Topics

Next-Level Precarity

Non-tenure-track professors are used to uncertainty about contract renewals. But the coronavirus and related hiring freezes represent an unprecedented threat to their careers. They're increasingly refusing to quietly bear the brunt of the disruption.

April 10, 2020
 
Pexels.com

COVID-19 poses the greatest health risks to the most vulnerable. Non-tenure-track professors -- academe’s most vulnerable faculty members -- are asking their institutions not to mimic the virus’s cruelty by balancing vanishing budgets on their backs.

“I will almost certainly be unemployed on July 1 with no health insurance for me and my family,” said Alex Corey, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University since 2017. That’s if Harvard doesn’t extend non-tenure-track contracts, as a new petition demands.

The petition -- one of several of its kind concerning different institutions -- asks Harvard to stretch current appointments and renewal limits for all instructors teaching off the tenure track by at least a year. It notes the unlikelihood of instructors finding outside work amid institutional hiring freezes and the faltering economy, as well as the costs of losing Harvard-backed health insurance during a global pandemic. The petition also warns against cutting instructors out of students’ orbit during such a time. Harvard has announced faculty pay freezes, tenure-track faculty search suspensions and a partial hiring freeze.

Perhaps most significantly, the document argues that Harvard’s administration “has a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable members of its community and to mitigate the dangers of the pandemic, which are unequally distributed.” Non-tenure-track professors already are precariously employed and vulnerable to unemployment, lack of medical insurance or care, and housing insecurity, it says, and the pandemic only makes these “difficult conditions all the more frightening and dangerous.”

Without appointment extensions, the petition reads, “the university will be putting some of its most dedicated and celebrated teachers at great risk.”

Case in point: Corey has chronic asthma that requires expensive medication and two children under age 3. Beyond that, Corey's ongoing research and mentoring become harder if not impossible to continue without institutional shelter.

Beyond Harvard

Across academe, non-tenure-track professors often work on semester-to-semester or year-to-year contracts. So they are used to the specter of not being renewed for another term. But the widespread hiring freezes announced during the pandemic present unprecedented uncertainty to these instructors, who make up the majority of teaching faculty. If one institution simply drops them due to a blanket hiring freeze, there may be nowhere else to apply for years. Even for a demographic used to precarity, this is next level.

Stirred by such prospects -- and in some cases galled by hiring freezes announced by institutions with multibillion-dollar endowments -- non-tenure-track professors beyond Harvard are speaking up. Instructors at Yale University and Smith College circulated their own petitions for one-year contract extensions, for example, and lecturers within the University of California system are planning a Zoom news conference today.

Terence Renaud, a lecturer in history who co-wrote the Yale petition, said Yale -- like nearly all other institutions -- is heavily dependent on non-tenure-track labor, especially since the 2008 recession. Beyond any "ethical argument" for supporting these instructors, he said, Yale has a "practical interest in maintaining the number and quality of its teaching faculty. A new class of undergrad students has already been admitted for the upcoming year.”

With the recently announced hiring freeze, through 2021, he said, “How will Yale staff its existing courses?” Will tenure-track and tenured faculty members do it all, at the same level of instruction?

“We are all ready to continue upholding Yale's reputation as a leading teaching and research institution during the hard times ahead,” Renaud said. “But we fail to see how that will be possible if the university applies austerity cuts to its most vulnerable faculty.”

Vanessa Adel, a lecturer in sociology at Smith College on and off since 2007, said her current contract ends on June 30. She was offered a position for next year but hadn’t yet signed her contract when Smith announced a hiring freeze. She thinks her offer will be officially rescinded but doesn’t know yet. Beyond all the concerns her colleagues share, Adel said she's worried about a brain drain from academe and possibly even the U.S.

“Most contingents are academics who are working hard to secure tenure-track jobs,” Adel said. With so many of those searches frozen, many instructors "face long-term unemployment and will have to retool their careers.” Some international professors teaching off the tenure track who were hoping to continue working in the U.S. also will be forced to return to their home countries, she added.

Adel underscored that the Smith petition challenges the college to be a leader in offering support to economically vulnerable instructors who have already contributed to campus life.

“The national trend is to cut people off,” she said. “For colleges and universities like Smith, who have the financial means to reallocate budget priorities, honoring their commitments also means following through on their mission and educational values.”

What Institutions Can -- and Should -- Do

Adrianna Kezar, Wilbur Kieffer Endowed Professor and Dean's Professor of Leadership at the University of Southern California, who studies the faculty and student success, helped draft a statement on what colleges and universities should be doing for non-tenure-track professors during COVID-19. It includes offering them instructional and technical support, as well as additional compensation, for moving their courses online and suspending teaching evaluations for the semester. Assure in writing that renewal decisions will not be negatively affected by the disruption, the document also advises, and agree not to contest unemployment insurance claims by contingent faculty members for the coming summer and fall terms.

Institutions “really should think twice about the continued absorption of budget cuts on faculty,” including non-tenure-track professors, Kezar said this week. “We've got decades now of data showing that [negatively] impacts student persistence, student development, student graduation and their success postcollege.”

National surveys of alumni identify faculty as the most important part of their college experience, Kezar also said.

“Long term, institutions are going to hurt financially when alumni don't give back when their experiences are compromised due to the lack of investment in faculty."

Lecturers within the California system are holding a virtual news conference today to voice their concerns about job security and accommodations for instructors. Differing slightly from instructors at single-campus institutions, the California faculty members are seeking a strong systemwide response to their concerns. Campus actions thus far have been patchy, they say.

John Gavin Branstetter, a lecturer in political science at the Los Angeles campus, had some promising leads in the tenure-track job market until it short-circuited last month. On top of that stress, he said the California system has handled the transition to online courses in a way that puts "maximum burden on its non-tenure-track faculty.” He teaches two courses of about 140 students each and moved them both online without the help of teaching assistants.

The recent quarterly exam period was “especially tough, because we kept receiving contradictory guidance from the department and the university levels about how to grade and what accommodations we should make,” he said. “I ended up spending a lot of time talking to students and trying to figure out what the best policy was rather than actually doing the grading or giving them feedback.”

The result was many extra uncompensated hours of work. Salt in that wound is the extra expenses related to the transition, Branstetter said. He’s bought extra books he couldn’t access on campus and a scanner app to put them online, plus a webcam. His department offered $200 in reimbursement, which he appreciatively accepted, but the up-front costs stung -- especially as his wife was recently laid off.

Branstetter also needs a new personal computer, or least a new screen to see his students well on Zoom, he said, but said he was prevented from putting the reimbursement fees toward a purchase that exceeds $200. Still, he said he is at least better off than some lecturers who have allegedly been encouraged to teach from campus if their home setups aren’t conducive to teaching remotely.

How should the system respond? Branstetter said that “we need some promise that we are not going to lose our health insurance in June,” as the university has said it will not lay off any employees through June 30. “Some kind of guarantee that current lecturers' appointments will be extended through the summer, at least, would help us all weather the storm.”

Alison Black, a lecturer in education overseeing education students who must in turn adapt to remote K-12 instruction, applauded the system's commitment to no layoffs in the short term, but said "this pandemic is clearly going to need more long term foresight." She said he hoped the system will "set the standard by committing to ensuring stability of employment to see all its workers" through the crisis.

Branstetter thinks lecturers should also receive compensation for the extra work they’ve done to go remote, to take the edge off their financial anxiety, and for buying home office equipment and furniture, too.

“If we are really essential workers, we should be paid like it,” Branstetter said.

What Institutions Say -- and Advice for Adjuncts

The California system president's office said that it committed to no layoffs through June 30 because "keeping staff employed with pay and health and welfare benefits during this period will allow UC employees to more effectively care for themselves and their families during unprecedented, challenging times."

The office noted that union contract negotiations with the lecturers' American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union are ongoing. The previous contract expired in January.

"We believe our AFT-represented lecturers deserve a comprehensive contract that provides fair and appropriate compensation, benefits, position responsibilities, professional development and performance evaluation," it said. "We hope that we can address joint concerns and resolve outstanding differences quickly to meet the needs of lecturers and the UC community who depend on them."

Smith administrators pointed to previous COVID-19 communications to its campus, including a letter from President Kathleen McCartney and David DeSwert, vice president for finance and administration, announcing a hiring freeze. While Smith is in “strong” financial shape generally, they said, the pandemic dropped a $8 to $10 million punch already, in the form of room and board refunds to students who have left campus.

“Going forward, we must hope for the best but plan for other possibilities,” they wrote. “As we turn our attention to next year, it is probable that our revenues will decline, for all the reasons we have outlined, but again it is difficult at this point in time to know by exactly how much.”

Harvard said in a statement that its lecturers and preceptors “play a very important role in carrying out our teaching mission. We are deeply grateful to these members of our community for all they are doing, particularly during this unprecedented and challenging time.”

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, said, “I’m afraid it's anybody's guess” as to whether contract extensions will be granted, “given the uncertainty and the financial pressures that are even endangering supposedly secure jobs.”

Echoing others' guidance, Maisto said that colleges and universities should agree “not only to cover their unexpected costs related to shifting to online teaching, which is much more labor intensive, but also to extend health-care coverage, childcare benefits and to pledge not to contest unemployment claims.”

Maisto advised adjuncts to document all the extra hours they’ve spent working this semester and use that to support their right to employer-provided health care under the Affordable Care Act.

“Teaching online now assuredly puts them at or beyond the threshold,” she said. They should also “absolutely apply for unemployment when the current term is over, since if they are not given classes they will get retroactive unemployment insurance.”

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

 
+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top