Op-Ed: Reframing campus free speech debates, creating conditions for desirable education

Debates about “free speech” rage on college campuses today. That the contours of these debates differ from the issues that gave rise to the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley circa 1964 is obvious. What’s not so obvious is perhaps the most serious impediment to free speech and academic freedom in higher education at present.

It is obvious to the new faculty majority comprised of contingent academic labor, however. The majority of professors in higher education today, myself included, are on short-term contracts. We are paid far lower wages than our tenure-track and tenured colleagues for doing the same work.

We are “part-time” employees of colleges and universities. With an emphasis on community college instructors, the California Education Code actually stipulates that “no part-time faculty member shall have reasonable assurance of continued employment at any point, irrespective of the status, length of service, or reemployment preference of that part-time, temporary faculty member.” It also caps the employment hours of those part-time faculty at 67 percent of the hours per week allotted for a full-time assignment.

I teach at two California community colleges and on three separate community college campuses at present. I am also an adjunct professor at UCR.

Piecing together “part-time” work to approximate a full-time workload — minus the professional pay the dwindling number of full-time and tenured or tenure-track faculty receive and with unending hours of commuting from campus to campus added on — is common for many Ph.D.-holding adjunct professors today, myself included. Since we can’t possibly survive on the lower wages sans benefits provided by a given part-time lecturer gig, we are driven to become “freeway fliers;” we drive up and down the freeway to various schools where we take on teaching load totals that our decently-paid professorial counterparts often cannot even fathom.

This two-tiered system of academic apartheid is too seldom discussed among activists and organizers on college campuses. It is discussed even less in the context of free speech and academic freedom, despite being arguably the gravest threat to both.

We adjunct faculty can be fired — or simply just not rehired when our short-term contracts end once the term or academic year concludes — with relative ease. This functions as a powerful silencing mechanism. The threat of losing much-needed wages discourages us from challenging conventional wisdom or voicing unpopular perspectives, either in the classroom or in public, for fear of upsetting administrators or angering department chairs who wield the power to permit or deny us our livelihoods come next semester or quarter.

And indeed, adjunct professors across the political spectrum are getting the ax for what they say in classrooms, to major media outlets and on Twitter.

Keith Fink, a UCLA instructor who taught a popular course on campus free speech, was informed last spring he wouldn’t be rehired — likely, some suggest, for his unconventional views at odds with the administration. After an appearance on Fox News and a heated exchange with host Tucker Carlson, a New Jersey adjunct professor, Lisa Durden, was dismissed from her teaching position at Essex County College. A lecturer in history at Fresno State University, Lars Maishack, was not rehired after controversial tweets he made back in April. And when Steve Taylor, a math lecturer, stood up and tried to address members at a St. Louis Community College Board of Trustees meeting to protest the administration’s rules prohibiting students and others in the audience from applauding to show support for faculty, he was tackled and body slammed by a police officer. He was arrested. Then he was fired.

These incidents demonstrate the degree to which contingent faculty are treated as entirely disposable, and it underscores the severity of the threat to adjunct faculty free speech.

Of course, it also suggests grounds for coalitions with students and others on campus.

Notably, the UC graduate student workers union, UAW Local 2865, recently called upon labor unions to disaffiliate from police unions because of the history of the latter protecting corporate interests and reinforcing institutionalized racism. They also called for demilitarizing police on UC campuses. So it’s possible these objectives and the goal of improving the lives of the new academic undercaste while protecting free speech could converge.

Adjuncts cannot count on administrators or on the shrinking privileged sector of the professoriate to come to the rescue and address the crisis of contingency. Instead, the time is ripe for students, grad students, faculty and other staff and service workers on campuses to organize together, with the abolition of the academic undercaste of adjuncts as one of maybe many unifying goals.

It’s oft said the faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. Yet an analysis of the political economy of free speech on campus can be developed further.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in the seminal 1915 “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” claimed the confidence of students in their professors — a confidence necessary, the AAUP argued, for real learning to occur — gets obliterated when instructors are “a repressed and intimidated class who dare not speak with that candor and courage which youth always demands in those whom it is to esteem.”

Education involves grappling with the history, ideas and frameworks for understanding that challenge and unsettle us. For faculty to facilitate an environment of productive discomfort where transformative learning can occur requires working conditions that don’t produce professors understandably intimidated and fearful for their jobs if they say something students do not immediately like or agree with.

With “Campus Equity Week” bringing attention to higher education’s exploitative reliance on contingent faculty, culminating with a nationwide day of action on October 31, it seems right to also consider how we can better educate each other about the kind of education, and the conditions necessary for that education, we desire and need. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley back in 1964 tried to do just that, and reclaiming the right to free speech today likely requires that we learn from and go beyond what history has taught us.

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