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In all of our talk about adjunct instructors and postdocs and visiting professors and artists in residence, we sometimes forget that there really are tenure-line faculty still out there. What role could they play in the crisis of contingency? Why, for instance, did this particular university have two different faculty unions, one for the important people and an entirely different one for the rabble? And why did the adjunct union have to charge its members 1.3-percent dues on terrible pay, while the permanent faculty union charged its members only 0.7 percent of their much more “extravagant” pay to create a far larger fund?
If you work at an undergraduate- or master’s-focused school, don’t even consider hiring a tenure-track faculty member from an R1 university.
It’s easy for permanent faculty to claim that their hands are tied, that the real power rests with deans or provosts or CFOs or whoever the local demonic force is thought to be. And it’s true that the faculty do not control financial resources and do not have the ability to open new lines or accelerate permanent hiring. But it is absolutely not true that faculty are powerless to affect contingency. Here are a few things that faculty can do — as a faculty body, as departments, and as individuals, without anyone’s permission needed — to improve the lives of adjunct instructors and students. If we saw ourselves as members of the same team, these are some of the things we could accomplish.
As a Faculty Body
- If you have graduate programs, track the year-by-year employment of every single graduate for the first 10 years. Also, track each incoming grad student’s time to degree completion or point of stoppage if they don’t finish. This isn’t hard. Graduate cohorts are small. Get on the phone every few months and find out where your former students work. Make that data public to all prospective grad students. Think twice about sustaining programs with proven, enduring loss rates.
- If you work at an undergraduate- or master’s-focused school, don’t even consider hiring a tenure-track faculty member from an R1 university. The move from high-stakes, grant-funded research to the daily life of a 4/4 teaching load is a cognitive and work-life mismatch. It’s also a hiring practice that perpetuates the hopelessness of good Ph.D.s from good programs that don’t have the cachet of Stanford or Yale. Take a facultywide stance that prioritizes hiring from the appropriate tier of graduate programs to serve your own mission, and your own students.
- Don’t ask for new equipment that isn’t absolutely essential; instead, negotiate to have that money reallocated to adjunct pay. We imagine the only possible bloat is due to “administrators,” but academic technology, most of which didn’t exist at all when I started college in 1976, consumes over $200 billion a year worldwide. That computer will last another couple of years, and you probably don’t need that smartboard.
- Reduce your institution’s travel budget and the number of its institutional memberships, and put that money toward adjunct resources. If you want to be current in your field, read the journals, talk on Skype, and save three grand per conference — a little more than the average national adjunct stipend for a three-credit course. What will serve your students better: your weekend at a conference, your adherence to a disciplinary accreditation that nobody really cares about, or a more fully supported colleague?
- Stand behind a simple principle: one faculty, one union. This doesn’t mean that everyone is paid the same; all union contracts have provisions for job titles, tiers of salary, and seniority. But it does mean that everyone who does the scholarly work of teaching and research — including adjuncts, postdocs, and graduate students — is responsible for one another’s success, and responsible for standing together if anyone is mistreated. Collective bargaining only works if we believe in the collective.
As a Department
- Allocate introductory courses to permanent faculty, and give adjuncts upper-division “special topics” courses with smaller course sizes. If those adjuncts have Ph.D.s, they know the field as well as you do. Perhaps better, if their degrees are more current. This would also be an effective tool for early-student retention, since the permanent faculty are in a better position to welcome students to their community, and to know the array of support services the school offers. If you want to be evangelical about your way of knowing the world (and if you want to make your department stronger by increasing the number of majors), make sure that your voice is the one that freshmen and sophomores hear first.
- Hire from within. Conduct internally focused searches and bring your best adjuncts on board whenever you have an open tenure-track line, instead of searching for the distant star. You have both data and experience as to the effectiveness of your contingent colleagues with exactly the population of students you hope to serve. If they’ve proven themselves, promote them. You’d expect the same from your promotion and tenure process.
As a Faculty Member
- Stop bringing graduate students into your lab or research group if you know they’ll likely be doomed. (See the earlier note on tracking the success of your grad students.) If your research program isn’t an effective launchpad for new scholars, then it’s failing at one of its core intellectual responsibilities.
- Have the “just don’t go” talk. Counsel your best undergraduates not to pursue graduate school if they imagine themselves in faculty life. William Pannapacker was 10 years ahead of us in this, insisting that we have a moral obligation to warn our best students against placing a bet with worse odds than a liquor-store lottery scratcher.
- If you’re an interdisciplinary scholar, don’t advocate for starting an interdisciplinary degree (or worse yet, graduate) program. The students you recruit are going to struggle mightily on the job market, even if the program is good for your vanity. Hiring is done by departments, and departments are organized by discipline. Feel free to do interdisciplinary research, but don’t build a product that no one will buy.
- Retire before you want to. You’ll find that emeritus status is the sweetest gig in academe: all the tools of the university at your disposal, no more course load, and unlimited time to work on the risky project you’ve always wanted to take on. Open a slot for a newcomer when you hit 65 and take advantage of the very best kind of intellectual freedom: a vigorous retirement.
This list is only a starting point — faculty could probably come up with another dozen local strategies that would improve the working lives of contingent colleagues on their campuses.
Faculty don’t control institutional budgets. But they do control graduate-student recruitment and training, course allocation, collective bargaining, and individual relationships. They are not in a position of helplessness. Don’t throw up your hands and say it’s all the administrators’ fault — a refrain we too often hear. Rather, use your intelligence, creativity, and influence to lift your colleagues and your students.