Fighting Academia’s Contingency Crisis Together

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
[email protected]

A Case of Collegial Bad Faith

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

In this post I describe a situation of collegial bad faith in which I believe four of the ethical guidelines of the AAA were violated: Do no harm; Be open and honest; Weigh competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties; and Maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships.

At the AAA meetings a few years ago, I presented a paper in an organized panel. Two years later, three of the four panel presentations were published in a respected journal. The excluded paper, mine, was a pointed critique of a theoretical position taken by the other three papers from a principled point of view. Thus, a carefully argued dissenting position was barred from published theoretical debate.

I use the word “excluded” advisedly, for I was not notified that any collective publication of the panel papers was underway, nor that mine was unwelcome among them. Immediately after the AAA panel, as the participants discussed the possibility of submitting their papers for publication, I asked whether, in the interest of open debate, they shouldn’t also include my dissenting views. The organizers indicated that my work “didn’t fit,” implying that they were not inclined to include it. But at that time the possibility of publishing the collected papers was only an idea. When I later discovered that the other papers had indeed been published, I submitted my original paper, with critiques of the three now published papers, to another journal. Not only did the other journal accept my paper, but the editor twice invited the authors of the other papers to respond to my critique of their work. Only the moderator of the original panel took the editor up on this invitation and contributed a response to the journal. My ten-point response to the moderator was also published in the same issue, rounding out the debate.

I read this exclusion as cowardly, unprofessional, self-interested, and inimical to the format of open debate by which scientific understanding of the world progresses. In considering ethical standards, it is tempting to look only at violations of commission. But there are also violations of omission, when someone does not do what they should have done in the interest of preventing harm, being open and honest, weighing ethical obligations toward colleagues, and maintaining respectful professional relationships.

In the present case, harm was done when the three panel papers were published together as if they were the only ones that had been presented. To fail to mention the very existence of a pointed dissenting voice was to imply that there was none: a patent untruth. The harm in question is the harm of failing to advance the discipline by allowing for the counter-position of multiple points of view.

The panel organizers were not being open and honest when they failed to notify me that the other papers were being published. Indeed, none of the other authors ever acknowledged that a debate was actually going on, that their position formed part of it, or that they had been invited to defend their work. In my view, they had an ethical obligation to consider the effect their actions had on their colleague’s career, and they impeded the progress of anthropological theory by ignoring my efforts to describe and explain humanness in all its manifestations simply because the approach I took to doing so differed from their own. It is not respectful, or honest, to ignore the constructive, relevant work of a colleague.