Fighting Academia’s Contingency Crisis Together
Work is a virtue. It is how we contribute and give back to our society. It is a source of self-worth and pride. Justice demands that those doing the same job be compensated fairly and equitably. When a gap between individuals doing the same work develops in society, that disparity is a source of injustice. When the size of that gap becomes immense, that injustice becomes a crisis. Academia is experiencing just such a crisis with regard to contingent or adjunct faculty and the crisis is growing rapidly.
Historically, the number of contingents in our colleges and universities was low, representing less than 10% of most faculties. Traditional adjuncts were primarily full-time employees in jobs outside of the school who essentially volunteered their time for a small honorarium. They could do so because they had salaries and benefits provided by their outside employers. They were generally not people who saw teaching as their primary career. The vast majority of professors who saw themselves as educators first and foremost had access to full-time jobs with fair compensation and benefits provided by our educational institutions. That model worked for centuries because it properly valued academic professionals.
Over the past 20 years, college administrators around the country have adopted a new, neoliberal model for higher education predicated on transferring a larger and larger proportion of the teaching responsibilities to part-time contingent faculty paid these same small volunteer honorariums. Administrators saw contingents as a cheap alternative to full-time, tenure track professors. The growth in contingents has been explosive over the past 20 years. In short order, the number of full-time positions fell so far that contingent faculty began to exceed tenured and tenure track faculty. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) estimates that nationwide contingent faculty now make up 73% of those teaching in higher education. Contingency is an attack on tenure. Meanwhile, the number and pay of administrators ballooned on the savings.
As administrations rapidly transformed the make-up of faculties, full-time lines were steadily cut through attrition. Today, young scholars who consider teaching a primary career path find it all but impossible to find tenure track jobs in academia. Many well educated academic professionals have little choice but to leave the field altogether, depriving students of their considerable talents. Those of who stay in academia find ourselves in a situation where we work as little more than part-time volunteers. A whole generation of academics has been left with the Sophie’s choice of either abandoning careers in education entirely or working unstable jobs for poverty wages with no benefits. This is not acceptable.
The new model is also unacceptable for our students. Students deserve the best talent in the classroom. They merit professors that have the stability and pay required to deliver the highest quality educations possible. They do not deserve faculty who are stressed, exhausted and desperately trying to hang on through public aid. They require better than professors who are running from school to school and working excessive hours at a mix of poorly compensated part-time positions just to keep basic needs met. While most contingents work above and beyond to deliver a top quality education even under these difficult circumstances, our students should be entitled to better.
The contingency model has failed. It has devalued academic professionals, led to a de-professionalization of higher education and made teaching a dead end career for many talented academics. Despite this, it has become clear that administrations are addicted to this exploitative labor model. They will never voluntarily choose to fairly compensate skilled and well-educated contingent academics. They have little financial incentive to restore traditional, tenure track jobs. The system is broken and those who broke it were not going to fix it on their own.
Seeing no alternative, contingents and adjuncts are taking it upon ourselves to organize, unionize and force colleges and universities to give us a seat at the negotiating table. We are fighting for a decent wage, job security and basic benefits. We are here to reaffirm the value of academic careers and to provide the best possible education to our students. Contingents at more and more schools are seeing the value of organizing for collective bargaining rights. Newly formed unions around the country are coming out of negotiations with first contract that are significantly improving both teaching and learning conditions at our nation’s institutions of higher education. Those of us involved in this effort can point to many significant wins. However, there is so much more than needs to be done.
This struggle is being waged by the most precarious workers in academia. We are facing opposition from the most powerful figures on our campuses. But, we need not do it alone. The AAUP has been very actively promoting the “One Faculty” concept. They emphasize that all members of the teaching community must work together to “improve working conditions, shared governance, economic security, and academic freedom for all those who teach and do research in our universities and colleges.” Full-time, tenure track academics should be working actively on their campuses to support contingent organizing, resist the expansion of contingency, include contingent faculty in shared governance and treat contingent faculty members as equals. Contingents should be doing their level best to do the same for their full-time colleagues. We are one faculty and we all benefit when we act accordingly. We are in this together.
It is now time for college administrators to ask themselves what value they put on teaching. Contingents are well qualified and hardworking academic professionals. We deserve that our work be fairly and equitably compensated. We deserve a living wage. We deserve equal pay for equal work. We deserve jobs with some measure of stability and security. We deserve careers with a future. We are people not numbers. We insist on policy that is fair, equitable and humane. We will not stop fighting for change until administrations around the country live up to that standard.
Bradley W. Russell, Ph.D.
Chair of the Adjunct Faculty Union
The College of Saint Rose
SEIU Local 200United