Many faculty members today are employed as temporary, seasonal, and part-time workers

Can academic freedom and governance survive in a sweatshop university?

Over the past few decades, the increase in contingent appointments--part- and full-time positions off the tenure track--has been dramatic. As of 2001, the most recent year for which U.S. Department of Education data are available, 44.5 percent of faculty appointments were part time. According to "Assessing the Silent Revolution: How Changing Demographics Are Reshaping the Academic Profession," published in the October 2001 issue of the AAHE Bulletin by higher education researchers Martin Finkelstein and Jack Schuster, only 3.3 percent of faculty appointments were off the tenure track in 1969, but by the 1990s, over half of new full-time appointments were off the tenure track. Only one in four faculty appointments was to a full-time, tenure-track position.

While most members of the higher education community have come to appreciate the magnitude of the past decade's increase in part-time and non-tenure-track positions, a tendency persists to treat the issue as distinct from other issues. In fact, the growth in the number and proportion of contingent appointments over the past few decades constitutes a sneak attack on academic values and on the stability of the faculty as a whole.

The AAUP's standing Committee on Part-Time and Non-Tenure-Track Appointments recently changed its name to the Committee on Contingent Faculty and the Profession. The term "contingent faculty" emphasizes the common situation of part- and full-time non-tenure-track faculty. The phrase "and the profession" highlights the relationship between increased contingency and the profession as a whole. The rise in contingent appointments is not an isolated phenomenon; it results from a variety of interrelated factors and contributes to a variety of problems in higher education. In particular, contingency poses a threat to academic freedom, shared governance, traditional academic values, and the ability of graduate students to obtain a degree within a reasonable time.

Systemic Problem

If anything, the data on contingent appointments may underestimate the extent of their use. Since many contingent appointments are made at the departmental level, surveying institutions about their use is unreliable. In addition, many contingent appointments are hidden under other names such as "fellowships" or "visiting professorships."

Many full-time faculty probably have no idea how many part-time colleagues teach in their departments, or who those colleagues are. Deliberately or not, departments do a lot to minimize the visibility of part-time faculty: they are typically not invited to participate in staff meetings; they may have no offices, or they may share offices with many other contingent faculty members or with graduate students; and, often, they are not listed in university directories, on department Web sites, or in course catalogs.

As graduate student activists have been pointing out for years, the rather dismal employment situation in some areas of academe, particularly the humanities, is a result not of a job market but of a labor system. Attributing the problem to a job market implies a simple issue of supply and demand: too many PhDs are produced, but there aren't enough jobs to go around, so job seekers are forced to piece together a living from a patchwork of part-time positions. Looking at the problem as a labor-system issue acknowledges its complexity. The same institutions both manufacture and consume the PhD "product." There are too few tenure-track jobs for all the PhDs in some disciplines because graduate students or faculty on fixed-term or part-time appointments teach so many courses. If full-time tenure-track faculty taught most courses, there might not be a job shortage.

Academic Freedom

That there have been few well-publicized violations of academic freedom involving contingent faculty members may not be so much a sign of hope as the symptom of a silent crisis. The greatest threats to academic freedom today may not be the kinds of blatant attacks that make headlines, but rather the silent self-censorship of thousands of professors holding temporary, insecure appointments.

Largely unprotected against sudden termination of their employment, contingent faculty have every incentive to avoid taking risks in the classroom or tackling controversial subjects. Vulnerable to student complaints, contingent faculty members may not feel free to teach rigorously, discuss controversial topics, make heavy reading assignments, or award low grades to those who earn them. To the extent that prepackaged courses--or courses that are designed by one person to be delivered identically by others--do not allow professors and students freely to discuss subject matter, they also threaten academic freedom.

In recognition of this fact, in 2001 the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure joined the Committee on Part-Time and Non-Tenure-Track Appointments to form a subcommittee responsible for drafting a new policy statement. The resulting statement, Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession, reaffirms long-standing Association policy that all faculty with fulltime appointments should be eligible for tenure after a reasonable probationary period. In addition, the statement reiterates that part-time and non-tenure-track appointments should be limited to no more than 15 percent of total instruction within an institution and no more than 25 percent within a department. It also makes new recommendations in two areas: (1) improving job security and due process protections for those with contingent appointments, and (2) increasing the proportion of faculty appointments that are tenure track. The AAUP Council adopted the statement as Association policy in November 2003, and it is available on the Association's Web site.

Faculty Governance

Most faculty, and perhaps most of the public as well, would probably agree with the Association's 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities that "the faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process." But even though such institutional governing responsibility, or "service," is considered one of the traditional duties of faculty, the culture of academia often undervalues it. Many institutions--and the public at large--see participating in institutional governance as less noble than teaching and less intellectually impressive than research.

The increasing proportion of contingent appointments compounds the problem. Many faculty hesitate to include contingent faculty members, whether part or full time, in shared governance because contingent faculty are perceived as more vulnerable in their dealings with the administration and thus unable to participate freely and openly. At institutions where contingent faculty are included in institutional governance structures, their inclusion is often token. The fact that there are fewer tenure-track faculty means that there are fewer faculty willing and able to participate in shared governance. If the trend is not reversed, institutional governance will shift increasingly to administrators.

Marketplace Mentality

The use of contingent labor is an obvious product of the marketplace mentality: if part-time or non-tenure-track labor is cheaper, it must be better. An increasing acceptance of the idea that universities are essentially run by administrators for the convenience of consumer-students leads to the logic of mass production. Courses that are packaged once and delivered over and over by low-paid, part-time teachers are cheaper and more efficient to produce than courses designed individually by highly qualified, tenure-track professors.

The use of contingent labor also feeds the marketplace mentality's emphasis on managerial control in that the large cadres of contingent workers must be supervised by increasing numbers of managers. Tenure-track faculty, who have a stake in the institution and are able fully to participate in its decision making, are gradually replaced by temporarily employed faculty, who feel less connected to the institution and less empowered to voice their opinion about the way it is managed. Many institutions are experiencing serious budget problems these days. But the turn toward cheaper contingent labor extends further back and has been largely a matter of priorities, not of economic necessity. Many institutions invested heavily in facilities and technology over the past decade, for example, while cutting instructional budgets.

Time to Degree

Many graduate students serve as contingent faculty members, a fact that is obscured by their different treatment and classification. Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession describes graduate student labor as falling along a spectrum: "At one end is the student who teaches a reasonable number of classes as part of his or her graduate education.... At the other end is the person who teaches independently, perhaps for many years, but not in a probationary appointment, while he or she completes a dissertation." A limited amount of teaching is a useful and appropriate element of graduate education, but many graduate students teach more classes than are educationally necessary. Many teach their own sections, complete with class preparation, presentation, and grading. Under these conditions, graduate students function as a cheap source of labor for universities--contingent labor.

The increase in contingent labor contributes to lengthening the time to degree in several ways. First, graduate students whose funding packages involve heavy teaching loads have little time in which to finish their dissertations. Second, graduate students whose dissertation funding is inadequate are pushed to seek additional part-time teaching outside of their formal funding arrangements, perhaps at other institutions. Third, with few tenure-track jobs waiting for them, graduate students have little incentive to complete their degrees sooner rather than later. Depending on the institution, pay and benefits for graduate students may be better than those for contingent faculty members; in addition, graduate students typically enjoy higher status and more involvement in the professional and academic life of an institution than do contingent instructors.

Incremental Change

While the situation is grave, it is not hopeless. The best way to reverse the problems associated with increased contingency is to reverse the trend. Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession recommends that if contingent appointments exceed 15 percent of total instruction within an institution or 25 percent within a department, a transition should be made. This can be accomplished by offering tenure-eligible reappointments to individuals holding contingent appointments. It can also be done by creating new tenure-track positions and holding open searches for candidates to fill them. In any event, new tenured positions should replace contingent appointments as they become vacant through attrition and retirements, and where appropriate, current contingent faculty should be grandfathered into tenured positions. Faculty in contingent positions should not bear the cost of transition.

While tenure remains the best protector of academic freedom, the AAUP statement on contingent appointments recognizes that change often occurs only incrementally. Therefore, it recommends improvements to job security and due process protections for those who currently hold contingent appointments. Such appointments, like all faculty appointments, should include the full range of faculty responsibilities (teaching, scholarship, service); comparable compensation for comparable work; assurance of continuing employment after a reasonable opportunity for successive reviews; inclusion in institutional governance structures; and appointment and review processes that involve faculty peers and follow accepted academic due process.

Such incremental changes are occurring in many states and in many ways: through lobbying, collective bargaining, and the courts. In California, faculty successfully lobbied the state legislature, which in 2001 passed a resolution to increase the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty in the California State University system to 75 percent over an eight-year period. A systemwide group planning implementation of the resolution aims to improve the ratio of tenured and tenure-track faculty by 1.5 percent each year. The plan anticipates that many faculty holding non-tenure-track lecturer positions will apply successfully for newly created tenure-track positions, and that conversion of other lecturer positions to tenure-track appointments can be handled through attrition and retirements of lecturers.

In Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York, faculty unions negotiated improvements for contingent faculty members. For example, the continuing education chapter of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, faculty union negotiated just-cause dismissal and seniority-based job-protection rights for full- and part-time faculty. The new seniority system treats part- and full-time faculty equally, so that a part-time faculty member with greater seniority than a more junior full-time faculty member can no longer be bumped in favor of the junior faculty member.

At Western Michigan University, the faculty union bargained for a contract that offered tenure-eligible positions to a group of previously non-tenure-track "faculty specialists," including teachers in the College of Aviation and health specialists. The cost of the transition to tenure-track positions was negligible because the union and the institution had moved gradually toward this step, first adopting job descriptions and promotional ranks for the positions, then agreeing on due process provisions, and finally offering job security with four-year reviews. At the City University of New York, the faculty union negotiated a contract that stipulates that part-time faculty who teach six or more credit hours on the same campus must be paid for one additional hour a week in order to hold office hours or engage in professional development.

In Washington State, adjuncts used the courts to address benefits equity, winning a $12 million settlement from the state's community college system after adjuncts filed suit because the colleges had denied them benefits by not counting their out-of-class work hours toward their retirement packages. Higher education groups also banded together to lobby the state legislature for increases in the rate of pay for part-time professors at the state's public institutions; in the last six years, the legislature has allocated $27.5 million for this purpose, raising part-time pay from 38 percent of a comparable full-time salary to 56 percent. The legislature also passed a law giving sick leave to part-time faculty that is prorated to full-time sick leave, and it lowered the eligibility threshold for retirement benefits from 80 percent of a fulltime load to 50 percent.

Many of these advances have resulted in situations that remain imperfect. As the AAUP has long held, tenure is an essential protection for academic freedom. But by increasing the job security of contingent faculty members and reducing their vulnerability to sudden termination, each of these advances represents an incremental movement away from contingency and toward a more stable faculty.


By Gwendolyn Bradley

Gwendolyn Bradley is a managing editor of Academe and staff to the AAUP's Committee on Contingent Faculty and the Profession.

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