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In a world of news cycles, the old is constantly replaced with the new, and important stories are occasionally buried.

An important story (important to me anyway) that I wanted to revisit is the treatment of contingent faculty writing instructors at Arizona State University.  

As a recap, last December, the university unilaterally announced that they would be increasing the load of every instructor by 25% (from a 4/4 to a 5/5 load) with no corresponding increase in pay from their current base salary of $32,000/year.

The rationale for this change was budgetary. Arizona State has aggressively sought to increase enrollments even as their state funding is reduced.

Following pushback from the instructors and elsewhere, the administration relented a bit, and agreed to increase the base pay for a 5/5 teaching load of five sections at 25 students each to $36,000.

However, lest we think this was a genuine concession, savings appear to have been achieved by reneging on a previous pledge to reward “fixed-term instructional faculty” who qualify as “outstanding teachers” with increased pay. The eligible instructional faculty were to receive, “either a $3000 raise,” or “an increase to the minimum salary for the next rank.”

Rather than honor that pledge, it was decided to simply put every instructor – regardless of record or experience or previous pay – at the entry-level $36,000 salary[1].

ASU argues that paying instructors more is a “luxury.”

(Correction: A previous version of this article said that instructors were denied face to face meetings regarding their situation at the department or dean-level. While the instructors maintain that their requests to meet at the department-level were rebuffed during the semester, George Justice, Dean of Humanities, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Associate Vice President for Humanities and Arts, Office of Enterprise Development responded “within hours” to their request of his office. The previous implication that the request was ignored at the office of the dean was wrong. I apologize to Dean Justice for the error and am pleased to offer the correct information here.)

I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of a few things here, and not just what it says about Arizona State, but the role of contingent faculty and teaching in general as part of the work of the university.

1. Teaching faculty, regardless of quality or experience, are entirely viewed as fungible. This attitude is often held at every level of administration from the president’s office down to the department chair.

2. While the tenured and tenure track faculty at Arizona State are not the cause of the present situation, there is little indication that they are allies to their contingent colleagues. The budgetary belt tightening is falling entirely on those least able to bear the burden[2].

3. Instructional “quality” is also of little concern at any administrative level, including the president’s office. At 125 students per semester, ASU instructors will be double the maximum recommended number of students per instructor in a writing course. While many instructors have, and will continue to go above and beyond the call of duty to help their students, these numbers are absolutely incompatible with even minimally acceptable practices for the effective teaching of writing. Over and over again, we hear that writing and communication skills are highly valued by future employers, and yet, is there any discipline less-resourced inside the university than writing?

4. Arizona State has been largely abandoned by its state legislature, but that doesn’t mean it’s out of money. President Michael Crow’s yearly compensation is just under $1 million[3]. They have something called the “Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development” with ten staff at varying levels of vice president, each of whom makes more than six figures. They paid the Clinton Foundation $500,000 to host an event.

5. The writing classes, as is, already operate at a surplus, and indeed prop up the small seminars primarily taught by tenured faculty that most likely run deficits. These moves are meant to squeeze even more out of these classes.

I harp on these things because I think it is important to recognize that at every turn, these are choices. Arizona State’s upper administration has chosen to invest in technology, and marketing, and partnerships with corporations (Starbucks/edX), as opposed to face-to-face teaching.

For example, that money that went to the Clinton Foundation could’ve hired enough instructors to retain the original 4/4 teaching load, or maybe even reduce it to something more in line with disciplinary maximums.

The ASU tenured and tenure track English faculty are choosing to protect their own privilege, rather than share the pain being visited upon their colleagues, many of whom were once their graduate students.

This is the future everywhere if we do nothing now, and the only ones who care enough to protect these things - as we are witnessing in Wisconsin - are faculty.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is a choice. What’s happening in Louisiana is a choice. There is no immutable law declaring things must be this way.

These are the kinds of things where those of us who work inside and care about higher education can declare our values.

I value teaching. I want to see people dedicated to this thing I value supported in doing this important work. Arizona State refuses to do right by those people, and most importantly, they are shortchanging their students.

They declare appropriate learning conditions a “luxury.”

I disagree, and I’m not going to stop saying so.




[1] Even with this bump from the originally planned $32k, instructors who taught a 5/5 as an overload in previous semesters used to make $36,300 (with an MA), and $38,300 (with a terminal degree), while also being exempt from the service obligations that the administration say they’ve removed with the unilateral switch to a 5/5 load.

[2] I’m sort of tired of calling them out as cowards, or shills, or hypocrites, but until there’s tangible evidence otherwise, I’m sticking with it.

[3] Michael Crow is an administrative superstar among a particular set of Very Important People. I predict within three years, he will jump to another university for double or triple his current salary. Like politicians switching offices, he’ll need to leap before all of the blowback from his program of unbridled expansion and credentialing hits. Someone else will have to clean up his mess.

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