Equity, Ethics and Adjuncts

The long strike at York University this year, writes Linda Muzzin, challenges everyone in higher education to consider the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty members.

May 11, 2009

The recent York University strike by contingent faculty has provided a focal point for discussion in my evening graduate course, "Faculty in Colleges and Universities" at the University of Toronto.

Among us are practicing professionals, including a contingent faculty member, a college administrator, corporate lawyer, two high school teachers, and a physician, so it is not surprising that the ethics of professional practice, which I teach, are often on the table. For example, how do we reconcile the need of the administrators to be able to pick up the telephone and call a contingent faculty member to fill in for a class left suddenly without an instructor just before the class starts tomorrow with the reality that these "just in time" faculty members are poorly paid and routinely treated as second-class citizens? And what are the ethics of an administrator determining which contingent faculty to recruit to teach a course? Is the most eligible chosen, the most available or, perhaps, the administrator’s favorite? The increasing unionization of contingent faculty might be expected to address such inequities through a seniority system. But isn’t a seniority system incompatible with hiring the “best and the brightest”?

It helps that I recently led a research project that featured interviews with 160 administrators, as well as both tenure-stream and contingent faculty at Canadian universities and that I am currently involved in a similar study at colleges. As a feminist and anti-racist, I take every opportunity to emphasize the equity aspects of the situations we discuss, in the terminology of mainstream ethics, “social justice.” We distinguish “equality” (based on individual rights and choices) from “equity” (that prescribes structural interventions when individuals and groups are not on a level playing field in terms of power).

For example, in the first half of the course, we review the faculty demographics that show women are not making it to the upper levels of the academic hierarchy to the extent their numbers would warrant. We also note the growth of the contingent faculty group, which contains fewer white men, proportionately, than there are in the tenured and tenure-stream groups. We deplore the failure of Statistics Canada and of many individual colleges and universities, and other educational agencies to gather data on contingent faculty because we would like to examine this inequity. Why isn’t this data collected routinely? Is it merely an oversight? Or is there a conspiracy to hide inequities in postsecondary institutions? Or is the use of contingent faculty just a phenomenon that we didn’t expect to be around much longer than the downsizing of the 1990s? Or is it, as at least one administrator in the class has suggested, that contingent faculty are a small, ephemeral group of people who don’t appear on any institution-wide lists because they are only around for a short time?

We know this last claim isn’t true, because contingent faculty members were a large enough a group at York University to have supported the recent strike. How large is the group? In the United States., estimates vary, depending on who is included, but experts agree they are well over half of all faculty. Non-tenured academic positions are bewilderingly diverse, ranging from permanent affiliations (teaching stream and clinical faculty) through contractual (full-time term with or without benefits and administrative responsibilities) to sessionals or part-timers (paid by the hour for classroom time only). Arguably, these groups face similar problems with respect to job security and academic freedom, so they can be referred to collectively as “contingent.” This word denotes “of uncertain occurrence” and “incidental to,” in this case, the academic enterprise. The Oxford dictionary explains that a contingent is composed of “troops contributed to form part of an army.” This definition is particularly informative for this discussion, in that military service, distinct from other types of professional work, implies obedience to authority and a lack of autonomy that is necessary in order to function successfully.

Still, it is worth exploring the differences among these groups of contingent faculty. There are well-established professionals, such as corporate lawyers, who teach upper-level legal practice at law schools over a relatively long and stable career and whose primary income is from their professional practice. This group is more white and male than other contingent faculty. Presumably it is easy to keep track of this stable group, and we might not expect to hear about issues of social justice concerning its employment. But the important point to note is that the other group of contingent faculty differs markedly from the law professor cohort: The other group has a smaller proportion of white males and a larger proportion of older females with Ph.D.’s, who depend completely on their teaching assignments to make a living.

When searching for contingent faculty in my research, it was not unusual for me to go through a telephone list with a senior faculty member and have him point out that a good description of senior faculty was: “We are all old white guys.” In the telephone list, there would be only a few faculty of color (and virtually no Aboriginals) either in the just-hired probationary tenure stream category or even in the contingent category. Moreover, sometimes these faculty of color would be heading equity units.

When I interviewed contingent faculty , they expressed hope for an eventual tenure-stream job. Either they were graduate students, delaying the completion of their degrees for financial reasons because they lack the time to finish these degrees owing to their helter-skelter (“freeway-flying”) teaching assignments. Or they had completed a Ph.D. some time ago and were teaching courses while they waited for the job market to open up; that is, when a white male member of the lingering baby-boom generation retires.

Poor economic conditions for faculty hiring have prevailed on and off since the 1990s. As a result, permanent, second-class faculty pools of semester by semester (sessional) workers have developed in otherwise “excellent” and “academically free” postsecondary institutions. As one administrator put it, “As long as the administration can pay sessionals, why would they give a term appointment? They can get everything done sessionally. It is cheaper… I think that people are surprised when they find out how bad it really is. Especially 15 years with no job security or benefits.” Another added, “I think that the non-tenured faculty will likely be a category that we will end up with. I’m not sure if we’ll ever be able to get rid of it.” But, one member of our class would like to see the actual data on the “cost savings” of having a large cadre of contingent professors. He wonders whether better planning could contribute to curbing the exploitation of contingent faculty.

Contingent workers can be found throughout today’s labor force. In the current economic meltdown, it may be difficult for us to become passionate about the human rights of contingent faculty. After all, are they really in any worse a situation than laid-off auto workers, small business employees, or downsized manufacturing and oil patch employees? Perhaps they are, as contingent teachers relying primarily on their teaching income were paying to get a Ph.D. while delaying earnings when manufacturing workers were earning. Plus, long-time contingent faculty may have faced a difficult labor situation for half their careers.

Worse, there is a stigma attached to being a long-time contingent faculty member. They are often regarded as faculty members who are not good enough to make it as “real” academics. But my research showed that contingent faculty rejected this research-teaching split as devaluing the importance of teaching. Administrators claimed that contingent faculty may not even be good teachers, but the contingent faculty I interviewed were, in many cases, award-winning teachers. They pointed out how they had become experts in effective teaching under adverse circumstances, such as when they were, routinely, faced with organizing very large classes. The majority felt they would also excel at research and publishing, if given the time to pursue these activities. As one said, “You aren’t a researcher, your teaching is under-valued… And you are only there because, obviously, you are not capable of doing high level research, which is crap.” Overall, I could not distinguish the early-career curriculum vitae of non-tenured from tenured and tenure-stream faculty. Arguably, tenured faculty members are overworked, too, but the contingents do the work tenured faculty do not want to do, or cannot do, since they must have some time for research.

Back to the York University strike. The acrimony has been hard on faculty. We could not fail to notice, though, that it was only rarely that agreement was not finally reached between the sides in this long series of battles between administrators and faculty. Then we pondered how the recent York University strike was different, in that government legislated York’s newly-unionized contingent faculty back to work as there had been no rapprochement in this strike.

In our class, there is a graduate student who participated in the strike and whose essay for the course will address the question of why the mainstream media failed to notice that many of the contingent faculty involved were graduate students. The media, instead, emphasizing that undergraduate students were being disadvantaged by the strike, focused on the partial reimbursement of their fees. Our student activist worries this may have been the result of what she calls a “failure of the student movement,” but the striking union’s — Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903 — Internet literature declares that it received undergraduate student support, posting a picture of a student holding a sign reading, “I love TAs (GAs, RAs, Contract Fac’s, etc.).” Students, as much as faculty and administrators, are divided on issues such as labor relations.

In the end, what is the significance of the back-to-work legislation of contingent educational workers? One revelation our class reached is that academic freedom is largely non-existent for contingent faculty at Canadian universities. As the literature published about contingent faculty repeatedly emphasizes, non-tenured faculty are “invisible” in a system of exploitation that resembles colonial systems.

The ranking of postsecondary institutions by "excellence" is usually related to the excellence of their faculty. However, on our campuses, “excellence” more and more depends on an army of contingent academics who do the work that supports this colonial-like system. Is such a system ethical? In ethical reasoning, this might be posed as the question of whether an ethical situation exists if one child is sacrificed so that all the others may grow. The answer in traditional ethics to this problem of stunting is “no.” The challenge for all of us is to bring the situation of contingent faculty into view, and to address it ethically and equitably.


Linda Muzzin, associate professor in the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s higher education program, was assisted in preparing this article by students in the seminar she discusses: Angela Cuddy, Saron Ghebressellassie, Maureen Gottesman, Paula Green, Duncan Hill, Janie Lin, Kelly McKnight, Suzanne Miller, Franz Nentwich, and Chris Sparks. This essay is adapted from one that appeared in Academic Matters, which is published by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.


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