A Very Stable and Secure Position?

The pandemic is starting to show how fragile the situations of contingent faculty members actually are, write the members of the executive committee of Tenure for the Common Good.

April 30, 2020
 
 
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Before COVID-19, some non-tenure-track positions were beginning to look like acceptable alternatives to the tenure track. Many saw the opportunity to secure a renewable contract extending beyond a single semester as much superior to the piecemeal nature of part-time and “visiting” teaching positions.

Even if the salaries of lecturers were lower and teaching loads higher than those of the tenure stream, medical insurance and other benefits made such positions relatively desirable. Also, administrations seeking a pragmatic alternative to expensive tenure lines and the unconscionable exploitation of adjunct labor had found, they imagined, a “realistic” and humane compromise between principle and cost. Even if this did not make everyone happy, it seemed a reasonable bridge between casual and tenured faculty employment.

Quite a few lecturers themselves have welcomed and even promoted these positions. A lecturer at the University of Michigan, Gina Brandolino, in “How to Be Off the Tenure Track and Love It,” argues that it is a “misconception” to claim that their positions “offer no job security.” She acknowledges that “technically, all non-tenure-track positions are ‘contingent,’” but she goes on to assure her readers that “they aren’t all equally contingent. Jobs that come with an employment contract promise employment only for the term of that contract, however long it is; jobs with a renewable contract offer the promise of stable employment provided one passes regular performance reviews.”

Unfortunately, however, in the post-COVID-19 world, this may prove to be a distinction without a difference.

Administrators across the nation once insisted they sought stability in faculty employment even beyond the tenure track. Speaking of lecturers, Gloria Culver, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Rochester, was quoted in the campus newspaper as saying, “I think if they’re doing their job well, and people are pleased with them, and the need for those courses … exists, then the job security is pretty strong.” Her colleague, the chair of the biology department, agreed: “In practice, [being teaching faculty] is a very stable and secure position.”

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to show how fragile the positions of contingent faculty actually are. Reports from campuses across the country attest to the insecurity of all of our nontenured colleagues’ positions. Some administrators, understandably frightened by the likely impact that the coming economic downturn will have on their institutions, are already making plans to jettison contingent positions, completely ignoring any past noncontractual commitment to lecturers or even adjuncts. At the very least, the divide between tenured faculty and their casual colleagues is widening and, as Inside Higher Ed reported, contingent faculty worry that hiring freezes may soon be used to further reduce the little security they have attained.

This bodes ill for American higher education.

If it comes to pass that college and university administrators decide to cut contingent faculty, the already anticipated chaos of unstable enrollment will be exacerbated by an unhealthy churn within the faculty. Faced with uncertain employment futures, many contingent faculty, even those who believed they had careers with their institutions, are going to have to abandon their hopes and turn to whatever other employment they can find. With the institutions already making plans to abandon them, even if they are only contingency plans, the non-tenure-track faculty will have to plan, too, and probably will have to act before the ax falls. The result may be institutions scrambling to cover classes and further alienation of whatever casual faculty remain -- a situation no administrators should happily contemplate.

Stability of course offerings will also be affected. Though adjuncts teach most lower-level courses at many of our colleges and universities today, they will have to be brought in on an ad hoc basis for more advanced ones. When they cannot be found, these courses will not be offered, bollixing progress toward graduation. Course offerings are likely to be up in the air anyhow, as institutions grapple with unsure enrollment, and this will only exasperate students further, even altering their postgraduation plans.

Because of graduation requirements, colleges and universities cannot operate on a gig-economy basis, hiring instructors to fill immediate semester needs and ignoring future ones. Minus lecturers, many institutions will not have the permanent faculty to ensure coverage over the years; relying on adjuncts as a stopgap will no longer suffice. Students will not be able to graduate in a timely fashion, degree completion delayed until needed courses can be offered.

Any retrenchment from what had seemed to be a growing reliance on renewable-term lecturers will also have an impact on diversity among the faculty. Gains in this area have come through diversity in casual hires, not among the tenured and tenure track. A reduction in lecture lines is going to affect diversity numbers out of proportion to the percentages within lecturer cohorts themselves.

Institutions cannot cut costs by revoking their commitments to lecturers any more than corporations can survive by jettisoning their skilled technical employees and retaining only administrative staff. If cuts do need to be made, they should begin among the highly paid administrators whose ranks grew by 9 percent (for-profits and some others excepted) from just before the Great Recession to 2014 and which were projected, before the coronavirus crisis, to grow by 7 percent between 2018 and 2028. We should prioritize retention of faculty, for our students’ and our institutions’ sake.

Recommendations

We are the executive committee of Tenure for the Common Good, and in our March 27 “Statement on Equity and COVID-19,” we write, “All faculty members, whether on or off the tenure track, face real struggles at this moment, and all need support. Many of the issues and recommendations in this statement are true for faculty of all ranks and statuses; however, every one of our common struggles is significantly more difficult for our colleagues who are the most precarious and worst compensated.”

This reality can affect student learning, as we have said, as much as faculty employment. We go on to point out that “Solidarity demands that we support and protect our contingent colleagues just as we are working to protect and support our tenure-track colleagues. We should always do so, but the current situation amplifies the need.” To do less is to fail to meet our professional responsibilities to each other and to those we teach.

Our administrations must make this same commitment to the education we are, together, trying to provide. With that in mind, Tenure for the Common Good asks college and universities to remember, in this crisis, that lecturers and other contingent faculty are important parts of the educational enterprise whose needs must be considered and who should not be summarily cut from the campus community.

Among the specific suggestions we make are:

  • Extend multiyear or rolling contracts for one year, especially for faculty members whose appointments end in spring 2020. For faculty on shorter contracts, grant renewals unless financial exigency makes doing so impossible.
  • Assure, in writing, that renewal decisions will not be negatively affected by current disruptions.
  • Resist using the current crisis as an opportunity to exploit contingency further by hiring more contingent faculty into precarious positions.

In addition, colleges should:

  • Relax departmental supervision of individual instructors for the current semester except in extraordinary situations. Contingent faculty should not undergo supervision that tenure-track faculty do not.
  • Defend the academic freedom of all faculty members, including contingent faculty. This means supporting faculty who face online harassment for their views and rejecting attempts to discipline those expressing allegedly controversial ideas.
  • Protect contingent faculty ownership of course materials they create as they revise or remake courses to teach online. Contingent faculty frequently develop courses and curricula that programs take over without compensating them. As faculty redevelop courses en masse, this risk is heightened.
  • Compensate nonrenewed contingent faculty for curriculum they have developed that remains in use after their nonrenewal.

The success of a college depends on the strength of its community. By cutting that community to a small cadre of permanent faculty and a rolling body of casually hired teachers, we begin to lose that community -- as we’ve already seen happening with the growing dependence on contingent instruction over the past decades. To use the possible impact of the current novel coronavirus pandemic to further pare the permanent campus community may seem attractive, given what may be an impending financial catastrophe. But it is morally unacceptable and will harm institutions -- not only now but also into the future.

Bio

Aaron Barlow teaches English at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and is past faculty editor of the American Association of University Professors magazine, Academe. Carolyn Betensky is a professor of English at the University of Rhode Island and member of the national council of the AAUP. Rachel Sagner Buurma is associate professor of English literature and co-director of the Aydelotte Foundation at Swarthmore College; her book The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study, co-authored with Laura Heffernan, will be published this fall. Seth Kahn teaches writing and rhetoric courses at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, co-chairs the Council of Writing Program Administrators' Labor Committee, and co-edits Precarity and Contingency, an open-access book series published by the Colorado State University Open Press. Talia Schaffer is a professor of English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Queens College, CUNY, the author or editor of seven books and over 50 articles on aspects of Victorian gender, sexuality, material culture, marital history, ethics and aestheticism.

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