It’s About More Than Money

The contingent labor force needs careers, not just jobs

Brian Taylor

February 19, 2014

Don’t get me wrong: Of course it’s about money. And job security (which translates into financial security which translates into money). But it’s not just about money.

Resolving the contingent-labor problem is also about giving non-tenure-track faculty members the chance to be more than "contingent" as well as more than "labor." It’s about making sure these vital employees have the opportunity not just to survive, but to build careers and thrive in their teaching, scholarship, and writing. In other words, it’s about democratizing a system that marginalizes and exploits the majority of faculty members who are on the front lines of teaching.

Now if you want to talk about money, there’s plenty to discuss. Let me use myself as an example. As a full-time contingent lecturer at a state institution, I usually teach three first-year, writing-intensive courses each term. My classes are always full, and my retention rate is high. In each course, I start out with about 25 students, and, on average, 20 make it to the end of the term.

So I teach roughly 60 students each term, or about 120 for the academic year. Assuming those are all in-state students, they each pay $936.60 in tuition (not including fees) for my three-credit-hour course. That generates about $56,196 in tuition (for 60 students) a term, or $112,392 (for 120 students) a year. Some of that money pays for the university’s buildings, labs, salaries, and administrative costs. Some of it allows tenure-track professors to teach seminars with only seven student enrolled.

And some of it pays my salary of $30,000 a year. It would be impossible for anyone to ignore the financial value of what I do compared with the undercompensation for that work. And that doesn’t even begin to quantify the other types of value added to the university from my publications, contributions to my scholarly field, and attendance at conferences on my own expense (except for a once-a-year travel grant of $250). My very real commitment to student success also translates directly into student retention and university success.

Exploitation is not a word we contingent faculty use lightly. Whom do we blame for the disenfranchisement and deep dissatisfaction of this core population of teaching faculty members?

There’s no easy answer. It just somehow "happened," as things do when they fall into the currents of cultural and market-driven forces. But we can’t say we weren’t warned. We’ve been talking about the corporatization of universities and the exploitation of adjuncts for years now. We just didn’t know how to put the brakes on the devastating, seemingly unstoppable changes.

Most of the blame is typically heaped on high-level administrative bloat, but that’s not the only cause. Talented top administrators are necessary to the success of any institution. They have a very real and ethical responsibility to pull back on their own spending and compensation packages, but they also have an immediate and ethical responsibility to the success of the educational mission of their institutions.

We need administrators to use their leadership skills to improve the working conditions of those who teach the majority of classes. Yet it is not just senior administrators who need to act. The problem is not just at the top. It’s also at the level of the everyday work environment and treatment of contingent faculty members in their academic departments—places in which the haves and have-nots are all too clearly defined.

In their day-to-day lives, contingent faculty members are kept in powerless positions by departmental systems that not only exploit them financially but also deny them opportunity and voice in their departments. It is no secret that the vast majority of travel, research, and sabbatical money in any department is set aside for a privileged minority. Nor is it a secret that lecturers have little if any say in department matters.

Moreover, many departments openly prioritize graduate students over lecturers, something we are told directly and reminded of in myriad ways. Adjuncts rely solely on the benevolence of the tenured members of the department (often the chair and associate chair) for course assignments and the most negligible of internal grants. Usually contingent faculty members are assigned a heavy load of grading-intensive courses that take far more preparation and time to teach than a graduate seminar. That time-intensive teaching load sets up a roadblock on our potential to grow as scholars, achieve writing goals, attend conferences, and design new courses in our areas of expertise. In short, it limits our very real potential to contribute. Then, add in second or third jobs, which some contingent faculty members take to make ends meet, and the power imbalance becomes even more ingrained.

Tenure-track professors of course have much to worry about, too, and never planned for a departmental system of clearly delineated haves and have-nots. But whether or not they participated in the creation of the power imbalance, their jobs are in jeopardy, too, and the class divide has become a real and present danger to departmental success. Tenured and tenure-track professors are given ample opportunity to grow in their fields, teach low courseloads with small class sizes, and have full access to travel, research, and sabbatical money. It’s not that they don’t need or deserve all of that, it’s that they need to acknowledge their privileged status and how their participation in the status quo continues to marginalize the majority of college faculty members.

If departments want to survive in these changing times, then the tenure-track faculty (especially those who hold administrative roles) have an ethical responsibility to democratize operations and find ways to more justly distribute power, money, and opportunity.

But administrative bloat, departmental class divides, and tenured-faculty privilege are not solely to blame for the situation in which many of us contingent faculty members find ourselves. We are also to blame. We continue to remain in positions that usurp our power as teachers, scholars, employees, and people. Whether we realize it or not, we have willingly relinquished our power to others, particularly at the departmental level. Why?

An uncomfortable answer lies in the way too many of us subconsciously defer power to the tenure track, through a kind of identification with the (sometimes benevolent) oppressor. Dissertations could be written about the dominant, hierarchal structures that continue to drive our university systems. This situation becomes especially insidious when one takes into account hiring practices and the favoritism that goes on in departments. When contingent faculty members are hired by their own graduate advisers and departments—a not-uncommon practice intended to provide them temporary employment—they are unlikely to speak up and demand the changes necessary. Or worse, they won’t even see the traps of powerlessness in which they are caught.

One of the most distressing aspects of the contingent-labor problem is the psychological hit we take. We think (and sometimes even hear) things like: "if you were good enough," "if only you had published more," and "if only you had gone to the right institution."

But even with luck or happenstance on your side, your chances of making it onto the tenure track are more remote than ever. And for those who (for any number of reasons) are unable to look for work outside the cities in which they live, the chance of securing a tenure-track position becomes almost nonexistent.

Contingent faculty members understand those realities intellectually but still somehow feel inferior, and that nagging belief is reinforced when we are treated as such. We are the labor, the proletariat of the university system, if you will—underpaid, overworked, overlooked, and so downtrodden that we have yet to effectively rise up against the system in any systemized way.

I believe in the power of unions to change working conditions. At my own institution, we now have a union with separate but "united" bargaining units for the tenured and for the non-tenure-track faculty members. The Illinois courts required the union to create these two bargaining units, a ruling with which I agree. After all, the needs of the two units are completely different. However, the public as well as our university sees the two-track union as one.

A united union could indeed work for our institution—so long as every single tenure-track member of that union truly believes in the equality of all and is on board with the sweeping reforms needed. Those tenure trackers would have to believe in a fair distribution of power and, thus, in relinquishing some of their own power. Otherwise, a dual union is just another recipe for keeping the status quo, with the empowered tenure track serving as a mouthpiece for the disempowered non-tenure track.

For change to happen, contingent faculty members have no choice but to make demands not just of the senior administration but also of their own departments.

Do we start with pay and job security? Of course. And on my campus, the united, dual-faculty union is on the right track on that front. We are arguing for pay increases and multiyear contracts for contingent labor. We are seeing some signs of lecturers being incorporated into faculty-senate functions. Even better, there is evidence that some tenure-track faculty members are genuinely supportive of the contingent-labor cause, especially in terms of pay and contracts.

However, none of that resolves the power differential—such as the fact that, on a departmental level (and this is just in English), a pool of more than 43 lecturers is entitled to only two votes while the 27 tenured and tenure-track faculty members get one vote per person.

We need equal representation in a newly democratized system. Certainly that will make some tenure-track professors nervous. But it shouldn’t. Their jobs are at risk, too. Equal representation is the only way to ensure the long-term survival of academic departments.

On both sides of the tenure line, we’ve all been rather haphazard victims of the changing cultural tides. It is time to recognize that we all have a vital and ethical responsibility to stop this changing tide and reinstate the principles of higher education and equal opportunity that we stand for and believe in. And let’s start by providing real and equitable opportunities for those most keenly invested in the fundamental values of teaching and student success at our institutions—the marginalized but invaluable contingent faculty.

Andrea Witzke Slot is a full-time lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and writes poetry, fiction, and academic work.