Power despite precarity blog

This is a blog about our new book, Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education. The publisher is Pluto in the UK and we expect it to come out in August 2021.

We’ll start with some background. This should set the mood:

Rally at Civic Center Plaza

Joe is holding the boom box so that people can hear the speaker at this rally. The rally is organized by AFT 2121 at City College of San Francisco, where about 165 full-time tenure line faculty have just received March 15 layoff letters. This means that over 500 contingent faculty will for-sure lose their jobs, because they are the cushion onto which tenured faculty fall.

The dominant mood is angry.

What is professionalism?

The person at the microphone is Malaika Finkelstein, president of AFT 2121. In the Troublesome Questions section of our book, we discuss the use of the word “professional” in our profession: what do people mean by it? For example: Do you think that it is very professional of Malaika to be wearing a bougainvillea-pink wig and a dress over her blue jeans to be addressing a rally at City Hall? Yes/No? Is it very professional for the faculty to be doing a rally in the first place? And how about doing a rally during COVID-19 shutdown? See the rope with all the hats on it? Those are the hats of six people who could not be standing in line right there because of social distancing requirements. Nonetheless, the faculty holding the line did some line-dancing, choreographed by a professor from the dance program.

Do you think that line dancing in Civic Center Plaza is professional behavior?

If you answered “No” to the above question, be sure to propose some alternate ways to get the attention of the folks in City Hall who have the power to restore funding for classes.

Items (a), (b) and (c)

In future posts, we will keep track of things that look like a) ways that the pandemic has fast-forwarded trends that have been oozing and grinding forward since the 1970s, b) ways that disaster capitalism trying to sweep up the value accused in public higher education (and since virtually all non-profit private higher ed receives and depends on public finding, we’ll include that as well) and c) fight backs, including potential fightback opportunities.

(a) Mills College is going under

This is an example of (a). Mills College, a private women’s college in Oakland which has been around since the 1850s, is no longer going to award undergraduate degrees. The announcement said that it finds that it is no longer financially viable. It will become an Institute.

What will happen to the faculty?

The website says:

In addition to developing transition pathways for our students, it is our intention to discuss transition opportunities for faculty and staff with our Human Resources Department and our unions. We expect many faculty and staff will stay on and support students throughout the transition; others may also find opportunities with a future Mills Institute or with other institutions. We will keep faculty and staff informed as more details are available.

Lots of words that probably sound familiar to contingents: “we expect”, “our intention”, “keep faculty informed…”

Turns out everyone is contingent.

(b) But Google sees an opening…

This is an example of (b). Google is going to offer non-degree related classes in “job ready skills you can put to work.” No college necessary! The March 18 SF Chronicle had an article about this, and here’s a quote from the article:

Higher education has been ripe for disruption for a long time. And while Google’s recent announcement may not be the final nail in the coffin, it’s a move with major potential to change the future of education and work.

More about this at https://grow.google/certificates/#?modal_active=none

The point is that we’re looking at a rapidly shifting landscape. Hoping that it will calm down and turn out fine is not a strategy.

(c) That’s why we wrote this book.

And here is how we actually wrote it:

This is Joe up in the room in the barn which our friend Mike who can do this kind of thing built for us, specifically to be able to lay out this book. The post-its on the wall are the chapters called Troublesome Questions. You can see the numbers — that’s the number of the question. There are seven of these questions.

Joe and I spent 8 years working on this book. It began in 2010 with Joe and John Hess just sitting around in John’s back yard in Oakland talking about what it was like to organize contingents in higher ed. Naturally, that evolved into “let’s write a book.” But then John came up with Parkinson’s and so eventually I stepped in, since it was so far along already, with all the thinking and planning that had gone into it. But that was 2014. We kept having to go do other things, and then come back and start up again, but finally we were trapped in the house in Berkeley, CA with the pandemic, and could wrap it up.

John Hess

Here’s a picture of John — he’s in either a very dark bar or a parking garage somewhere, and we don’t know who took this picture, but it gives an idea of his spirit. The T-shirt shows that it was taken while the Lecturers in the California State University system were building up their strike threat — it says: “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

Stay tuned. Joe and John are both old white guys with beards and bald heads, but you’ll be able to follow the story in the book. There is not going to be any kind of lack of material to work with as we go along.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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