National Higher Education Summit Meeting Links Faculty Working Conditions to Student Learning Conditions, Promotes Coalition to Develop and Implement Reform

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As administration unveils college value “scorecard,” educators challenge steady disinvestment in core educational mission of teaching and learning.

A teacher's working conditions are a student's learning conditions.

As the Obama administration unveils a new tool to help families choose potential colleges using “key measures of college affordability and value,” a national higher education advocacy group is highlighting the scorecard’s lack of attention to the relationship of faculty working conditions to student learning conditions.

The New Faculty Majority Foundation, together with its affiliated membership group, recently convened an all day summit in Washington, DC for college faculty, administrators, students, parents, accreditors, legislators, and community groups to coordinate a national effort to transform faculty employment practices in higher education, which, the group asserts, are subjecting the majority of college faculty to unprofessional working conditions and undermining student learning outcomes.

At the one-day meeting on January 28, participants confronted the fact that college and university faculty appointments are now almost completely temporary, poorly compensated positions, offering poverty-level wages and rarely providing benefits of any kind. Over sixty percent of all faculty in the United States are now designated “part-time” even if they are teaching the same number of courses as full-time faculty, and earn an average of $20,000 per year. An additional fifteen percent are officially full-time but on short-term contracts. The majority of all temporary faculty are female and most frequently teach first and second year courses along with remedial education courses. The key message coming out of the summit was that there exists an urgent need to reinvest, both financially and philosophically, in the faculty who are charged with carrying out the core educational mission of higher education.

Maria Maisto, Executive Director of the New Faculty Majority Foundation and president of its affiliated membership organization, noted that “the decades-long decline in spending on direct instruction has ensured that the most vulnerable students in colleges today are being taught by the least supported faculty members. These professors typically have little say in curricular decisions. They cannot participate fully on campus, as many work multiple jobs simply to offset low wages. Many are hired at the last minute, and most are denied access to basic tools such as computers, offices, and administrative support services that are critical to ensuring student success. An increasing amount of research is proving what these faculty have always known: that disinvestment in faculty hurts students. The current situation of college faculty also contradicts the message that investing in education, as these faculty members have tried to do in their own lives, is the path to the middle class.”

The Summit meeting, titled “Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education,” was held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). It began with a message of encouragement from Congressman John Tierney (D-MA), who serves on both the Education and Labor subcommittees. Speakers included Carol Schneider, President of AAC&U, Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change, and Stanley Katz, Director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies and a 2011 National Humanities Medal recipient. Adjunct faculty, student activists and higher education researchers were among the most vocal participants.

The nearly 150 attendees were presented with evidence that college presidents, top level administrators, policymakers, and the public are not aware of the extent of the problem or its impact on student learning. Citing recent, much-criticized comments by Vice President Biden attributing the high cost of college to faculty salaries, participants agreed on the importance of a national public education campaign to communicate the message that “faculty working conditions are student learning conditions” and discussed launching a national project to encourage public commitment to reform and that would contain mechanisms to track progress toward the twin goals of faculty equity and educational excellence. “This meeting was unprecedented because people who usually only speak among themselves about these issues were finally speaking to each other about them, and even better, committing to collaborative action to address them,” said Maisto.

New Faculty Majority has gained traction since forming in 2009 to improve the quality of higher education by improving the working conditions of its nearly one million adjunct and contingent faculty. The organization's affiliated Foundation has recently received grants from several major foundations to advance its work.

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