Democrats project the public image of standing up for the little guy, favoring unions and workers over management, promoting equality and fairness, and condemning discrimination and systemic racism. But good intentions can be subverted when the supposed good guys are sustaining unfairness and discrimination.

While the Democrats have heralded colleges as engines of equality and upward mobility, they have ignored the unequal two-tiered faculty labor system, the upper tier being tenure-track instructors, with lifetime job security, premium pay and full-time employment, while the non-tenure-track lower tier are contracted term-by-term, receive heavily discounted pay (e.g., often 60 cents on the dollar) and a workload that is often capped (e.g., no more than 67% of full-time), which can result in poverty-level wages. As a nontenured adjunct instructor for 28 years, I earned a gross annual income of about $20,000 for teaching roughly a half-time load in Kitsap County, where the median annual income is $82,000. 

The treatment of nontenured professors would be inconsequential if their role were inconsequential, but they are integral by any measure. In Washington’s community and technical colleges, they staff nearly half of all classes, 45.3%, and in terms of head count, they are the majority — the 7,870 nontenured part-time instructors vastly outnumber the state’s 3,597 tenured instructors.

It seems decidedly Orwellian when Democrats proclaim their dedication to forgiving student loans, free tuition and other programs aimed at lifting people out of poverty while denying a living wage to the very people who provide the means to execute those proclamations.  

Democrats generally feel confident aligning themselves with faculty unions, which for years have been pushing for more full-time tenure-track faculty positions (e.g., in Washington state, last year’s Senate Bill 6405 was recycled this year into current E2SSB 5194 and its identical House companion House Bill 1318, all sponsored exclusively by Democrats). But when adjuncts outnumber full-time instructors, adding more full-time positions does not solve the problem. What’s more, these bills offer false hope to part-time instructors as they convert positions, not individuals, leaving the substandard working conditions of adjuncts intact.

If these bills replaced sketchy paraprofessionals with bona fide professionals, they could be celebrated as improvements, but they cannot be so characterized. No credible research findings suggest the superiority of tenured instructors nor that non-tenure-track instructors are only 60% as effective, as their discounted pay rate would suggest.

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At play is the tenurism bias, the belief that tenure is a merit system, that the tenured are superior instructors and deserving of job security and premium pay with its cruel corollary that the nontenured are inferior and less deserving. Tenurism is the cognitive dissonance when confronting the abject unfairness of the two-tiered faculty workforce: Tenure-track and non-tenure-track instructors satisfy the same credential requirements, award grades and credits that have the same value, and have the same tuition charged for their classes, but are certainly not treated as equals. Tenurism rationalizes this lack of equality, giving rise to reasoning like: “Since the tenured are treated so much better, they must actually be better.” Like racism, sexism and ageism, tenurism makes the immoral seem moral and closes the mind to considering counter positions, such as correcting unfair working conditions. 

If the squeaky wheel gets the grease, then nontenured faculty may be doomed. Lacking job security, most adjuncts are not about to complain about the unfairness of their substandard working conditions. Despite decades of union representation, no transition from non-tenure-track to the tenure-track status exists in Washington colleges. The creation of more tenure-track positions will mean that many nontenured will lose their jobs. The unions appear eager for this to happen.

Instead of hiring new tenured instructors, a sensible and more feasible option would be to establish a probationary period for current nontenured instructors (as opposed to their perpetual probation at present), after which they could be granted job protection through seniority. While not tenure, it would enable a measure of job security and would not impact the state’s budget. Those who squeal that state law should not intrude into the turf of collective bargaining must reckon with the failure of bargaining to achieve such elementary workplace provisions as equal pay and job security.

The proper defender of workers is their union, which should honor, not ignore, its duty of fair representation and treat all those it represents fairly; it cannot play favorites. President Joe Biden has made pronouncements against systemic racism, which gives rise to the hope that egalitarianism will triumph over elitism, and discrimination will be recognized and canceled even when embedded as a norm.

When will Democrats and unions demand that colleges and universities extend the same upward mobility and career opportunities to their faculty that they offer their students?