Transforming the Knowledge Plantation: “We Have a Dream”

By any measure of moral greatness,  a culture is judged by its treatment of the most vulnerable.  In the case of knowledge workers in our higher education sector that would be contingent and adjunct faculty.   With a Masters or Doctorate degree in hand, facing a crushing job market for tenure-track hires, those who honor and respect knowledge and aspire to the noble profession of teaching find themselves on one of Dante’s rings of hell as adjuncts.  Exploited as cheap-labor academic field hands on plantations of higher learning, they earn as little as $1,000 per course with no benefits.  No wonder the graduate students who curate Online PhD have produced the following statement and graphic:

                                           The PhD’s Job Crisis

“A consequence of the “Great Recession,” states across the country have been mired in debt and forced to make dramatic cuts to higher education. As funding for higher education constricts, fewer tenure track academic positions for recent graduates are opening as universities increasingly turn to economically cheaper adjunct and part-time professors to instruct their ballooning classes. Amid this reduction in the demand for PhDs is the fact that the United States is producing a record number of doctorates. The result is a job crisis for PhD candidates and ultimately the diminished quality of education in America’s higher education system.”

“We Have a Dream,” Anne Wiegard’s welcome address at the New Faculty Majority Foundation Summit on January 27, 2012 (Washington DC) inspires us to move forward together for a better Education America.   Teri Yamada

Anne Wiegard, President, President, New Faculty Majority Foundation

“We Have a Dream”

Thank you all for making time to travel here and join us.

Deep in my heart

I do believe

We shall overcome some day.

I am a child of the Sixties.  I lived just outside of Washington DC when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke there on August 28th, 1963, inspiring millions to march forward toward civil rights for African Americans.  His words had a profound effect upon me.  They still do.  Much of what he said in his visionary “I Have a Dream” speech applies to all movements for social justice, including the one which brings us to Washington this weekend.  Though the scale and gravity of the Civil Rights movement obviously and vastly overshadows ours, please allow me to liberally invoke King’s language to set the stage for what we hope will be a landmark moment in the movement to secure equity for contingent academic workers and transform higher education in America.

In a sense, like those Civil Rights workers who came with King to our nation’s capital to cash the check the architects of our republic had written, a promissory note guaranteeing all citizens the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we are here to cash a check, too.  Our nation’s founders acknowledged that a true democracy cannot survive without an informed citizenry.  They were implicitly signing a social contract honoring the belief that education is the cornerstone of this nation, a belief that is more widely held now than ever.

It is obvious today that the American higher education system has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as the majority of its faculty is concerned, not to mention the millions of students whose educations are indirectly compromised.   College and university faculty spend decades preparing for and engaging in a profession that does not make good on its promise to provide commensurate, equitable economic and social status.  Instead of honoring its obligation, the University of the United States has given the majority of college and university faculty a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

But we refuse to believe that the bank of higher education is bankrupt.  We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of academic freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to Washington to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the ghetto of contingency “to the sunlit path” of equality.  It would be fatal to overlook the urgency of the moment. Our legitimate discontent will not pass until there is change. The NFM Summit is not an end, but a beginning.

But there is something that I must say to all of you who stand on this threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place in the university we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for equity by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into counterproductive antagonism. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the contingent community must not lead us to a distrust of all administrators and tenured faculty, who, as evidenced by their presence here this weekend, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. We cannot walk alone.  Let us join hands with anyone who wishes to ensure that all of our children and grandchildren will develop the advanced knowledge and skills they will need to meet the challenges of the 21st century, for such higher education cannot be achieved without empowering teachers  to reach their full potential as well.

As we talk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.  We can never be satisfied as long as our colleagues are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Tenure-track Only.”  I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have fought for decades at great cost to yourself and your families. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for equity has left you battered by the storms of persecution or benign neglect. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.   We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Go back to your campus in Chicago, go back to your campus in Colorado, go back to your campuses in Georgia and Michigan, go back to your campus in New Jersey, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.   Together, we shall overcome.

Posted with permission of the New Faculty Majority  3/10/12

Editor’s note:  This well attended event —”Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education”—had  comprehensive coverage in Inside Higher Ed:

1. Lee Bessette “New Faculty Majority Summit:  Can We Bridge the Trust Gap?

2. Lee Bessette “The Time is Now: Report from the New Faculty Majority Summit”

3. Lee Bessette “Among the Majority”

4. Brian Croxall “Reporting from the New Faculty Majority Summit”


2 Comments on “Transforming the Knowledge Plantation: “We Have a Dream””

  1. R. A. Wueste says:

    Nicely presented. A human story backed by data. Let us hope we have not cut beyond the point of no return – where universities are reduced to efficient, one-size-fits-all knowledge factories and there is no room for accomplished scholars to dream, study and teach.

  2. Awesome information thank you


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