachusetts. Read the story there for details; for now, what’s relevant is that the faculty member, Asheen Phansey, said something snarky on Twitter, drew a bunch of right wing outrage that got directed towards college management, and was summarily dismissed even though he apologized for the post.

I’ve made this point before, most recently in a talk at the National Communication Association conference in November 2019:

Fresno State University was confronted twice between Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 with faculty who posted “inflammatory” tweets that weren’t work-related. Lars Maischak in August 2017 tweeted “Trump must hang!” Randa Jarrar responded to the hagiography of Barbara Bush after Bush’s  death in April 2018 with a profane tweet about how much of a racist Bush was. When Trump supporters screamed at the university to fire Maischak, they did. When right-wingers screamed at Jarrar, she responded, “They can’t fire me. I have tenure!” In response to demands that she be fired, the university disowned the content of her tweets but explained that she has First Amendment rights they can’t contravene, and rightly didn’t discipline her.

The NTT person got fired, and the tenured person didn’t. And for the record, no, I’m not wishing she’d been disciplined.

What really surprised me about this situation was the reaction I got when I said something on Facebook about Randa Jarrar’s proclamation that tenure would protect her. My post said, basically, that I wish she hadn’t invoked tenure as cover for already-protected free speech because it just invites people who hate tenure to blame it for protecting her, and worse, by implication, asserts that non-tenure-track faculty shouldn’t be protected for their speech.

So here we are again. Asheen Phansey has been fired for a tweet. If you’re inclined to say something about this, and if you’re concerned in the least bit about academic labor, you should be, feel free to use or ignore any of this letter I sent to President Spinelli at Babson:

Dear President Spinelli:

I read with grave dismay on Friday morning about the firing of Asheen Phansey for his admittedly bad-taste social media post satirizing President Trump’s threats against Irani cultural sites.

Whatever your opinion about the social media post itself, even if it weren’t satire and even had Phansey not apologized profusely for it, your willingness to dismiss him without even a sniff of due process is distressing. According to the AAUP, your own college website makes clear that there are governance standards that have been broken in this case. The fact that he’s adjunct faculty, and also serves in a staff position, does not absolve the college of following your own rules and standards.

Worse, and without knowing your personal politics (obviously) maybe I’m just encouraging you by saying this, by giving in to the whims of a handful of loud rightwing anti-academics, you’ve encouraged them to do more of the same every single time anyone associated with any college or university says something they don’t like. I wish there were a polite way to say this, but your college’s response is as dismal a failure of leadership as I can recall seeing. If I were a faculty member there, I’d wonder if there are any circumstances in which I could expect you to protect and support me.

As a faculty member, it saddens me to no end to know that I have colleagues anywhere who so easily get hung out to dry when they say something a handful of highly reactive people don’t approve of. It scares me to know that I have colleagues at Babson who may not feel like they can do or say anything the least bit controversial. It distresses me to know that a minor mistake and an apology are firing offenses. None of this is right.

On behalf of Prof Phansey, the faculty of your institution, and of adjunct faculty everywhere who live in fear of dismissal over nothing, and whose fears you’ve now reinforced, I encourage you to reverse the firing decision and allow Prof Phansey due process as provided by the faculty senate and your own governing documents. Academics all over the US are watching to see how this goes. You have an opportunity to reverse a terrible error and provide a model for how to handle a faculty member’s mistake, his contrition, and a political subculture’s belief that it gets to make the rules for everyone.

Thanks for your attention, and I dearly hope to see public updates that you’ve done the right thing.

Seth Kahn, PhD

Open Letter to Managers Who Expect Contingent Faculty to Prepare for Courses But Won’t Compensate Them When Those Courses Are Yanked

January 8, 2020

Dear Administrator/Manager:

Around the beginning of every academic term, contingent faculty report the same story. They were scheduled to teach a course, and spent the time any faculty member would preparing for it, but something requires you to cancel or reassign it: a tenured faculty member needs to fill out their workload; or a change in time or day of the course meeting means the section conflicts with the contingent faculty member’s obligations elsewhere, especially if they’re freeway-flying; or…. I understand that sometimes circumstances call for changes in schedules and workload assignments, and that you don’t intend to harm your contingent faculty even though they’re the ones who are, in fact, harmed.

Taking work from faculty who have prepared in good faith to do it is bad enough, even when explicable. Worse, and nearly as common, is how often the faculty who spent time preparing for those courses are refused compensation for the preparation itself. As a labor issue, this practice is unethical on its face. Your employees* are doing work that benefits your organization, and is in fact de facto required (more on this below). You should pay them for doing it. You might cry poverty, but that doesn’t change the logic.

And if that logic doesn’t convince you, I hope this will. Think about the message you send when you won’t pay them for preparation. You’re telling them (and everyone else) that preparation is worthless–literally. Is that really what you want to say? Or worse than worthless, depending on your calculus: preparation is a leisure activity, or valuable only as an exercise in self-fulfillment, or as a donation to the institution. Except we know that none of those is true. If your faculty are unprepared for their teaching assignments, that damages both their future prospects and your institution. The practice of denying compensation for preparations while punishing faculty who don’t donate their preparation time is exploitative at best. And the impact of that multiplies when it happens to the faculty whose positions pay the least and are most tenuous.

There are institutions that have addressed this problem; for your convenience, here’s a very partial list.

Ithaca College, Article 22F

University of Michigan Lecturers Employees Organization, Article 12.D.1

Loyola University-Chicago, Article 30

Wayne State University, Article 16

Western Michigan University, Article 18.3

Connecticut State University System, Article 4.6.1

University of Massachusetts-Boston, Article 21.2

American University, Appendix 2

Community College of Vermont, Article 20.H

Northeastern University, Article 9, Section 16

Lane Community College, Article 34.8

University of San Francisco, Article 11.5

I found those with a Facebook query and about 30 minutes of Googling. Most of the contracts SEIU has negotiated for contingent and/or other non-tenure-track faculty have this kind of provision in them; there are plenty of others as well. You’ll also notice that the level of compensation ranges widely, as do the means of calculating it. I have opinions and preferences among those, but for now, the important points are:

1. Reasonable people do this it’s worth it to the institution not to reinforce the message that time spent preparing is time wasted when contingency rears its head.

2. The work contingent faculty do is valuable just like the work tenure-track and tenured faculty do, and to treat their labor as disposable just because the law says you can is rotten.

As a manager/administrator, you have both financial and academic/professional responsibilities to your institution. Sacrificing the ability of your contingent faculty to succeed by telling them they shouldn’t prepare for courses they may not wind up teaching meets neither of those responsibilities, and neither does extorting their preparations for free by threatening not to employ them if they don’t donate their work to you.


Seth Kahn, PhD
Professor of English, West Chester University of PA

*I can hear some of you saying, “They’re not our employees when they’re in between contracts.” Technically true, perhaps, but how many of you would deploy that same logic if one of those faculty suddenly drew national attention to themselves for an inflammatory social media post and was identified publicly as faculty at your institution? Would you honestly respond, “Well, they posted that over Winter Break, so it’s not our problem?” I didn’t think so.



Addenda to Herb Childress’ “What Tenured Faculty Could Do…”

October 31, 2019
A lot of what I’d say about Herb Childress’ “What Tenured Faculty Could Do, if They Cared about Adjuncts” (paywalled, ironically, at the Chronicle of Higher Ed) I’ve published before, so I won’t do a point-by-point (most of which would be enthusiastic agreement anyway).
I do want to think about the one-union/separate-union problem. I had a long conversation a couple of years ago with somebody in the early stages of studying this exact problem (I’m not sure where that research has gone, but I hope to see her results someday). On that call, I told her my sense is that it depends very much on the context. Simple version–
Blended unions work better for adjuncts when the proportion of adjuncts is smaller. So, for example, in our system where TT faculty are the majority (pushing 75%), a separate adjunct union would be too small to have much power. If our entire adjunct cohort walked out, it would hurt and create some chaos, but it wouldn’t cause management anywhere near the problems it did when we all walked out together. They have an easier (no, not easy, but easier) task convincing* the union to bargain their issues from within than going it alone. Not to say we don’t need to do better, or that the adjuncts within our union shouldn’t organize among themselves to make their demands, but structurally, it would disadvantage them to bargain separately.
On the other hand, in most places where the NTT faculty are the majority, their bargaining power is much larger, and having to negotiate their issues with the smaller cohort of TT faculty before bargaining any of that into a contract makes it likely they’ll get squeezed–especially in places where the TT faculty keep the adjuncts out of the leadership, off bargaining teams, etc. This happens distressingly often (yes, anecdata, but metric tons of it).
So as a practical matter, I’d add these calls onto Childress’ list. If you’re a TT member of a blended union, work hard to make sure your union represents all of your members.
  • Create opportunities–that aren’t just tokens–for adjunct faculty to be in union leadership positions, and to be able to take them (by paying stipends, for example, or making sure that it can at least count as service credit for faculty who get evaluated on service–but better, really, is to pay them for the time).
  • Don’t wait until decisions are all-but-made to ask out loud how they’ll affect your most vulnerable members. And when you ask that question, ask it to the people who are getting affected and listen to what they say.
  • When your TT colleagues demean adjuncts (intentionally or not), call it out. If solidarity means anything at all, it must apply to everyone. If somebody has to be reminded that an entire cadre of faculty are union siblings, that person needs a talking-to.

Once you commit to solidarity, the rest of this gets a lot simpler.

*Someday, I won’t need the word “convincing” in that sentence–that’s one of my career goals.

Contingent Faculty Have Feelings Too

July 29, 2019

In the spirit of starting the joke with the punchline in order to avoid testing your patience, I’m going to make the big point first.

If you’ve ever tone-policed* a contingent** faculty member for sounding strident, or whiny, or whingy, or uncivil, or any such thing, I hope you read this article from today’s (Mon, July 29, 2019) Inside Higher Ed called “Professors Have Feelings Too” and substitute “contingent faculty member” for “tenure-track professor” or “probationary” or “untenured” professor. When you do, I hope you hear what I’ve been hearing every single time I hear someone tone-police a contingent faculty member for sounding angry or stressed out or frustrated.

What the hell do you expect? A job at which your workload can change even once a term has started is stressful; a job from which you can be disappeared without explanation is stressful. I’ve said all this before.

As with other times when I’ve made this kind of move, I feel obligated to say that this isn’t to dismiss or undercut the feelings that tenure-track faculty face. We should be able to think about faculty stress and faculty feelings within and across ranks and statuses because we’re (supposed to be) smart people.

OK, this is unusual. When I first started writing this, I had a much longer argument in mind, but I may have just said everything I want to say about this until somebody makes me keep going.

*[Updated Monday evening: If you need a primer on the concept of tone-policing, this piece from Everyday Feminism is excellent.]

**I’m using the word “contingent” to refer to faculty whose positions are insecure, whether that means workload, or longevity, or at-will status. Not all NTT faculty are “contingent” in this sense, and it’s important that those of us who are active in the discourse find a way to be clear about who we’re talking with and about.


He’s Mostly Right, but the Wrong Part is Really Wrong

May 31, 2019

Today (May 30, 2019) on the Tenure for the Common Good Facebook page, our fearless founder Carolyn Betensky posted a link to this blog post called “Is Your Prof Part-Time? 4 Reasons You Should Find Out” by Dan Edmonds. Edmonds makes a point that writ large deserves a round of applause from everyone concerned with contingent academic labor equity: students/families need to aware of the labor conditions under which faculty work at colleges they’re considering. He recommends searching for colleges on the Adjunct Project site at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (which doesn’t seem to have been updated in a couple of years, but that’s a post for another day), and then:

Ideally, you should couple this research with a more direct line of questioning to the schools you’re most interested in learning more about. The American Federation of Teachers has an excellent list of questions to ask a representative from colleges you’re interested in. If a school is standoffish about answering these questions, I’d advise pushing back and making it clear that the treatment of NTTF is an important factor you’ll be weighing in comparing schools. The better that a school’s contingent faculty are treated, the better they will perform.

So far so good, right? I would say so.

Here’s the problem. He rightly understands that most students and people who make decisions with them about college probably don’t know much, if anything, about contingent faculty issues, so after laying out the scope of contingency (with numbers that are reasonably current and accurate), he lists and explains the “4 reasons” his title promises.

They are:

1. Hiring high-quality candidates is difficult. Because of poor or no benefits, below-market wages, and little scheduling control, schools have a difficult time attracting and retaining high-quality adjunct instructors.

2. Teaching conditions are less than desirable. Many adjuncts work multiple jobs to subsist, and they often lack offices and other resources to be able to provide key support to students.

3. Course content may be predetermined. Adjuncts are often limited in their freedom to create their own syllabi and may be forced to use course materials that they are unfamiliar or unhappy with.

4. Classes are often staffed at the last minute. With little time to prepare, even the most dedicated adjuncts may struggle to develop thoughtful, engaging curricula.

I have no substantive objections to 2-4; they’re a little underdeveloped, sure, but it’s a blog post and the points are basically sound.

But the first one is profoundly mistaken. He’s right about the conditions, but he’s flatly wrong about the quality of faculty. It’s a common assumption among people who don’t do actual research about academic labor that adjunct faculty aren’t tenure-track because they’re not as good. It’s hooey. Especially as the job market in most academic disciplines has crashed over the last decade or more, we see more and more top-notch talents who, for lots of reasons, wound up in non-tenure-track positions. We also see a growing number of top-notch talents who choose to be off the tenure-track because it affords them options they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Beyond that–and as somebody who’s been accused more than once of saying things publicly on behalf of adjunct faculty that were more harmful than helpful, I know how easy this is–making that argument in the context of a piece that’s otherwise strongly supportive of better conditions for non-tenure-track faculty shoots his own argument in the foot. It’s hard to convince students and families to demand better treatment of adjunct faculty at the same time you’re announcing to them that those faculty are substandard.

On the off chance that Mr. Edmonds sees this post, I strongly encourage him to spend an hour watching the documentary Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor, and then maybe revisiting his post. What he’s trying to do is laudable, and much of the post follows through–but the part that doesn’t really doesn’t, and I hope there’s a way to fix that.