In recent years, American higher education has been stricken with a growing sense of worry regarding the current trend of hiring more non-tenure track “adjunct” faculty members. As colleges and universities schedule more and more of their classes to be taught by faculty members who will never be tenured, no matter how long they teach, reaction has been far-reaching. Faculty unions like the National Education Association (NEA), the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have all released plans for dealing with the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty, and in states like Florida and Oregon, legislators are getting into the act with proposals that would require seventy-five percent of all teachers at public colleges and universities to be full-time, tenure-track faculty members.
One of the fears prompted by the increased use of adjunct faculty is that the practice allows universities to encroach upon the academic freedom enjoyed by their teachers. Because adjunct faculty lack the protection or even the hope of tenure, these faculty members are at far greater risk of seeing their academic freedom and right to due process eroded. The case of Thomas Klocek, an adjunct professor at DePaul who was suspended without a hearing for arguing with pro-Palestinian students at an activity fair, springs immediately to mind.
In response to this specific concern, AFT has drafted a new academic freedom statement specifically designed to protect the academic freedom of adjunct professors. Inside Higher Ed reports that “[m]uch of the draft document is similar in substance to the AAUP and other statements on academic freedom, talking about the importance of protection academe from political intrusion, the value of allowing professors to espouse unpopular views, and the importance of freedom of thought in the classroom.”
The AFT serves as the union for many professors—over 150,000 employees in total. As such, any or all of its prescriptive remedies will likely spark contentious debate. FIRE hasn’t read the draft statement, and does not plan to take a position on its content. However, we are gratified to see that the union is taking note of how vital academic freedom is to all professors, not just those on the tenure track. After all, if academic freedom becomes solely the province of a few tenured professors among a sea of unprotected adjuncts, it is students who will soon feel the ill effects of the stifling conformity that may result. Academic freedom is vital to the health of the liberal university. The more people talking about the essentiality of academic freedom for professors in our nation’s colleges and universities, the better.