US campus protests expose special risk for adjuncts

Reports mount of academics not having contracts renewed in apparent retaliation for anti-war protests, as observers highlight precarity as key factor in restricting free speech

June 5, 2024
Academic workers at UCLA went on strike alleging their workers' rights have been violated by University of California actions during pro-Palestinian protests to illustrate US protests expose special risk for adjuncts
Source: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

Hundreds of adjunct faculty are believed to have withheld their views or altered their teaching amid the student anti-war protests that have swept the US, while others have faced job-related repercussions for voicing pro-Palestinian opinions, in actions that some argue are eroding academic freedom.

Hard data on the problem is difficult to come by, several faculty advocates said, because self-silencing is often not reported and job removals are rarely officially attributed to political activism.

Yet at the University of California alone, workers striking over the system’s handling of the protests have estimated that some 300 faculty, including adjuncts, have been arrested or otherwise penalised in recent weeks.

Such anecdotal accounts of repercussions against faculty – with adjuncts and other conditional instructors regarded as most vulnerable to institutional sanction – were being heard from campuses around the country, said Irene Mulvey, a former mathematics professor and president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

“We’re seeing a lot of faculty getting not renewed for what appears to be retaliation for pro-Palestinian speech,” Professor Mulvey said.

Of some 1.5 million faculty members across US colleges and universities, only about half teach full-time, down from more than three-quarters a half-century ago. The institutions employ another 400,000 instructors full-time but without tenure, according to federal figures.

Some believe that higher education’s ever-increasing reliance on academics in precarious employment positions is also leading to hesitation in discussing normal classroom topics.

Hank Kalet, a lecturer in journalism and media studies at Rutgers University – New Brunswick, said he had felt that shift personally this past semester, during the protests on his campus, when he started “kind of hedging on certain assignments”.

Mr Kalet said he typically asks students to give presentations each week that involve an analysis of a news article, and he began to find himself worrying about those who selected items from Middle East-based news outlets such as Al Jazeera or Haaretz. Even though Rutgers appeared to be exceptionally strong in its treatment of adjuncts, he said, “I found myself not censoring myself but worrying that a student might respond, might file a complaint.”

He said he went ahead with the assignments all semester without any alterations. “But if I’m hedging, others are hedging,” with some colleagues already telling him that they avoid student questions about Israel and Palestine. “And I don’t see that as ultimately what’s best for the students,” said Mr Kalet, who has a leadership role in the Rutgers chapter of an AAUP-affiliated union for part-time lecturers.

The lack of due process rights for adjuncts was having clear academic implications, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “The assault on free expression, and the conditioning of jobs or of livelihood based upon what one’s expression is, should be chilling for everyone,” she added.

While federal Republican lawmakers’ extensive campaign of intimidation against university leaders over their handling of student demonstrations on Palestine has gained attention in recent months, the underlying conditions that are deterring faculty from helping their students find and calibrate their voices have arisen over decades of conservative politicians cutting funding for higher education, Professor Mulvey said.

That defunding has given an unhealthy degree of academic power to outside donors who agree to finance university operations, and has “contributed to this crisis in which the faculty are not treated as professionals on equal status with the trustees and the senior administration in regard to shared governance,” Professor Mulvey said.

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Reader's comments (1)

A lot of hearsay and passive voice in this report.