Report on attending COCAL XI, New York City, August 4-6, 2014

as submitted to UUP by Peter Brown, New Paltz Chapter President, 8/8/14

I wish to begin by expressing my sincere gratitude to everyone at COCAL for their hard work in organizing such a successful conference this year! I also want to thank UUP’s Executive Board and its President, Fred Kowal, for their support in sending me as part of our delegation to New York City for this important event.

This is the third COCAL conference that I have been fortunate to attend, and overall it was a positive experience. It was a great opportunity to meet up with colleagues from around the country and network with fellow contingent activists from other regions and organizations. The planning and coordination of the event was commendable. I would particularly like to cite the work of Marcia Newfield, PSC-CUNY’s Vice President for Part-time Personnel, who coordinated the local planning committee. I admire her calm, efficient style and great sense of humor.

I have mixed feelings about most things, including large conferences such as this one, whether comprised mainly of tenure-track (TT) or non-tenure-track (NTT) colleagues. The obvious advantage is the opportunity to interact with a large number of colleagues in a short amount of time. The flip side is that it is difficult to thoroughly discuss complex matters in a detailed and nuanced manner. Large conferences always offer the opportunity for individuals to dominate the discussion or control the narrative in an unconstructive manner.

What I found positive was the energy and resolve of so many fellow activists dedicated to ending contingency as the norm in higher education.

What I found negative were the sometimes unrealistic and uncritical approaches being advanced. NTT faculty are commonly treated as second-class members of the academic community, so they sometimes tend to be defensive and too often portray themselves either as victims or as somehow morally superior to TT faculty.

During the first plenary session, there was much talk of the need for NTT faculty to exercise the option to strike on their own behalf. As a chapter president who has seldom been able to get more than a small handful of our 200+ adjuncts to commit to any joint action, this call to strike seemed particularly unrealistic, aside from the obvious Taylor Law implications. Unfortunately, it was precisely this fanciful call to strike that got the most enthusiastic reception and was prominently highlighted in the media reportage, especially by Inside Higher Ed.

Instead, we discussed a huge range of issues, including radically transforming society, changing the nature of the educational enterprise and overhauling the entire economic system. While neo-Marxist critiques of neo-liberal trends certainly have their place, they do not prove to be all that helpful in changing working conditions for NTT faculty in the U.S. today.

Discussions about transforming society may indeed distract us from coming up with concrete solutions to problems of compensation, job security and other improvements to the workplace. Any critical analysis needs to recognize the fact that during the last two decades of COCAL conferences, working conditions for NTT have deteriorated substantially: compensation has decreased when adjusted for inflation, while the gap between TT and NTT compensation has increased and the number of NTT faculty has soared.

In the final breakout session, I cited my own research and suggested we might develop metrics for tracking historical changes and judging future progress over time. The final report will eventually be posted on the COCAL website, but here is a preliminary summary by Bob Samuels, who helped facilitate the sessions on Building National Agendas:

In what we are calling a Democracy Index, each school will be assessed for its ability to promote democracy through its level of shared governance, pay equity, accessibility, affordability, and job security.  For example, we will analyze which faculty are able to participate in shared governance, including non-tenure-track faculty. We will also look at the pay ratio between part-time faculty and full-time faculty and between faculty and the administration.

The guiding principle behind this index is the following: “Building on the ideals embodied in the political statements of past COCALs, we commit to a trans-national agenda whose goal is to shape an equitable and democratic future for higher education by continuing to build networks, coalitions and alliances across discipline, campus, international border, and industry sector, in order to democratize the workplace, the classroom, and the broader community.”  This mission statement will be applied to a study of the democratic level of higher education institutions in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

One of our central claims is that we cannot have democratic institutions of higher education if most of the faculty do not participate in shared governance or do not have stable jobs with fair pay, effective job protections, and academic freedom.  We have found that as universities and colleges increase their reliance on contingent faculty, the cost of administration goes up, and the level of shared governance goes down.  We also affirm that the lack of democracy in higher education reflects the lack of democracy in most other workplaces.

By working with unions, professional organizations, and individual institutions, we hope to democratize higher education by informing the public about the close relation between teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions.  We imagine a world where our Democracy Index will replace misleading rating systems like US News & World Report’s College Rankings and the Obama administration’s College Scorecard.

See Bob Samuels’ complete post, “A Democracy Index for Higher Education,” at Changing Universities

One of the strengths of COCAL as a continental conference, including Canada and Mexico, is also one of its weaknesses. Although it is instructive to learn about those countries, it is very time-consuming and perhaps not as useful as it could be, since conditions are so different. NTT faculty in Canada often earn $10K per course with enviable job security, while our Mexican colleagues sometimes make only several hundred dollars per course and work in highly precarious, often life-threatening situations. Trying to devise a common approach to such widely divergent situations may not be the most productive use of our limited time.

After the final plenary session, a motion was introduced by a participant from PSC to support its $5K demand as the minimum starting compensation for NTT faculty at CUNY. An amendment was made to increase the figure to $7K, which was subsequently endorsed by the remaining conference participants. Our $5K demand, around which UUP and others have organized a campaign, represents a hefty 66% increase over the current starting salary for NTT faculty, whereas $7K amounts to a staggering 135% increase that would exceed that of junior TT faculty.

Bottom line: while COCAL is a useful venue to exchange information and network every other year, its actual results have been rather modest over the past two decades of its existence. While the same aging activists call for strikes to abolish the neo-liberal policies oppressing NTT workers, the situation in higher education continues to worsen: lower wages, more contingents and a growing compensation gap between TT and NTT faculty. Calling for the end of the two-tier system or the abolition of tenure as the solution to the exploitation of contingent faculty may ultimately be counterproductive.

It may also be counterproductive for some leaders of the contingent movement to over-emphasize the victimization of NTT faculty. Disadvantaged populations, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race or sexual orientation, have indeed achieved dramatic change when they reach out to form powerful alliances and move beyond seeing themselves merely as victims. Much more needs to be done to connect NTT faculty with their TT colleagues and with their students, parents, other unions, community organizations, etc. COCAL can play a key role in this process and become enormously successful.


About @NatM4Equity

The National Mobilization for Equity is a coalition of organizations committed to alleviating the present staffing crisis in higher education: three-quarters of the teaching jobs in American colleges are held by underpaid, precarious and poorly-supported contingent faculty. Our long-term goal is to end contingency as the norm. The current untenable situation not only adversely affects all faculty members, both contingent and tenure-track, it also negatively impacts our profession, our students and the quality of their education.

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