Friday book review: “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education,” by Joe Berry

[Editor’s note: Joe Berry’s essential text is reviewed here by AFT Higher Ed intern Nora Callahan, who is leaving us today to start her second year at Northeastern University. Thanks, Nora, for this review and for all your good work this summer! -AP]

Joe Berry brings an exciting and unique addition to the stack of books on the changing role of the adjunct professor–a step-by-step plan of action to save the profession and by extension the integrity of American college education. When my boss handed me a copy of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education she said, “This is pretty much the foundational text for contingent faculty organizing.”

Though it seems to be written to an adjunct readership, understandably the target audience, the book is an important read for anyone interested in the modern trends in American higher education, the state of academic labor, or even the wider labor movement. I found it to be particularly valuable as a college student involved in supporting my school’s adjuncts in their contract fight.

The union had won the election before I even attended my orientation, so this book really helped me understand what had gone on in the organizing effort while I was hundreds of miles away still applying to colleges and studying for the SATs. Not only does it offer strategies at every stage of the campaign, it also shares comments from interviews with veteran adjunct unionists who have rowed through the previously unchartered waters, braved the storm, and offer their wisdom. Personally this book gave me some knowledge of what went on before I arrived, gave me some ideas about the future, and taught me about the history of the contingent faculty movement and overall trends in the degradation and corporatization of America’s institutes for higher learning.

The book is a modification of the author’s thesis and is laid out in five chapters. The first explains the current reality of colleges’ mass dependence on flexible, low-cost, casualized academic labor in the form of adjunct professors. The second discusses different strategies for contingent organizing inclusive of different types of colleges and in enough detail that the vast majority of readers will find it useful. The third chapter is essentially a history of contingent organizing in the Chicago area conveyed through 15 interviews Berry conducted with Chicago area adjunct organizers. In this chapter, readers are almost able to experience, through comments in the “organizers’ voices,” the real life examples of strategies laid out in the previous chapter.

Chapter four discusses the benefits of “A Metro Organizing Strategy” in which adjuncts at institutions across a whole city are organized together. This is particularly useful in regards to adjuncts because they often work at multiple institutions and it unites the community. Currently adjuncts are organizing with AFT via a metro campaign in Philadelphia, one of America’s most collegiate cities, where there are three existing individual AFT locals. Chapter 5 offers the reader, now full of insights, opinions, questions, and plans, “An Organizers Toolbox.” In this chapter the author offers readers practical, concrete advice and guidance for organizing as well as sections on how to reach potential leaders, becoming familiar with the laws, when to go public, and generally maintaining a strong united membership.

“Reclaiming the Ivory Tower” is a combined how-to and oral history. The author, Joe Berry, is a contingent faculty member himself, a union activist who taught Labor Education and History in the Chicago area (and is doing so in Vietnam this year). Published in 2005, the book is a modification of his 2002 dissertation, written for his PhD in Labor Studies from the Union Institute and University. I can tell you as a college student, soon-to-be member of the workforce, and concerned citizen, that this extremely relevant book is well worth the read 10 years later and is undoubtedly a foundational text for contingent faculty organizing

Faculty Join Graduate Students in Rally for Better Conditions

On Wednesday, August 26, a massive group of graduate students and supporters rallied for improved graduate student working conditions at the University of Missouri. A large group of students, graduate teaching assistants, and faculty gathered and chanted in T-shirts adorned with supportive slogans in response to stagnant wages and declining working conditions.

Specific grievances included the drop off in childcare services for student parents and inadequate housing options. In an interview with The Chronicle, Lois Honeycutt, outspoken faculty member and graduate student studies director, revealed that, “We have allowed our infrastructure to crumble. Our graduate-student housing was declared unsafe after a firefighter was killed in a collapse. [The firefighter was evacuating students from the building, where a second-story walkway had collapsed.] It was torn down and not replaced.”

The catalyst for the demonstrations was an email received by the university’s grad students informing them only hours before the policy went into effect that their health insurance would no longer be covered. A walkout was planned; when public pressure forced the university to take responsibility for the extremely short notice and declare a year moratorium on health insurance changes. The walkout was subsequently changed to a rally for a comprehensive array of better working conditions.

This story of graduate student protest is far from unprecedented. The unique aspect of the University of Missouri demonstration– and why it represents a potential turning point in the fight against the casualization of academic labor– is that full time faculty and graduate student directors such as Ms. Honeycutt actively supported the graduate students in large numbers. Entire departments (The Chronicle reports about half) sent letters pledging their support for the school’s graduate student teachers and many gave them permission to walk out of or cancel their classes to attend the rally.

Administrations may not be phased by graduate student disruptions in the name of better working conditions, but mass demonstrations of this nature with formal public support from tenured faculty could be another matter entirely.

NLRB punts on football players

Via Inside Higher Ed: “The National Labor Relations Board on Monday declined to assert jurisdiction over whether football players at Northwestern University may form a union.

The action, while narrow, effectively reverses a ruling 16 months ago by the NLRB’s Chicago regional office saying that, under the National Labor Relations Act, scholarship football players at private universities are employees.”

A footnote in the decision says that the NLRB considers Northwestern football players different from graduate employees in the private sector, as the football players’ activities are “unrelated to their court of study or educational programs.”

For further reading: University of Michigan President James Duderstadt’s “Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University.”

Hillary Clinton college compact tackles student debt

Got student debt? Or a kid who’s ready to go to college—if only there were more money to spend on tuition? Maybe you have a governor who keeps gouging the state budget for public higher education?


Hillary Clinton’s New College Compact addresses all of it. A centerpiece of her campaign for president, it would make college debt-free, reduce existing student debt, and incentivize states to stop cutting funds for public colleges and universities.


Think of it: Colleges could have enough money to welcome all students to campus, regardless of their ability to pay. And they could fairly compensate their faculty—without relying on the exploitation of contingent faculty, those under-paid, under-resourced profs struggling to give their students the education they deserve.


Most of all, the compact is worth our attention because it creates opportunity for everyone. “I believe one of the single biggest ways we can raise incomes is by making college affordable and available to every American,” says Clinton. “Today, I’m laying out a plan to do just that.” Oh, and how to pay for it all? The $350 billion proposal would be covered by cutting tax deductions for the wealthiest Americans over the next 10 years.


Here are the compact basics:

  • Tuition-free community college.
  • Debt-free four-year college, through state funding, “realistic” family contribution and, in some cases, 10 hours of work each week.
  • Grants for states that 1) halt disinvestment in public higher education, 2) ramp up investment over time and 3) work with public colleges and universities to reduce costs.
  • Refinancing for existing loans at current interest rates, with interest capped at 10 percent of the borrower’s income.
  • Significant cuts in student loans for living costs or private college—so that the government does not profit from them.
  • Special help for modest-endowment private schools such as those serving large numbers of minority students (HBCUs!)—both to lower the cost of attendance and give students the support they need to get through graduation and beyond.
  • Permanent extension of the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit for middle-class families.
  • Simplified student financial aid so people would actually enroll, rather than run away in confusion.
  • Student academic support, quality childcare, emergency financial aid and other interventions to help students get to graduation.
  • Special attention to career and lifelong learning and veterans’ education.
  • Expanded AmeriCorps—and the corresponding debt forgiveness associated with it, since it qualifies as public service.
  • Accountability for for-profit colleges that exploit students and punishment for breaking laws against deceptive marketing and fraud.

Hillary sums it up this way — “College is supposed to help people achieve their dreams. But more and more, paying for college is actually pushing people’s dreams further out of reach, and that’s just wrong.” She’s designed her compact to put those dreams back into focus.

Students in Solidarity

Student organizers from colleges and universities all over the country met in Washington DC this weekend for the United Students Against Sweatshops’ 2015 National Summer Convention. USAS is the largest entirely youth-led labor campaign organization in the country.

The convention drew students from over 150 campuses and addressed such topics as “what is oppression?” and “what does real solidarity look like?” Everyone from current USAS members to seasoned union leaders gave presentations to the group and students met to hear proposals for the year, talk about current campaigns with students who were doing similar work, and learn how best to bring others into the movement.

The nineteen-year-old organization is called United Students Against Sweatshops and we actively work to sever the ties between our schools and companies that benefit from sweatshop labor, but we also work on campus worker justice campaigns to address any attacks on the rights of people working on our campuses. This includes people like dining hall workers, security guards, grounds keepers, and adjuncts among others.

Multiple USAS chapters are currently working on adjunct campaigns, whether in support of the adjuncts and contingent faculty at their school in the early stages of their fight for union representation or supporting them in a dragged out contract fight. We also have students actively working with adjuncts in right-to-work states.

On Sunday, a small group of students from a handful of schools sat in a circle to share where we were in our adjunct campaigns. We then went on to talk about terms used to classify academic employees and played with catchy names for a national USAS campaign for adjunct rights. After thinking about a campaign name, the conversation shifted to strategies that had worked well on different campuses and we made plans to be more unified in our efforts in the coming academic year. We also heard a presentation on a policy successfully put in place at Georgetown University.

A USAS alum from Georgetown University spoke about an agreement that their administration had accepted called the Just Employment Policy. This policy applies not only to campus, but also contract workers. It mandates a living wage that must be updated yearly. It says that the University agrees to respect contracts and respect workers rights to unionize. It specifies that should there be a change in contractors the University is responsible for keeping on the same workers and making every effort to employ workers full time. The policy also calls for the University to provide their workers with basic amenities such as childcare services and ESL classes. Finally the policy has provisions in place to make sure these standards are enforced. The representative from Georgetown closed with the offer to help any USAS chapter interested in establishing the Just Employment Policy on their campus in any way he could.

A representative from National Nurses United gave a presentation on the Robin Hood Tax. He explained how the money is essentially a small sales tax on high volume stock trading that could raise up to 300 billion dollars a year. He went on to say that this is already in place in the UK and elsewhere and has had a negligible effect on trading volume. Among other things, he stressed the potential it could have to make higher education affordable, improve public education, and provide relief in the student debt crisis.

Later two students addressed convention goers on how interns are workers too and internships, often unpaid or underpaid, have become necessary resume items or even requirements to graduate. These students spoke to how this trend furthers the inequality that low-income students and students of color experience on campus. The reality is many students cannot afford to work for free. They also emphasized that these are usually the students already most marginalized in the existing structure of the higher education system. They referenced the intern union at the AFT, the first in the country, and the successful living wage campaign at The Nation. Later in the weekend USAS voted to support intern organizations and work on the issue on and off campuses.

Student labor organizations like USAS are incredibly important to the labor movement in an age where corporations are ever present on campuses. USAS is genuine and passionate and authentically grassroots. We are the future work force. We have the power to make change in our increasingly corporate Universities and we will.