Meet the New Majority: Non-Tenured Faculty

UC Irvine generally does a great job of welcoming students. Lately, however, as I’ve followed those springtime campus tours around, I’ve noticed one thing that is wrong. Cheerful and otherwise well-prepared docents offer a problematic picture to potential Anteaters and their parents. Last week, a jolly tour guide stood under a tree and assured everybody that Academic Senate faculty members teach all classes at UCI.

Well, not really. Most instructors, both lecturers and teaching assistants, are not Senate faculty, tenured or “ladder faculty.” So, no, students are not always going to be taught by full professors.

On Thursday, April 30, non-tenured faculty all over the country, myself included, will do our best to correct this false academic employment picture. We will address an assumption that’s admittedly all too easy to make.

At UCI, we’ll be tabling outside Social Sciences Plaza (from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.), giving faculty, staff and students a chance to see us. They need to see that “adjunct” faculty, also called lecturers and graduate students, teach more than half of all the undergraduate courses in the UC system.

As members of the American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), the union that represents lecturers and librarians, we faculty members hope to draw attention to the fact that most people teaching in higher education do not have tenure and have quite limited academic freedom and job security.

Here’s your chance to meet us and for us to meet you. By identifying ourselves to the UCI community, contingent faculty hopes not only to make our role more visible but also to share information on our working conditions at a moment of profound budget cuts. We’re concerned that many higher education administrators will use the economic downturn to justify letting go of many non-tenured faculty. Once these teachers are released, we will witness a cutting of courses and an expansion of class size, coupled with increased tuition and fees. In other words, parents and students will be paying more and getting less.

Sure, some cost cutting has to be implemented, but we wonder why the loss of funds will be taken out on the most vulnerable faculty members and, by extension, the students we teach. Why can’t universities fire administrators or freeze their salaries? Why can’t the wealthiest of these institutions borrow from their billion-dollar endowments to weather the storm? Why can’t we recognize California’s unjust tax system and fix it?

So consider this op-ed your invitation to meet a contingent faculty member and to show support for the work we do. We’re not hard to find. Just talk to a lecturer or TA. Raise your hand in class, and ask your teacher his or her employment status. Yes, your instructor is more likely to be a TA or lecturer than a professor with tenure. Visit our table on April 30 to receive literature on how to reform California’s odious post-Proposition 13 taxation model toward fully paying for public services including education, health care and public safety. Everybody knows that our state has been hijacked, away from progressive taxation to unfair regressive taxation.

UC-AFT believes that together we can work to make California, one of the richest states in the country, a better and fairer one. In the short-term, we hope to prevent the easy administrative solution of letting go of teachers working outside of the tenure system. By claiming our status as the new majority in higher education, we contingent faculty seek to protect the quality of education in American universities and colleges. We are indeed the majority, and invite you to join us.

Andrew Tonkovich is a lecturer in the English Department and president of University Council – American Federation of Teachers Local 2226. He can be reached at atonkovi@uci.edu.