Contingency Is Worse, Pandemic Edition


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.