Student activists and non-tenure-track faculty (also referred to as adjunct or contingent faculty) offer much to the transformation and functionality of their colleges and universities. However, both groups are often unprotected and disregarded on their campuses. In the current context of uncertainty and rapid change caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout—which continue to disproportionately affect minoritized and marginalized populations—these two groups have a unique and urgent opportunity to join together and support, advocate, and shield each other as they demand attention and action from their institutions and higher education more broadly.
Non-tenure-track faculty are overtaking the teaching profession, now comprising three quarters of all faculty positions at US colleges and universities. But despite their many contributions to our institutions, their working conditions remain poor. Many non-tenure-track faculty lack office space; the academic freedom and safety net that comes with tenure; benefits such as professional development, paid time off, or health insurance; and respect from their tenured or tenure-track colleagues and administrators. Taken together, these conditions affect how non-tenure-track faculty perform in the classroom and contribute to the missions of their respective institutions.
At the same time, colleges and universities that claim to champion activism and free speech on their campuses often do little to protect and support student activists who seek to hold their institutions accountable and demand positive, transformative change. Last fall, amid nationwide calls for racial justice, some student activists were villainized and condemned by their institution’s administrators. And in the past, faculty have often paid lip service by “standing in solidarity” with the aims of activists while criticizing or distancing themselves from direct involvement in protests or other activism.
So, what can these two groups do to support and protect each other in an inequitable and oppressive higher education environment? Below, I offer several low-risk suggestions for how faculty and student activists can build effective partnerships to change their institutions.
Reflect on current experiences and practices. In “‘Waze’ to Support Non-Tenure-Track Faculty as Student Activists,” my colleague Adrianna Kezar and I detail effective strategies for student activists interested in supporting faculty off the tenure track. Students can reflect on their own experiences with non-tenure-track faculty, figure out what campus supports are currently in place, and compile an institutional fact sheet to present to administrators and campus change agents. What percentage of faculty are non-tenure-track faculty? What professional development opportunities exist for faculty off the tenure track? Do they feel empowered and supported? While our guide focuses primarily on what student activists can do to support non-tenure-track faculty, these same strategies can be used by non-tenure-track faculty interested in supporting and advocating for student activists.
Organize teach-ins that support the goals of both groups. Non-tenure-track faculty are rarely recognized as experts in their respective fields, and student activists are often brushed aside as if their experiences in higher education mean little to nothing. To showcase their experiences and expertise and raise awareness for important issues affecting the campus, non-tenure-track faculty and student activists can organize teach-ins. Teach-ins are participatory academic events that both raise an issue that demands attention and serve as a space for faculty and students to strategize and devise a plan of action. In the age of COVID-19, when most campus gatherings occur digitally, obtaining access to physical spaces is no longer a barrier, making teach-ins slightly easier to organize.
Inform each other about issues, problems, and experiences affecting your respective groups. Two of the most important strategies for building effective partnerships are for non-tenure-track faculty to inform student activists about their current working conditions and for student activists to inform non-tenure-track faculty about their experiences trying to enact campus and societal change. Because these issues can evolve rapidly, conversations need to be ongoing, with both groups opening up and sustaining the lines of communication.
Establish community care strategies. Being part of an unprotected group on campus can be traumatic and dehumanizing. The emotional labor that comes with working toward change can also be exhausting. Thus, it is imperative that student activists and non-tenure-track faculty figure out ways to build a larger community across campus to take care of each other and themselves. I recommend that these groups develop a community care plan that outlines how the groups will check-in with each other periodically and ensure everything is going well in their personal and academic lives.
Seek out faculty and administrative change agents. It is important for non-tenure-track faculty and student activists to work together to seek out faculty and administrators who not only stand in solidarity or support the shifting of institutional culture but also have a track record of making deep and transformative change. To begin, I suggest looking within your own department for “access accomplices”—people who are well networked within the institution and department and can help you gain access to powerful and influential players on campus. A helpful next step is to connect with members of faculty and student governance, who have a great deal of power in creating change and are normally skilled in communicating with key stakeholders.
For non-tenure-track faculty and student activists, building community and recognizing each group’s respective struggles and desires is deeply important. By partnering together and disrupting campus silos, student activists and non-tenure-track faculty can create potent and groundbreaking change to oppressive higher education structures.