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