Our drumbeat is growing louder

Our drumbeat is growing louder

Our drumbeat is growing louder

As we look back on 2016, let’s remember that we kept the drums beating for all faculty to live and work more openly and freely. This type of bravery in the face of oppression and exploitation speaks truth to power and defends the American dream—thank you. We also built transformative relationships across movement lines with a clear agenda to lift all marginalized voices, and we were loud—they can hear us, now.

We have a lot to celebrate. To start, it’s official: graduate students are workers: “The National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.” This victory opens the doors to fair pay and professional respect at the start of one’s teaching career, which is long overdue.

In the for-profit sector, we led the charge that held Westwood College accountable for its poor track record of deceptive business practices and other violations. Upon Westwood’s closure, we organized students and took action, demanding that all students that attended Westwood deserve a responsible closure that includes a FULL refund on their student loans that are controlled by the school. Additionally, we worked in coalition with partners to hold the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) accountable for its poor track record of student outcomes and business dealings. This was crucial in shining a light on the whole industry and in particular, ITT Technical Institute’s shady operation, which eventually shuttered when it could not meet oversight and compliance actions.

Now let’s talk about North Carolina where the drums were beating loud and clear all year. Faculty met incoming University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings with resistance from day one when hundreds of faculty and students walked out and rallied to demand accountability. Spellings’ record reflects a narrow higher education agenda that promotes the interest of private corporations over the public interest and this is why faculty and students protested Board of Governors’ meetings, signed and delivered petitions, and fought hard when Spellings sided with what may fairly be described as an absurd and discriminatory state law, North Carolina House Bill 2 (H.B. 2), rather than take a stand for transgender students, which negatively affected the entire campus community. Make no mistake, the pressure is still on Spellings and UNC System faculty are united in solidarity.

Florida brought the heat to administrators, too. Eric Fiske, graduate student at the University of South Florida in the political science department and adjunct professor at Hillsborough Community College (HCC), wrote an open letter to the administration and appealed for an ethical way out of the mess of contingency. We believe Eric speaks for everyone when he says:

Your adjuncts, who teach the majority of our students, should be paid a living wage. A wage that allows them to not ask the questions ‘how am I going to pay rent this month?’ or ‘what bills can I push off another week?’ A wage that allows them to give each and every student 100% of their mental and emotional energy.

Christopher Hirschmann Brandt breaks precarity down in a math lesson, addressed to “university presidents and provosts, and other ‘high-ranking’ administration officials (not to mention men's athletic coaches) who make more than a quarter million dollars a year,” and the numbers just don’t add up, for us.

One thing Faculty Forward Network activists do best is shine a light on racial and economic injustices in higher ed, including calling out student debt disparity and holding college presidents and boards accountable for the just treatment of all. We know that dissent is patriotic (Connor Harney), women are game changers, and activism matters. We believe that “students deserve access to a good education and teachers deserve to be paid for their important work” (Lydia F. Snow). We also know that “there is more that unifies us than divides us, be that across movements or genders” (“A. Paige Warren Represents at the White House Summit on the United State of Women”).

Faculty activists intimately understand economic hardship and expose the daily grind of navigating stacked gigs on a tight budget and ticking clock. Lee Kottner talks about the “hidden social and human costs of employing adjuncts” and shows how we pay for the hidden costs of adjuncting “in the loss of new discoveries, technical advances, or generation of new ideas.” Time and time again the struggle is exposed in narratives and pleas to improve faculty working conditions that impact student learning conditions, and we need to collectively press for change while we have the spotlight shining both on us and the administration of higher ed.

Benedict Stork shows us what it feels like to be invisible in institutions that are built on Jesuit missions but won’t pay their faculty a living wage or offer them the warmth of job security. It’s difficult not to lose faith in the mission and profession when administrators fight you every step of the way and govern against the grain of established values. Nonetheless, Ben insists on transparency and honesty:

In the classroom the university is all too happy to have ‘professor’ affixed to my name, eager to obscure the hierarchies the administration relies on for ‘cost control’ and ‘budget flexibility.’ If the institution will not be transparent, which it steadfastly refuses to be, then I will insist on making my position, in both senses of that word, clear.

He’s right—the shame belongs to the institutions that exploit workers and corrupt the mission for profit. It’s time for everyone to understand that higher education is under attack and fight back.

In “Labor Justice at Jesuit Institutions” faculty member Alan Trevithick says:

We demand that Fordham University’s administration live up to its own Social Justice Initiatives and end the unjust treatment of its adjunct and contingent faculty. We have a right to a living wage and comprehensive benefits, longer contracts, course cancellation fees, funding for research, and a safe and just work environment free from interference.

Frederick Douglass taught us that “power concedes nothing without a demand,” and faculty are in the struggle together, confronting our oppressors and liberating higher ed for the generations to come who will need quality education and progressive ideas to combat hateful rhetoric and rise above poverty. We know that when we fight together, we win.

This is why Jason Grunebaum participated in the 4/14 National Day of Action with the Fight For 15 and again in the 11/29 National Day of Disruption where thousands protested and hundreds of arrests were made including faculty and students doing whatever it takes to jumpstart the economy. Jason knows we are in this together and points out that the courage of fast-food workers “has been infectious and reciprocal, turning the Fight for 15 into a nationwide, worldwide movement for social and economic justice.” Undoubtedly, “They paved the way for a broader coalition of home healthcare workers, childcare workers, airport workers, and non-tenure-track faculty, all fighting against the corporate cannibalizing of everything, coming together to make real change in the lives of many.” Faculty have much to learn by standing with our Fight For $15 brothers and sisters.

Adjuncts do have the power to change circumstances, and Mitch Tropin knows this from experience: “Adjuncts can play an active role in shaping the work environment at their institutions, contributing to discussions and debates over current policies and helping shape future policy.” Indeed, there are several ways for adjuncts to make an impact on campus and in coalition with other movements nationwide, and we will continue to exercise democracy with urgency in 2017.

Cheryl DeFlavis reminds us how empowering it is to march, as thousands did in Richmond, Virginia at the Fight For $15 National Convention:

It was blisteringly hot and still 8,000 people from all walks of life showed up to march in support of $15 and a union … We were under huge statues of famous confederates and those statues could not dwarf any of us as we marched by them, raising our voices as loud as we could. As we marched from the park to the final monument, we shut.it.down.

Joe McKinney echoes Cheryl’s sentiment: “Never have I stood in a room shoulder-to-shoulder with people from so many other backgrounds with a common purpose ... Too often it feels there is an unspoken divide between the laborer and the educator and it was beautiful to bridge that gap.” Yes, we are building beautiful bridges and relationships that reify our strength and solidarity.

As we reflect on 2016, it’s vital to remember that “society’s rules are ours to write. We just have to take up the challenge to do it” (Bradley Russell). As educators and lifelong learners, it’s incumbent on us to get informed and organized: this is part of the challenge, and “[w]e must find time and be committed to rocking the boat” (Eric Bauer). We have a lot to celebrate, but even more to accomplish as we move forward together, not one step back, into 2017. One thing is certain—we won’t back down. We are faculty activists and we will protest, walk-out, teach-in, march on the boss, occupy, strike, and commit civil disobedience when necessary. We’re taking back our profession and we need all hands on deck—we need civic engagement to combat cronyism and say loudly and clearly that higher education should be safe for everyone.

Our resolution for 2017 is to be even more vocal, more powerful, more urgent. The way we can do this is through what the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II calls ‘the power of fusion organizing.”¹ This is where we come together across dividing lines and build transformative relationships for the long struggle. Sustained movement depends on local people who understand the significance of meeting and mobilizing to “lift the voices of everyday people impacted by immoral policies.”² The beauty of a network is that a handful of faculty can create change on their home campus and in their community while connected to others who are doing similar work elsewhere. We can share strategy, support and resources. We are member driven and fired up to fight the power, together.


¹The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, The Third Reconstruction. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016, 127.

²Ibid., 128.

Guest Writer

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