Soon after writer and professor Cass Dalglish earned her MFA in 1986, she began teaching courses at two campuses in the Twin Cities while holding a fellowship at University of Minnesota as part of a freelance pool of communicators. The commute to and between her three jobs from where she lived in South Minneapolis meant trekking across many of the same roads on a daily basis. On one such day, she was disconcerted to find herself pulling in to the wrong parking lot altogether.
“To me that kind of symbolized the life of the adjunct,” she says, “you’re going to so many places to try and scrape by and hold things together that you can end up in the wrong parking lot like I did.”
However, unlike many of today’s adjuncts, Dalglish was able to go on to build a long, stable, distinguished career at Augsburg University – one of the campuses where she had gotten her start as a part-timer. In fact, she was soon hired into a full-time, non-tenure-track (NTS), benefits-carrying position there, completing her PhD while she taught. When a tenure-track (TS) job for which she was eligible came up, the university hired her for it. Over the course of her 30+ years at Augsburg, she would be promoted to full professor, serve as the director of Women’s Studies and be tapped as the lead designer and first director of their MFA in Creative Writing.
Dalglish has long been aware that the arc of her academic career is looking increasingly remarkable, especially given the ongoing trend of adjunctification, with contingent workers now accounting for 70% of the US’s overall postsecondary teaching faculty. Her own son is an adjunct professor in Los Angeles, and more than a third of courses at Augsburg are currently taught by adjuncts with very few opportunities for advancement. But, it wasn’t until she retired as a professor emerita in 2017 and decided to stay on as an adjunct that she suddenly got an inside view of the escalating labor crisis at the heart of higher ed. In a phone interview, I asked Cass about her latest role as a member of the negotiating committee for Augsburg’s adjunct faculty union, which has just recently reached their first tentative collective bargaining agreement with the university’s management. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
proF: I know that you’ve had a fascinating and varied career. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your work?
CD: I’ve had a long career at Augsburg. Before that and grad school, I was a TV reporter at KSTP in St. Paul.
Besides being an educator, I’m also a Reiki Master Teacher, fiction writer and prose poet. I currently have two novels underway that I plan to return to once I officially retire from all teaching in December of this year . My most recent book of prose-poetry [Humming the Blues] is a modern jazz interpretation of the work of Enheduanna. She was a Sumerian woman from ancient Iraq who was the first human being in the world to claim authorship. . . . There are so many things we don’t know about our past as women. So any time I have a chance, I feel I have a commitment to her to mention that!
proF: Why did you decide to return to Augsburg as an adjunct? How and why did you get involved with the university’s adjunct faculty union?
CD: I officially retired in September 2017. At that time, the MFA program was undergoing program review. I didn’t want to leave it in the lurch, so I decided to stay on the grad faculty as an adjunct. The adjuncts had voted to unionize in November 2016 and started negotiations a few months later. Several of the negotiating team were then given full-time positions, and so they had to leave the bargaining committee. Word went out that there was a need for more people to negotiate, and I decided I should answer that call. I was raised in a family that talked a lot about Roman Catholic social policy on labor unions, and I was raised by a dad who taught me never to cross a picket line, so I was very interested in what was going to happen.
Across the country, working students and parents who are paying tuition have no idea that so many of the professors who are teaching are held in what I call a “concrete vault” – it’s not a glass ceiling.
Augsburg is not even one of the worst, but we have over a third of our courses being taught by professors who are fully competent, fully trained, fully educated and fully experienced, who are receiving poverty-level wages and no benefits. What we need to do is entitle our adjuncts.
proF: Were you asked to join the committee because of your standing at the university?
CD: No, they just needed people, and I volunteered. But, if there was any value to my being on the committee, maybe it was that I was a fully endowed professor emerita who didn’t have any economic pressure on them.
proF: You started your academic career as an adjunct. In your experience, how has the nature of the gig changed from when you first became involved in higher ed?
CD: This is what I have seen happen in my experience: When I started in 1986 fresh out of graduate school, there was hope. There were systems in place where one could do what I did, and there are several of us who are in our English Department who did exactly that: came in as adjuncts, moved up to NTS, benefits-eligible, and then were able to apply for tenured positions and got them.
Many of our adjuncts now are almost de-facto tenured because they’ve been there so long, and they’ve done so well, and we see no reason to replace them, but we keep them in this lower status. I sort of had a romantic notion that it was possible to move out of there, but since I’ve been negotiating with my fellow adjuncts, I see that what we’ve done is we’ve locked this in as a permanent financial benefit to the new academic corporation. Adjuncts can be hired at full competency and full preparation with PhDs and be paid so little that doesn’t bother the bottom line.
What happened to academic freedom? What happens when you don’t have tenured professors who are able to speak their minds? Academic freedom and the ability to pursue the question and to seek truth – that’s so important, and if there is some economic reason why you can’t do that on a campus, then I think the university is in trouble.
proF: Augsburg’s adjunct union is organized with SEIU and only represents part-time faculty. Is there a reason for this?
CD: SEIU began the effort as part of a wider campaign of unionizing adjuncts nationally. SEIU was there to answer the need. They’ve worked with us for two years without receiving any dues. You have to have a union that’s willing to put in that initial time and effort.
There are court decisions that prevent private college campuses from organizing full-time faculty. This goes back to the notion that full-time faculty members are somehow or another fulfilling an administrative role by virtue of having governance responsibility within the college community.
proF: How have you found the collective bargaining process?
CD: Intense. The negotiations were going on six months before I joined, and it took us one and half years to reach a tentative agreement. We had meetings once or twice a month for long hours – one of my colleagues figures that we put in at least 100 hours of just meeting time, and that’s not factoring in any of our research, prep, communications, etc.
One of the interesting things for me was to look across the table and see the administration and two lawyers, who you knew were getting very high rates of pay, negotiating with adjuncts who were the only unpaid people in the room. It was 100% volunteer on our part. It has been a slow, time-consuming process and, at times, disheartening and confusing.
proF: What improvements have you been able to negotiate for adjuncts in the tentative agreement with university management?
CD: The new contract, if it’s ratified, would include a series of small incremental pay raises, a fair grievance procedure, designated professional development funds for adjuncts, and better class cancellation fees.
There are also things we couldn’t break through on, like getting a break on parking fees – which is very important to our membership since parking is at a premium in Minneapolis. We also couldn’t secure a guarantee that we could continue to communicate with our membership using the university email system. They offered us a cork board somewhere on campus instead!
What’d I say about it is: negotiating is negotiating. You are working towards some sort of a center that both teams can agree on, and so it’s not perfect. But the first contract has to be ratified so that we can have a second and keep going.
proF: Has there been much student support for the union and adjunct faculty?
CD: We didn’t have any demonstrations. We were concerned that there might be a need for them, but we managed to get there without them. The student newspaper did recently publish an op ed that I wrote. They also had a reporter cover both the organizing campaign and the negotiations.
Maybe there could’ve been more effort to educate the students on the issues, but, if you’ve taught, you known how your time can get filled up pretty quickly. The negotiating team was putting in so many hours just sitting across the table and then we were also teaching our courses. Adjuncts’ devotion to their classes and students is really high.
proF: Your union is part of a national uptick in contingent faculty unions at private, non-profit colleges and universities in the past few years. Do you think unionization is part of the solution to widespread economic injustice in the higher education sector as a whole?
CD: Yes, it’s not just Augsburg; Augsburg is following a national adjunctification trend. And that national trend is wrong – maybe you could even use the word “immoral,” according to the Catholic social justice I learned. We’re totally undervaluing the labor of the adjunct professor, and that is a serious inequity. And it’s a serious inequity nationally.
I think there’s an opportunity when you come to a university like Augsburg that does so many things right and where equity has always been a core part of our mission. And yet we have so many of our own professors who are treated without equity.
The way I see it, an institution like Augsburg could be courageous and apply its mission for equity to its own faculty. Instead of following the national corporate model, Augsburg could say: “Enough. We’re not going to do this anymore; this is wrong. We’re going to go back to paying our professors what they are worth, and we’re not going hold adjuncts in such poverty. We’re not going to depend on their labor so that the university can spend money on other things.”
On the other hand, if colleges and universities continue to treat their faculty as folks who do piece work without any real participation in governance, then perhaps we’ll see pressure to lift the rule that keeps full-time faculty from unionizing, and they’ll be able to unionize, too.
proF: Do you see an overlap between women’s issues and economic injustice in today’s higher ed workplace?
CD: I don’t have the numbers in front of me, so I can’t really speak from statistics, but I know that years ago, before I was a professor, when I was a reporter, Gloria Steinem came to the newsroom where I was working. One of the things that was said by a member of the audience was: “Look at all the women we have in this profession now!” And Steinem’s reaction at that time, back in the ’70s was: “Oh dear, I hope that doesn’t mean that your salaries have gone down.” Her notion was, if you study the issue, you’ll find that where there is a high percentage of female employees, because of the glass ceiling, you’ll often have the lowest salaries.
proF: What advice do you have for others who are currently organizing or looking to organize faculty unions?
CD: Persistence. Also, that it’s important to recognize that we have rights as laborers in the academic field that need to be expressed and fulfilled. That we are fully experienced and educated and committed, and we support institutions that we believe in, and this is a field we believe in. So, we have to believe in ourselves and that we have every reason to be there, seeking better recognition for the wonderful work that we’re doing.