New Models of Contingency

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New Models of Contingency and the Moral Crisis in the American Academy

At the heart of the moral crisis in the American academy, we find the exploitation of adjunct professors, and other contingent teaching professionals, by a growing class of overpaid administrators who are bringing corporate models of governance to the traditionally non-profit enterprise of higher education.

As the American public learns more about the inexcusable practice of employing so many part-time professors at barista wages, college and university administrators around the nation are scrambling to find ways to disguise that deficiency—instead of bringing back the full-time tenurable professorships lost over four decades (during the “contingency craze”).

Heightened media scrutiny placed on the plight of adjunct faculty is well founded. Not only does it push dubious employment practices in higher education to the fore of public consciousness, it also highlights the true cost of employing part-time professors on students, on faculty morale, and on campus learning communities.

The first National Adjunct Walkout Day in February helped to raise awareness of the rather embarrassing fact that part-time adjunct faculty members now constitute the majority of professors serving at community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities across the nation.

To protest the terms of their employment, many adjunct faculty members staged one-day work strikes during Walkout Day; others spoke with their students about the demeaning wages they earn, the ease with which they can be dismissed, the multiple campuses on which they teach, and their lack of institutional support (such as healthcare and professional development).

Indeed, the situation has become extremely dire. New data analysis by the University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education demonstrates that twenty five percent of “part-time college faculty” and their families receive some form of public assistance (Medicaid, food stamps, cash welfare, Earned Income Tax Credit, or Children’s Health Insurance Program).

In other words, colleges and universities are pushing the costs of under-employing a significant segment of the teaching faculty onto the taxpayer—and onto students and their parents (who often pay outrageous tuitions and fees).

Additional efforts to underscore the necessity of reform in American higher education include attempts to unionize more than eight thousand adjunct professors in Chicago, an act of defiance that led to a boisterous demonstration near the University of Illinois. At that event, adjunct college instructors joined fast-food workers, and other laborers in the service-sector, in demanding a base wage of $15 per hour.

For part-time professors, that hourly rate means being paid for activities such as class preparation, grading, holding office hours, and writing letters of recommendation. One thoughtful graduate student interviewed at the rally supported a living wage for part-time faculty, observing that their low pay might affect the quality of instruction.

More ambitiously, Faculty Forward, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) project, demands $15,000 in “total compensation” per three-credit course for adjunct faculty. Given that the current national mean per course remains far below that figure, $15,000 may seem unrealistic. However, the organization defends that sum as a fair living wage for the work—and they counter that the redeployment of institutional resources to better compensate adjunct professors would signal a return to an emphasis on instruction and student learning.

Yet, in the face of these and other movements for campus equity, hundreds of colleges across the nation stubbornly cling to the unsustainable practice of exploiting large pools of intellectual laborers to pay for a proliferation of administrative positions replete with six—sometimes seven—figure salaries.

At State University of New York College at Oneonta, for instance, adjunct professors teaching six 3-credit courses per year might earn just $15,000 (before taxes). Putting aside the near impossibility of being assigned three courses each semester, the base remuneration rate of $2,500 per course has not been raised for seven years—or adjusted in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.

Administrative prerogatives like adjunctification speak to the moral crisis in the academy and in American culture more generally. Income inequality between the wealthy and the working poor leads some scholars to argue that we are living in a Second Gilded Age—one in which traditionally non-profit institutions (such as education and healthcare) are now corporate enterprises devoid of any humanist impulse that diminishes the bottom line. The moral shift behind such gloomy trends is the subject of a new book entitled The Road to Character.

In summing up, while the situation remains painfully bleak for many part-time faculty members, increasingly forceful public pushback has some colleges and universities rethinking their reliance on contingent teaching positions (non-tenurable appointments made on a renewable basis). For example, the University of Denver (DU) recently created new pathways for professional development that include long-term contracts for non-tenure-track faculty. After teaching five years on renewable contracts, contingent faculty members will now be promoted and renewed on continuing three year-contracts—or be let go.

Considering the diminished state of the American academy today, there is much to applaud in efforts to provide contingent part-time and full-time faculty members with more job security, wages befitting their duties, and some prospect of upward mobility. However, opening the tenured ranks to these contingent workers would be more forward-looking, and it would help to reconstitute the faculty to 1960s levels, when more than seventy percent of all professors taught in full-time tenurable positions, and shared the governance of their institutions.

As it stands, adjunct professors continue to endure hostile working conditions, often simply because they find teaching a meaningful vocation—one in which they endeavor for excellence, despite the unwelcoming conditions that many encounter.

In this respect, we do well to remember the prophetic assertion of one champion for racial and economic equality: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Now is the time to give adjunct professors the dignity and living wage that they deserve. We will wait no longer—and we will not be denied.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!


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