• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Getting Past "It's the Provost's Fault."

As true as "it's the provost's fault" may be, it can't be a stopping point for academic laborers.

September 6, 2016



Whenever I write about the fate and treatment of contingent faculty, I often receive comments from tenured faculty expressing sympathy over the systemic inequities, but often also saying something like, “There’s nothing we can do. The provost sets the pay.”

What can be done? It’s a fair question. A lot of this tenured advocacy (“I’m doing all I can.”) seems to be sub rosa, and it’s hard to judge what’s happening if it’s essentially hidden from view.

One of the reasons I was excited about the chance to join the College of Charleston English faculty in a tenure track position (a wish that wasn’t to be, alas) is because of all the stops along my career, it has been, by far, the most active and proactive group in terms of seeking tangible improvements for adjunct colleagues.

During my time at CofC, a faculty member used a research fellowship to study the use of adjuncts at the college and presented the findings to the administration.

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, so-called “full-time” adjuncts were deemed eligible for health care benefits, a tremendous boon to someone living precariously. As many adjuncts as possible were also moved to “full-time” loads and earlier and clearer notice as to the security of those jobs semester-to-semester and year-to-year was given.

Money was secured so that when adjuncts are asked to go to curriculum meetings or workshops, they are paid for their time above and beyond their salaries.

And twice now, when the state legislature mandated a raise for roster faculty that excluded adjunct instructors, an actual collection was taken up in order to redistribute some of that bonus money to the adjunct faculty.

Yes, tenured faculty took money out of their own pockets, and in the interest of solidarity and appreciation for the work, gave it to the adjunct faculty.

The problems of contingency have not been solved, but the good faith efforts of good people have gone a long way to creating a better atmosphere for faculty and students, even as the challenges to instruction at a state institution in a state that seems indifferent to public higher ed increase.

I think there’s some other tangible and specific things tenured faculty can do when they are sympathetic to the treatment of contingent faculty and would like to try to do what they can to help improve the present situation.

(If you’re not sympathetic to the treatment of contingent faculty, or every time you confront this issue you’re tempted to say, “It’s supply and demand. It’s supply and demand, quit your job.” maybe sit this one out.)

Resist the urge to explain “how things work”

No doubt, this urge can come from a compassionate and caring place, but it is strange for contingent faculty to be ‘splained about contingency when they’ve been living in that state, often time for years. Ultimately, the “how things work” speech has the effect of “not my fault, nothing we can do about it,” which may be true to some degree, but also lacks basic social grace and is simply discourteous.

Become provost

If you are concerned about the effect of contingency on adjunct faculty and the overall health of the institution, next time the position is open, apply for the job of provost.

You may be thinking that you’ll never get the job of provost, that the provost’s job is for the evil mofos who love squeezing every last ounce of dignity out of faculty as they bend the professorship to administrative will, and the president and board are unlikely to approve anyone not cut from this cloth.

Maybe so, but think of yourself as the protest candidate, the Bernie Sanders (someone you may well have voted for and admire) of job applicants. Sen. Sanders must have known that he was doomed in the Democratic primary, but it didn’t stop him from publicly pushing his agenda. Be the loud and proud provost candidate who isn’t going to get the job, but whose public support puts pressure on whoever does get the job.

Consider the contingent

One of the areas where tenured faculty and departments do hold power is over classes and curriculum. My suggestion is that prior to making course or curricular decisions spend a moment considering how those decisions make effect contingent faculty.

Are choices adding more contingent positions to the department? Would a choice make a contingent faculty member’s schedule more difficult or inconvenient? Are contingent faculty consigned to the worst rooms or substandard facilities?

I won’t even argue that decisions should be made to the benefit of contingent faculty, but I do believe a positive step is to consider the impact of those decisions on your colleagues who do not have any say in the matter.

When conflict arises, be first on the scene

The battles over academic labor will only intensify over time. The lockout of LIU Brooklyn faculty over the weekend  is a harbinger of things to come. Here, we’re talking about a unionized campus, but on every campus there is an inevitable tension between management and labor, and that conflict has fallen most heavily on contingent faculty over the years, often exacerbated by the silence of tenured faculty.

As I argued recently, a good reason for tenured faculty to intervene in improving the lot a contingent labor is because ultimately, whatever happens to the contingent, will inevitably come for the tenured.

It’s not only good practice, it may help push back against the forces that are eroding the quality and security of all faculty work.

What’s happening on your campuses that may be hidden from view from those of us on the outside? What actions of you found helpful (or not?)? If you were to make a suggestion to someone else, what would you say?

Maybe we can take a few moments to share what people are doing in their own institutions that they’ve found effective in addressing these issues.




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