Recently a federal court of appeals found that an adjunct professor in Illinois did have the right to sue for wrongful termination; it was her contention that the First Amendment protected her right to criticize her employer publicly. What are the implications of this decision for Colorado’s adjuncts? Following is a letter written from Don Eron, member of the Colorado Conference executive committee, as well as national AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, to all participants on the COCAL (Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor) adjunct listserv (adj-l).
Vanessa has asked that I weigh in on the recent Seventh Federal Court of Appeals decision regarding Robin Meade’s lawsuit against Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois. Vanessa, Jack and others have suggested that the long-term implications of the decision are unclear and, at least at this point, a note of cautious optimism might be the best response. I agree. Specifically, I think that some of the press coverage has overstated the breadth of the court’s finding regarding First Amendment protections for adjunct speech. There are also questions about the decision’s impact on adjunct eligibility for unemployment compensation. Still, the news from this decision is very good, and there’s already much that adjunct activists can put to use.
In advance, please pardon the length of this missive. But I would like to note that this weekend I attended the AAUP’s Committee A meeting, where we discussed the court of appeals’ decision. Although these impressions are my own, I think that they are generally consistent with those of the AAUP legal staff.
To summarize the case: Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois fired Robin Meade, an adjunct and union activist, explicitly for criticisms made in a letter she wrote in her capacity as head of the adjunct union. Meade sued Moraine Valley in district court. The district court threw out Meade’s lawsuit because they found that she had no legal ground on which to contest her dismissal. Meade appealed to the Seventh Federal Court of Appeals, which was obliged to interpret the evidence in ways most favorable to Meade.
On that basis, the appeals court found that Meade had two legitimate legal claims. First, that the letter she wrote in her capacity as a union official–a letter critical of college policies regarding adjuncts–was protected by the first amendment because it addressed an issue of public concern. Second, that a letter of agreement that Moraine Valley Community College had sent to Meade, tentatively indicating her course assignments for the fall semester of 2013, implied a property interest that entitled Meade to due process protections. Having found that Meade has grounds for a lawsuit, the appeals court has now tossed the case back to the district court to hear the suit.
The First Amendment implications of this decision are welcome, but narrower than some of the press coverage has suggested. First Amendment protections for public employees are generally guided by the Supreme Court’s 2006 Garcetti ruling, which determined, essentially, that public employees have no first amendment protections for speech made “pursuant to their official duties.” However, Moraine Valley conceded that they fired Meade for speech made in her capacity as head of her adjunct union, which–all sides agreed–was not among her official duties as an adjunct instructor. Thus, the court applied the Supreme Court’s far more liberal 1968 Pickering decision to determine Meade’s First Amendment rights. The court did not comment on what they might have ruled had Garcetti been applicable—if, for example, Moraine Valley had fired Meade because they didn’t like comments she’d made at a faculty meeting. In other words, this decision says nothing about First Amendment protections for speech made by adjuncts in the course of performing their job responsibilities. What it does suggest, however, is that activists who are involved in the leadership of their unions or AAUP advocacy chapters or other adjunct organizations have considerable protection for speech made when representing those organizations. If you are not already actively engaged in an organization that represents adjunct interests, please join in the fun.
Other news from the decision is mostly good. The appeals court decision rousingly characterizes the adjunct crisis as a national problem, and the working conditions of adjuncts as a matter of public concern. While this finding may be self-evident to anyone reading this post, it certainly wasn’t apparent to the district court. This lower court didn’t fathom a connection between adjunct working conditions and student learning conditions, and found that Robin Meade’s criticisms were a matter of “private griping” rather than public concern because, as an adjunct, she was personally affected by the policies of the college. In their decision, the upper court found the district court reasoning (or myopia) to be almost incomprehensible. As activists, we can now use the powerful Seventh Court of Appeals decision to validate one of our central arguments. From my own vantage point, I can say that when I meet with administrators, legislators, or lobbyists to advance our Colorado initiatives, my argument—that the desire of higher education administrations for maximum flexibility over their workforce has a corrosive impact on the educational product—is often met with skepticism. This decision will help.
The decision is also significant for the finding that the “spare” piece of paper Moraine Valley CC sent Robin Meade before the fall semester of 2013 indicating (with many qualifications) her class schedule, and also furnishing a beginning and end date, constituted a binding employment contract for the fall semester. In effect, the letter gave her property rights that superseded any presumptions of at-will employment (despite that Illinois is an at will state and that Moraine Valley’s CBC agreement stipulates that all adjuncts are to be employed at-will). As a practical matter this means that, for the duration of that semester, Meade should not have been fired without access to due process dismissal procedures. More generally, it may suggest that adjuncts are no longer to be considered at will employees as long as they receive something in writing that confirms class assignments and states a beginning and end date.
While this implies some degree of job security that many adjuncts have not enjoyed, as Maria and others have observed colleges can find ways around it, if they wish to. For example, if classes don’t “make,” the contract would no longer be valid. Furthermore, as the appeals court explicitly states, had Moraine Valley wished to legally dismiss Meade, they could simply have waited until the end of the fall semester and then advised Meade that there were no courses available for the spring term. All that notwithstanding, the court’s recognition that a written notification of class assignments that almost all adjuncts receive but that almost no one has considered to have legal validity, might now be considered to be a binding contract replete with property rights for adjunct teachers, is an exciting step in the right direction.
As for the possible negative consequence, it may be (as some have suggested) that the viability of the contract constitutes a reasonable assurance of employment, and therefore it might interfere with one’s case for unemployment compensation between sessions. That will need to be sorted out, obviously, but there are positive laws in some jurisdictions. In California, for example, it’s doubtful that Meade’s “spare” piece of paper would provide a reasonable expectation when classes that do not fill can be cancelled or when full-timers who want or need classes can take them away from adjuncts. If the Seventh Court of Appeals decision becomes the precedent that I hope it will, for all the good reasons, it will be necessary for us to prioritize the issue of unemployment compensation even more than we have.
On a final note, in Colorado we have found that attorneys seldom are willing take on cases involving adjunct termination–and not only because the laws tend not to favor part-time employees. Generally, an adjunct cannot afford to pay for a lawsuit. Nor do adjuncts usually earn enough money to make it worthwhile for attorneys to take on their cases on a contingency basis. Thanks to Robin Meade (who should be on this list if she is not) and her lawyers for pressing her case, and best wishes for a successful outcome as her suit has now been tossed back to district court.
Campus Equity Week, sponsored by the AAUP, draws attention to the inequities of the two-tier faculty system on campuses across North America. The vast majority of faculty nationally now hold insecure part- and full-time non-tenure-track positions, subject to exploitative employment conditions.
Colorado is no exception to this trend. Adjunct instructors in Colorado’s community colleges take home one-third of the pay of their “regular” faculty counterparts–for doing approximately the same work. Adjunct instructors are prevented from qualifying for inclusion on their employer’s health insurance plan. They receive no paid sick leave, so they must teach when they are sick or be docked for work time missed due to illness. These are only a few of the inequities in the Colorado Community College System’s employment practices. Consequently, Colorado’s community college students’ access to instructors who are available and adequately compensated is increasingly rare. As is often said, “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”
To draw attention to their diminished working conditions and students’ consequently diminished learning conditions, AAUP members at Front Range and Red Rocks Community Colleges observed Campus Equity Week October 27 – 31, 2015.
Caprice Lawless, Suzanne Hudson, and Sue Loves distribute flu shot vouchers, health care packets, and AAUP membership information at Front Range Community College.
Natasha McConnachie and Anne Emmons display the benefits of AAUP membership during Campus Equity Week at Red Rocks Community College.
Following several years of work with the Colorado legislature and a thorough investigation of community college finances and employment practices, the Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has published its Colorado Community College Faculty Bill of Rights. The document lists the faculty’s rights, according to AAUP standards, including an end to adjunct labor throughout the Colorado Community College System (CCCS).
The Colorado Conference’s 23-article Faculty Bill of Rights calls for the abolishment of the failing, two-tier faculty system that has created a type of “academic apartheid” in which the vast majority of community college teachers are not considered to be faculty, receive poverty level wages, and have no job security or assurances of academic freedom. The Faculty Bill of Rights calls for the CCCS to recommit to the principles of equitable treatment of all faculty, shared governance, and academic freedom throughout its statewide system of 13 community colleges.
“The community college system has done a fabulous job of making higher education available in nearly every corner of the state,” said Colorado Conference co-president Stephen Mumme, “and so it is essential, more than ever before, for the CCCS to maintain a stable and quality faculty and to focus on its mission of teaching.”
According to Don Eron, a member of the Colorado Conference executive committee and the national AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, it is often said that faculty’s working conditions are students’ learning conditions. “An impoverished, demoralized faculty cannot inspire or serve well the students of Colorado. The Faculty Bill of Rights is a significant step in the direction of providing a quality education for our students.”
The 23 articles contained in the Faculty Bill of Rights address issues critical to keeping quality and experienced faculty in service to students. These issues include a united faculty, compensation, benefits, class assignments, job security, faculty governance, transparency, professional development, and academic freedom.
“We are working with our members, lawmakers, local governing boards, research organizations and think tanks around the country to help faculty at every level improve working conditions,” said Jonathan Rees, Co-President of the Colo. Conference.
The AAUP has, since 1915, set the standards for the profession of teaching and has worked to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good. You will find the Colorado Community College Faculty Bill of Rights posted on the Colorado Conference website at
On September 5th, 2014, the Colorado Conference of the AAUP held its annual meeting. Rather than have the same kind of gathering we always do, the state leadership decided to devote the whole day to one theme: shared governance. We also decided to hold the meeting in Durango, home of the Fort Lewis College chapter which has gone from having no AAUP chapter to being the largest chapter in the state in less than a year. Our conference was a huge success, drawing between 35 and 50 people at different times during the day. It was also a wonderful opportunity to highlight the extraordinary range of expertise that our conference members possess.
What follows is a brief summary of the presentations.
After introductory remarks, we kicked off the conference with a panel on the state of shared governance in Colorado and beyond, thanks to our guest from New Mexico, Miranda Merklein. The idea was to get some of the problems on the table first, so that solutions could be considered for the rest of the day. While some of the stories that got told have already appeared in local newspapers and (in the case of CSU-Pueblo) the higher education press, each of the panelists gave a faculty-level view of what shared governance problems look like and what can be done to combat them. The great thing about a panel like this was that it allowed everyone to hear what they’re colleagues are going through and (if nothing else) made it clear that none of us are alone.
Our second panel concerned best practices in shared governance. The advice was far-reaching, ranging from electronic communications policies to faculty representation in governance matters to simply understanding your own employee handbook. Co-President Steve Mumme’s presentation deserves special mention because he went back to some of the key statements emanating from the AAUP, the kind that tend to show up quoted in pieces in administrative statements and handbook language, and placed that language in its entire original context. The key takeaway: Don’t let anybody tell you what AAUP language means. Look at what the AAUP itself has to say about the concepts that it has pioneered during its nearly one hundred years of existence.
Our third panel was about adjunct labor and adjunct labor conditions. While not strictly a shared governance issue our caucus believes that adjunct labor issues are the most important issue that higher education faces because they underly everything else we do. Richard Wagner of Metro State in Denver spoke about what full-time faculty can do to improve the lives of adjuncts. Suzanne Hudson of CU-Boulder spoke about what the caucus has already done to improve the lives of adjuncts. Miranda Merklein of Santa Fe Community College and Caprice Lawless of Front Range Community College spoke about their experiences organizing adjuncts.
The conference concluded with an address from Gary Rhoades, former national AAUP General Secretary and head of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. Gary tailored his speech to address the shared governance concerns at Fort Lewis, but he also made many general points that applied to faculty across Colorado. For example, he noted that Colorado has been subject to an enormous amount of attention by the American Councils of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) a group which has little respect for the idea of shared governance. He also noted how IT offices have become increasingly important power sources on universities across America and how university attorneys have become increasingly active policy-shapers in recent years. Perhaps most importantly, Gary explained that in order for administrations to enact permanent reforms on campuses, they should respect shared governance so that faculty feel they have a stake in whatever those changes happen to be.
All-in-all, the executive committee of the Colorado AAUP was very pleased with the conference and it looks forward in trying something similar around a different theme before too long.
By publishing a cookbook like no other, instructors at Front Range Community College (FRCC) are teaching peers, students, parents, and others in the community about a situation that has reached a boiling point. Interspersed amid dozens of what the authors call “food bank-friendly concoctions,” the text is a primer in how the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) is slicing, dicing and shredding collegiate-level teaching. Many pages of research, audit charts and budget breakdowns document what the authors say is a recipe for catastrophe for the 163,000 Colorado students looking to those colleges for learning. FRCC has campuses in Longmont, Westminster, Ft. Collins and Brighton.
Included are recipe categories such as “The Frappes of Wrath” and “Nobucks Coffee Drinks.” Recipes calling for beef scraps, bruised tomatoes, orange peelings and chicken bones point to a workforce living on the edge. “Cracked Windshield” is a mint drink based on cracked Lifesaver candies. “If Only” is a gin-and-tonic sans gin. “Sliding-Toward-Despair Asian Sliders” are, perforce, small and inexpensive to make.
The recipes, say the authors in the introduction, reflect accurately the working conditions of the college’s faculty majority. There is also much humor sprinkled in amidst evidence of hardship and other ponderous but necessary facts adjuncts need to know about why they are experiencing hardship.
The cheery cookbook, with the word “Adjunct” set in a fun style on the cover, is enticing, if the initial (sold out) print run is any indication. The authors believe that once teachers and students get the books home to read the recipes, they will discover many startling facts about their college. Most of those facts are public information, albeit well-hidden information, about a bloated administration consuming most of the $576 million in CCCS annual revenues.
With its many photographs and insights from lawmakers, authors report, readers “will see the faces of good people who know about the situation, will know who is already working hard to set things right, and will join us in addressing the rapidly expanding fault line in higher education.” The book also offers many local resources their AAUP chapter has found to help the adjuncts get through the workweek (food bank locales and hours, local contacts for food stamps, energy assistance, health-care, etc.).
“We hope the book helps them realize they have not failed, but that the system has failed them,” says Caprice Lawless, chapter president. The group did not copyright the cookbook, she said, because they want other adjunct groups around the country to use the model to promote their work on their campuses. Copies are available for a donation of $7.50 each (including shipping and handling), via the FRCC AAUP website:
The American Association of University Professors has partnered with Colorado Connect for Health to host convenient, on-campus workshops for adjunct faculty to secure free or low-cost health care. The FRCC We Care Health Fair will be held 6:00-8:00 p.m. on Tues., Aug. 26, in Room C0402 on the Front Range Community College (FRCC) Westminster Campus, 3645 W. 112th Ave.
Following a brief overview of available programs, staffers from Colorado Connect for Health will help each attendee personally through the process of signing up for either Medicaid, for subsidized health coverage, or for making adjustment to their current coverage. They will have on hand several laptops to help participants. Attendees should bring along their 2013 income tax filings, two recent pay stubs, a recent house payment coupon (if a homeowner) and their driver’s licenses.
Approximately 85% of all courses at FRCC are taught by adjunct faculty who earn poverty-level wages. Many of those 1,200 teachers qualify for either free health care under Medicaid or low-cost, taxpayer-subsidized health care. The Colorado Community College System (CCCS) took further measures in June to avoid compliance under the Affordable Care Act. Those measures (fewer courses to teach, elimination of office hours on course syllabi) necessitate that most adjunct faculty adjust their already low incomes to levels even lower.
The Colorado Conference is pleased to announce that several members of the conference’s executive committee have been appointed by national AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum to committees of the association. Suzanne Hudson, secretary of the Colorado Conference and long-time contingent activist, has been appointed to the Committee on Contingency and the Profession. Caprice Lawless, president of the Front Range Community College chapter, has been appointed to the Committee on Community Colleges. Conference co-president Jonathan Rees has been appointed to the Committee on the Organization of the Association. Additionally, we are pleased to announce that Steve Shulman, professor of economics at Colorado State University, has been appointed chair of the Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession.
These appointments signal continued recognition of the conference’s significance to the Association. Earlier this year Hudson was honored to participate on the search committee to select a senior program officer to the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance of the national AAUP. In June, Dean Saitta, past president of the conference, was awarded the prestigious Tacey Award from the Association of State Conferences for outstanding service over a number of years to a state conference, and Lawless won the Al Sumberg Award for her involvement with HB14-1154, the conference’s groundbreaking equal work for equal pay community college legislative initiative.
Congratulations to all for recognition well-deserved.