Blog

5/14/2020

Re-re-re-redux: Contingency Is Worse, Pandemic Edition

Seth Kahn

Earlier this week, I talked with a reporter researching a story on the impacts of COVID-19 on higher ed. Among a flood of things I said to her, the one I’m left still thinking most about is: right now, universities are understandably nervous about what’s going to happen with enrollments in the upcoming year. But too many of them are reacting to that nervousness by hammering even harder than usual on the precarity of their contingent faculty members. The list of universities that has announced cuts to their adjunct/contingent/NTT staff is growing every day: Rutgers, Miami of Ohio, Ohio U, UMass-Boston, several Cal State University system campuses, St. Edwards University, and those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head.

For years, managers have been saying they need more “flexible” (read: contingent) faculty. Crassly paraphrased, their rationale is because they never know when they’ll need to let a bunch of people go because of enrollment dips, or [reasons]. Ironically, at this moment, they still don’t know whether there will be enrollment dips, so they’re making decisions about people’s livelihoods based on guesses. And they can do it because contingent positions are designed for this exact move.

Even in less fraught times, as I’ve been arguing for years, contingent teaching positions are more stressful than secure positions. Coupled with low pay and crappy working conditions, the possibilities of suddenly losing work, or having your schedule shifted capriciously at the last second, are always hovering and palpable if not actually happening (and they do happen quite a lot).

The COVID-19 pandemic is exponentially increasing the problems of contingency. Social media (including several closed FB groups I follow, which is why I’m not linking to them here) is full of examples:

  • Lecturers with multi-year contracts that are supposed to roll over automatically learning that those renewals are not forthcoming.
  • Layoffs like the institutions I listed above.
  • Fears among some non-renewed faculty that after soaking in some desperation, their universities will offer to rehire them at lower wages into less secure positions. The more I think about it, the more I’m concerned that this is a baked-in part of the strategy. Corporations have fired workers, let them stew for a little while, and then “generously” offered to give them their jobs back for less money, dozens of times, and that kind of corporatism has certainly found a foothold in US higher ed.
  • Threats of pay reductions [which is awfully nasty to people who are already severely underpaid, y’know?] and paycheck delays.
  • Classes cancelled weeks, if not months, earlier than they’d usually be, or taken from adjunct faculty and given to tenured faculty as overloads.
  • Adjunct faculty being told they can teach enough courses that they’d ordinarily qualify for health insurance they’re denied, but not being given access they’re almost certainly legally entitled to.
  • Mixed messaging, at best, about unemployment insurance claims and whether their institutions will fight them.
  • Out-of-pocket costs for equipment/access to accommodate the move most of us have made to remote/online teaching. As an example, I know at least ten people who teach in multiple institutions, who all wound up paying for their own private Zoom accounts because their various school accounts were conflicting.

Two more things I’ll say about this list: (1) it could be a lot longer, but you get the idea; and (2) you get the idea because almost nothing on here is actually new–it’s just a whole lot worse because (pardon the French) we’re in a [bleeping] pandemic.

As part of the series of posts this re-re-re-redux is re-re-revisiting, I once wrote:

For years now, I’ve been arguing that a first principle in the campaign for contingent faculty equity/equality is:

Don’t abuse the contingent status (i.e., the ability to hire/fire at will) of your contingent faculty as a tool for solving other people’s problems.

That’s exactly what’s happening right now. The people who earn the least, have the least job security, and face the most stressful versions of the job we do are being treated the worst because their positions make it easy, by design.

If you’ve gotten this far and aren’t sure what you might do to help, there are lots of efforts happening all over the place. One place where a lot of them circulate is the Facebook page for Tenure for the Common Good. It’s not hard to find people doing good work with contingent faculty for academic labor equality. If for some reason you haven’t taken the time to join us, the middle of a [bleeping] crisis seems like a good time to fix that.

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4/27/2020

Pledge to Support Contingent Faculty Unemployment Claims

(Please find pledge form at bottom of this post)

In addition, we invite you to join us in contacting state and federal legislators to demand that PUA guidelines on eligibility of “typically excluded workers” specifically include workers who are denied benefits on the basis of purported “reasonable assurance.” Strongly supporting contingent faculty access to unemployment benefits, especially during a
national crisis, is simply the right thing to do.


*We use the term “contingent” inclusively: adjunct, non-tenure-track, lecturer, visiting professor, etc.


Pledge of Support for Contingent Faculty Unemployment Claims


Click here to pledge to support unemployment insurance claims filed by
contingent faculty for at least the foreseeable future.

• • • • • •

Video courtesy AZNTT20@gmail.com.

4/21/2020

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For Immediate Release: Statement on Equity and Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic

3/30/20

The COVID-19 pandemic presents significant challenges to higher education. Tens of thousands of faculty are suddenly moving into teaching online, often with little preparation and inconsistent support. The austerity environments many predict, in which enrollments fall and hirings freeze across institutions, will affect contingent faculty first and most harshly. It is crucial to focus on the situations of these colleagues. Their positions, already more precarious than most, will likely worsen more quickly than those of the tenured and tenure-track faculty.

To their credit, universities have wisely assisted by revising tenure clocks and eliminating elements of evaluation regimens because those evaluations cannot be done reliably or fairly in such emergency circumstances; centers for teaching and learning have been working in overdrive to offer faculty their expertise in online learning. Libraries are finding ways to provide access to research resources while faculty are locked out of campuses.

Yet, as happens all too often, contingent faculty, including graduate students, who constitute approximately 70% of the American professoriate, are generally included in these efforts only in piecemeal ways. Despite active participation in the herculean effort of bringing our curricula online, many contingent faculty are receiving little support from their institutions. This is particularly worrisome. Online classrooms, for example, especially ones established hastily under the conditions of stress, are vulnerable to abuse. Some, who seek to identify and punish instructors they believe engage in inappropriate “indoctrination,” can abuse this shaky new structure, creating a significant threat to academic freedom. 

As stay-at-home and lockdown orders reduce the number of options for online-accessible workspaces, contingent and other non-tenure-stream faculty face challenges beyond those of their tenured and tenure-track colleagues. Access to the equipment necessary to teach well online can be spotty; some lack adequate access to the internet. Not even equipment and access solve all the problems that many poorly-compensated faculty face working at home: lack of space; sense of safety/security; and so on.

All faculty, whether on or off the tenure track, face real struggles at this moment, and all need support. Many of the issues and recommendations in this statement are true for faculty of all ranks and statuses; however, every one of our common struggles is significantly more difficult for our colleagues who are the most precarious and worst compensated. We hope that professional organizations will recognize these needs and provide whatever help they can.

If the pandemic does have the effects on education many of us fear, we may see serious reductions in student populations. Many contingently hired faculty may see their jobs disappear. Their hard work helping make the transition happen now will not help them.

Solidarity demands that we support and protect our contingent colleagues just as we are working to protect and support our tenure-track colleagues. We should always do so, but the current situation amplifies the need.

We therefore call on institutions to act on the following recommendations, which rest on the central principle that contingent faculty should have the same resources, assistance, and protections against financial and professional damage that tenure-track faculty have, and due to poor compensation and working conditions, may have even more acute financial needs. 

Support for teaching while social distancing

  • Make sure contingent faculty are included on all contact lists concerning policies toward faculty and institutional support for remote/online teaching.
  • Offer emergency technical support and equipment to contingent faculty as well as students and tenure-track faculty.
  • Recognize that contingent faculty may need flexibility that tenure-track faculty do not . Do not promote synchronous over asynchronous scheduling. Do not require contingent faculty teaching at multiple institutions to use multiple video conferencing apps or technology platforms.
  • Compensate contingent faculty for the unexpected additional labor of converting courses to remote/online platforms. While all faculty should be compensated for the additional labor, contingent faculty are generally not eligible for other forms of compensation (e.g., comp/reassigned time, service credit).

Changes to evaluation/renewal/hiring processes

  • Suspend student evaluation of teaching for this semester.
  • Suspend teaching observations for the current semester.
  • Suspend annual evaluations, especially for non-tenure-track instructors, for 2019/2020. If your reappointment protocol demands evaluations, consider asking faculty to self-evaluate.
  • Extend multi-year or rolling contracts for one year, especially for faculty whose appointments end in Spring 2020. For faculty on shorter contracts, grant renewals unless financial exigency makes doing so impossible.
  • Assure, in writing, that renewal decisions will not be negatively affected by current disruptions.
  • Resist using the current crisis as an opportunity to exploit contingency further by hiring more contingent faculty into precarious positions.

Protecting academic freedom, intellectual property, and professional autonomy

  • Relax departmental supervision of individual instructors for the current semester except in extraordinary situations. Contingent faculty should not undergo supervision that tenure-track faculty do not.
  • Defend the academic freedom of all faculty, including contingent faculty. This means supporting faculty who face online harassment for their views, and rejecting attempts to discipline faculty expressing allegedly controversial ideas.
  • Protect contingent faculty ownership of course materials they create as they revise/remake courses to teach online. Contingent faculty frequently develop courses/curricula that programs take over without compensating them. As faculty redevelop courses en masse, this risk is heightened.
  • Compensate non-renewed contingent faculty for curriculum they have developed that remains in use after their non-renewal.

Mutual care and support for precarious faculty

  • Establish sick-day banks, or similar support mechanisms, for faculty who cannot meet their teaching responsibilities due to personal or family illness.
  • Establish systems of support for contingent faculty that can help provide food, housing, and money for other costs.
  • Give contingent faculty who want more credits priority when assigning teaching that would be overload for tenure-track/tenured faculty.
  • Include contingent faculty when assigning other compensated work (e.g., assessment), and strongly consider giving them priority. 
  • Prioritize the redirection of funds saved from cancelled/postponed events and travel disbursements in spring 2020 towards the needs of contingent faculty.
  • Agree not to contest unemployment insurance claims by contingent faculty for Summer and Fall 2020 terms.

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Letter from Tenure for the Common Good Executive Committee in Support of Fired Striking Graduate Students at UCSC

3/6/2020

March 6, 2020

Dear Governor Newsom, President Napolitano, Chairperson Perez, and Chancellor Larive,

We write on behalf of the membership of Tenure for the Common Good, an association of college and university faculty that advocates for fair wages and stable employment. We wish to register our dismay at the termination of fifty-four graduate student workers at the University of California-Santa Cruz on Friday, February 28, 2020.

We do not dispute that you have a legal and contractual right to this decision; the termination letter makes the grounds clear. However, we find your decision ethically bewildering. The students have been asking, nearly begging, for help affording housing for months with no substantive reply from management. Not until the strike actually began did university leadership offer even to meet with them, though the results of that meeting, at least as reported by the students, were insufficient to call off the strike. The implicit recognition by leadership that the students have a legitimate claim makes clear that your decision to fire them has nothing to do with solving the actual problem.

The decision to fire the striking graduate students helps nobody. Doing so does not get the withheld grades distributed any more quickly. It does not bring housing prices down. It does not reduce the number of complaints to deans and department chairs. This decision, instead, actively harms the institution and the entire system. The students you fired will almost certainly leave the university; they no longer have income or tuition coverage. The students who remain have to wonder if they will be next when they dare to ask for a basic necessity. The media coverage of this situation, along with the attention it is garnering on social media, will not encourage prospective students to apply to, much less attend, UCSC–and as more campuses follow, as have Santa Barbara and Davis already, the optics will worsen.

We know that you have power to help resolve this situation in a way that advances the interests of institution and system, as well as the graduate students in your programs. Resolution is certainly better than erasing students and hoping attention dissipates. We are calling on you to use your power well. We call on you to revoke the termination letters immediately. Ideally, you would issue an apology, but call it a clerical error or whatever it takes. The important point is that the students, who were already in a terrible situation, are now being treated in a way that they do not deserve. You can fix that with a stroke of the pen.

You can easily enter good faith negotiations with the students, via their union, toward meeting their financial needs. They have done careful analysis, reaching the figure of $1412/month, the amount that they demand, and we have seen nothing that disputes the reasonableness of their calculations. Our organization represents faculty at institutions ranging from two-year/community colleges to small liberal arts colleges to regional comprehensive state universities to large research institutions. Until you agree to reinstate the students you fired and to work in good faith with them to solve the housing problem you have agreed is serious, we will actively discourage students from applying to your graduate programs, and discourage our graduate students from applying to open faculty positions; we will recommend that speakers decline invitations to appear on your campuses; we will continue to work together with graduate students and faculty across the nation to publicize your harsh treatment of the striking students; where possible, we will work with other graduate programs to offer spots to UC graduate students whose dismissals are retaliatory.

The power to fix both the firing mistake and the financial distress that caused it is largely in your hands. You have already demonstrated that you are willing to use the power you have. We call on you to use it again, but productively and ethically.

Sincerely,

Tenure for the Common Good Executive Committee

Aaron Barlow, New York City College of Technology

Carolyn Betensky, University of Rhode Island

Rachel Buurma, Swarthmore College

Seth Kahn, West Chester University of PA

Talia Schaffer, Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center

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Casualization:  A Primer

Aaron Barlow

2/14/2020

This is for those who don’t yet understand, not for those who have lived it.

Casual employees have never been treated well. They come and go with a shrug on the parts of institutional executives. Organizations know that they need a certain number of permanent employees they treat well in order to maintain the cohesion of the enterprise and to manage the casuals. They want to keep that number as small as possible, preferring nothing but casual employees who could be hired and laid off as needed. The types of those employees considered mandatory did grow over the 20th century, but that was because of employee unions and, in part, because growth is the nature of bureaucracy.

Over past decades, this growth has slackened (as has union power). The new ethos of a gig-economy has thrown us back to management models where workers are almost immediately replaceable. They are of too great an expense to be considered for permanent employment and perks. Digital possibilities and increasing (and often forced) uniformity of task allow a replacement employee to step right in when someone leaves, never missing a beat.

In line with this, a formula for easy replacement of college professors has been pioneered in for-profit on-line universities. The course structures are rigid and prepared and the teachers are called (in an unintentional parody of Paulo Freire) ‘facilitators.’ If one isn’t working out, a replacement can be slotted in without disturbance. While it is harder to shuffle people in and out of face-to-face classrooms, this flexibility of employment of casually hired (and let go) adjuncts has become attractive to all manner of colleges and universities, not just the for-profits, though they are the ones who illuminated the pathway.

As in the new gig economy as a whole, adjunct professors, like all casual hires, are seen not as employees but as tools to be used and discarded at will. The flexibility achieved is something executives and administrators yearn for. Permanent employees and their demands can be a nuisance and often eat into the budget.

This reliance on casual employees causes problems everywhere, creating a new divide among American workers. It works even less well in schools than it does elsewhere. Students are not products (nor are they customers or clients) and they rely on the consistent presence of their teachers, not only over a single term but throughout the course of their studies. Good teaching requires performance that pleases administrators, of course, but it also requires consistency for the sake of individual students.

In the past, the ethos among casuals of all sorts, including those adjuncts who weren’t simply teaching atop another career, was one of ‘working your way in,’ of hoping to become part of the permanent staff—and that ambition was lauded. Now, it is more often quashed. The idea of institutions of higher education today isn’t to increase full-time faculty (or even maintain it) but to reduce it. That this ignores the impact on students is excused by imagined technological wizardry (like MOOCs, Massive Open Online Classes) and through emphasis on institutional survival in economic concerns.

Employing entities have always made moving in and up as difficult as possible, though they once did recognize the value of ambition and even gave additional, though generally token, reward to those whose struggles, either personally or through unions, achieved permanent status for them. These rewards long kept the casuals striving. They have been removed, on college campuses, even as distant hope for adjuncts.

Nevertheless, the pattern of encouraging one to pull oneself up to success is quite old in the United States, of course. We see it in the writings of Benjamin Franklin and, from the Civil War through the end of the century, in the boy’s novels by Horatio Alger. Work hard, show loyalty and honesty, and you will succeed. It reflected a naïve attitude even then, but it was one Americans wanted to believe: Ragged Dick the bootblack becoming Richard Hunter, pillar of society.

So strong is the influence of this myth that most of us actually believe we’ve ‘made it’ on our own to wherever we are, that we have reached our current success through hard work, perseverance and native intelligence. Or, if we have failed, nefarious forces must be at work, perhaps, these days, the ‘deep state.’

Both sides of this myth are destructive—and both play roles in the casualization cancer eating higher education. If the adjunct professors were as good as then tenure and tenure-track, the unstated thinking often goes, they would no longer be adjuncts.

Or someone or something is holding them down.

Factors at work in higher education are destroying the positive (as far as it goes) aspect of the myth and reinforcing the negative, pulling us toward what will soon become campuses of casual instructors “managed” by a rump tenured faculty. The most important of these, to no one’s surprise, is money. A huge percentage of American colleges and universities receive government funding—and it has fallen off, and continues to fall. At the same time, in competing for students, colleges have had to offer more and new amenities, expensive. And they have necessarily taken on administrative staff to deal with expanding governmental regulation. The one place frantic administrators see where growth can be squeezed to a halt is the habitat of the faculty.

In terms of Carnegie hours, a full-time professor making, say, $50,000 a year teaching four courses a semester is costing the school roughly $2,000 per credit hour (actually more, if you add it things like sabbaticals and release time for scholarship). Add to that individual office space, health care and other benefits, and the cost per 3-credit course rises well above $7,500. An adjunct, even a relatively well-paid one, rarely earns $5,000 a course.

That minimal 50% difference certainly catches the eyes of college budget officers.

In most cases, it’s bigger: the reality is that the full-time professor makes around $80,000 a year, or over $10,000 a course on a 4/4 schedule, and an adjunct generally rakes in less than $4,000 a course. In many cases, it costs three times (or more) as much to have a full-time professor teach a course as it does to hire an adjunct to do what many pencil-pushers see as the same “work.” Even were adjunct lines to be converted to full-time lecturer lines on a 5/5 schedule, the cost would still go up that 50% in most places—if not right away, quickly thereafter as the lecturers start to receive rising benefits and the annual cost-of-living increases that adjuncts rarely get.

As recently as twenty years ago, adjuncts could hope for that chance at that mythical permanent position, for many schools liked to invite members of their adjunct pools to apply when faculty lines opened up, and quite a few adjuncts moved into the tenure-track rank that way. This created a bridge between casual and permanent employees, making conversation and collegial interaction not just possible but normal. It created at least a semblance of a cohesive faculty.

But hiring has slowed these last few years. The adjuncts now see little chance of ever making the jump; they are caught in what has become an employment disaster with little possibility of relief. They could leave the profession completely, but for what? The gig economy has made casuals of many more people beyond academia, removing from work lives possibilities for advancement beyond temporary employment jumping from here to there. Adjuncts know that life may be no better elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, the resentments of adjuncts have grown over the last decade—even while general recognition of the inequities of the adjunct plight in universities has increased. With so little chance of ever “earning” a full-time position, casual employees are caught on the fringes of higher education and can barely hang on, let alone climb to the stable center. They are seeing the gulf between them and the tenured and tenure-track widen, and two separate cultures emerge.

This gulf is being exploited for the short-term benefit of the institutions (of the administrators, actually). By cutting adjuncts from faculty rights such as academic freedom, participation in shared governance and tenure, colleges and universities are laying the groundwork for claiming all of these rights can disappear without consequence in modern academia—at least, in teaching cohorts. While there is much to be said for creating different sets of standards for those primarily involved in research and those mostly focused on teaching, the adjunct question warps discussion, for the adjuncts fall entirely on the teaching side, allowing administrators to move toward reducing all teachers to at-will hires while retaining their prestige researchers in low-teaching permanent positions.

To make such divisions work equitably, all professors, full-time or part-time, research heavy or focused on the classroom, need to be brought under a single umbrella of rights. Academic freedom, participation in shared governance and even tenure should not be the perks of successful service to the institution but should be part of the expectations of every professor. Once that common protection is in place, differing expectations within it can be practical without being open for misuse.

But that is not what is happening.

Right now, in needed attempts to move adjunct protection forward, some institutions are trying to expand the rights of casual faculty employees. At the City University of New York, adjunct professor will soon be making that $5,000 per course and even can “earn” the right to three-year part-time contracts. But there is no contractual bridge between casuals and permanent employees, no laid-out path toward full-time employment and no insurance of rights under academic freedom, shared governance (outside of the common union, the Professional Staff Congress that represents all faculty equally in principle) and tenure, only a codification of difference. Possibility of new, longer contracts aside, like adjuncts elsewhere, CUNY adjuncts are becoming even more firmly trapped in an academic underclass today than they were twenty years ago. Though they may like their new and slightly less precarious position, they recognize that it is also certifying them as an underclass.

Adjuncts everywhere—even at CUNY—are increasingly angry—and they should be. Not only are they being made into a permanent economic academic underclass, but they are being directly cut off from many of what had grown to be considered the necessities of the profession, not the least being academic freedom, the right to participated in institutional governance and tenure.

Those of us in academia who are not adjuncts need to be more aware of what is happening to our casual colleagues than we generally are. The expansion of adjunct rights is slowed for a reason. The institutions want to limit those rights across the board and, through the growing reliance on adjuncts, they are doing so. Only by fighting back, by struggling for the rights of all faculty, can we stop this movement toward the casualization of instruction that will likely destroy all faculty rights and imperil the continuing success of American institutions of higher education.