Why should the issue of academic freedom, at large, be at the center of this article on adjuncts? Because as things currently stand, adjuncts and other contingent faculty disproportionately bear, materially and concretely, the burden of CUNY's increasing loss of academic freedom. By now, those of you reading this will probably have already heard about adjunct lecturer Kristofer Petersen-Overton's recent politically-oriented firing and re-hiring from Brooklyn College. Though much has already been said about this issue, I think there is a lot more at stake for adjuncts than meets the eye.
In October and November, contingent CUNY employees turned out in high numbers to demand that the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) include considerations for contingent faculty on their bargaining agenda for the upcoming contract. The demands included providing adjuncts and HEOs with real job security, and providing all contingent titles with a large pay increase and access to the same benefits as full-timers. None of these demands, however, were included in the final bargaining agenda that was approved on November 4. So why are we surprised that contingent titles remain vulnerable to the whims of political and cultural trends affecting the university? The low wages that adjuncts receive and the lack of adequate health insurance have real consequences both for our survival and for academic freedom. Full time faculty, especially those who are economically secure and protected by the system of tenure, are going to be a lot less likely to censor their ideas than the scores of adjuncts who live, often precariously, on near poverty level wages.
Just as importantly, such disparities also disproportionately affect those graduate students and adjunct lecturers from historically underserved groups who often have to struggle with other economic and social challenges. Since people of color are disproportionately low-income, but also because their labor has, in the US, historically been exploited in a particularly pointed way, the blatant labor exploitation and underfunding of graduate students, adjuncts and teaching fellows means that fewer people of color can confidently choose or are able to willingly put themselves into these exploitative conditions in order to get a degree. In this way, the unjust labor conditions that all contingent faculty are expected to bear actually helps to perpetuate the current structures of social privilege and racial and ethnic exclusion within the academy.
Kristofer Petersen-Overton's case was quickly taken up: by the press, by a large, vocal backlash (on the part of students and supportive faculty at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center), and by the PSC itself. In response to this pressure, Brooklyn College reversed its decision and rehired Petersen-Overton to teach the same course. But unfortunately this is not an isolated occurrence and could happen to any adjunct at any time. Although a victory for Petersen-Overton and those who stood up to the Brooklyn College administration, this incident actually reflects a profound failure, for shouldn't there have already been protections in place to avoid such a clear cut case of political interference? Petersen-Overton's work is concerned with the Israel/Palestine conflict and the politics of the Middle East in general and it is volatility of the political discussions around these subjects that ultimately led to Petersen-Overton's dismissal. However, there is a lot more at work here than just the politics of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. As funding becomes more and more dire, CUNY is becoming more and more dependent on parties with interests other than excellent education and intellectual inquiry. As the Wall Street Journal reported on February 10, 2011, "The chancellors of New York's public universities on Thursday pushed legislators for a new system that would lead to regular, moderate tuition increases and the authority to enter lucrative partnerships with commercial interests as they face another round of deep budget cuts threatening affordable higher education." (The whole article, "SUNY, CUNY push for tuition policy, business deals" can be found online at http://online.wsj.com/.) With these changes, external pressures preventing academic freedom will only increase, and contingent faculty will bear the burden. As this problem grows, how much of our union resources are we going to dedicate to deal with repeated instances of politically or economically motivated individual dismissals, instead of, say, fighting for broader rights and benefits for us as laborers and intellectuals in general?
A reactive response to dichotomized, politicized instances of hiring/firing is becoming the way that we mediate the question of academic freedom. What then of collective, proactive insistence on genuine open-minded and scientific engagement with ideas? The work we should be doing is insisting that the academy move beyond thinking in terms of merely left and right. Academic freedom is centrally dependent on an environment where inquiry is not forced into falsely dichotomized groups. In order to defend academic freedom, we should be making political, cultural, and economic demands that create an environment more conducive to inquiry.
How can intellectual, scientific inquiry survive without a willingness to risk rather than defend, to look change in the eye and consider it outside of whatever immediate loss of power it might bring? We must be more concerned with investigation than with keeping our business partners or making a profit. The promise of intellectual inquiry is in searching for a way to improve, in looking beyond the system as it is and envisioning, researching, and perhaps creating alternatives, be they in demand at a particular moment in time or politically unpopular.
Instead of insisting on such an economic, social, political and cultural environment, concerned academics are reduced to reaction. With an increase in the number of adjuncts like Kristofer Petersen-Overton, the demand for academic freedom will be narrowly limited. If the terms of the debate continue in this way, we will be reduced to fighting for reinstatement after reinstatement, but the demand for long-term protections for academic freedom will be lost in the fray. We shall demonstrate that one vocal and engaged Brooklyn College adjunct can teach while holding a controversial political view related to his subject, but we shall not demonstrate that academic inquiry will be eviscerated by a dependence on for-profit business partners and their interests, or by a continued environment of political partisanship.
And this is why we should all be concerned about Petersen-Overton's appointment at Brooklyn College. While concerned academics may be heartened by the numerous individuals who responded to Petersen-Overton's firing to demand that Brooklyn College respect his rights as a laborer, we should be dismayed by the terms of the conflict, and the knowledge that the debate over academic freedom can been taken out of our hands and placed in the hands of politicians and the interests of private businesses. And as those businesses go, there goes CUNY.