Can the Professoriate be Saved?

By Rachel Collins

Equality For Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System Keith Hoeller, ed. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014.

   By now it is old news that universities are increasingly run according to corporate principles, that business-and efficiency-oriented administrations are distorting curricular structures, and that the tenured professoriate is in serious danger, having been systematically dismantled over the past forty years and slowly but surely replaced with an army of ill-paid contingent workers who are denied job security and many basic resources necessary to their jobs. Even so, the vision of professors as comfortable and well-paid professionals continues to reign supreme in the American popular imagination, stoked in part by the efforts of universities to cultivate an aura of prestige around their brands. It is rather too late to say that the important new collection of essays edited by Keith Hoeller, Equality for Contingent Faculty, sounds the alarm about any of the tectonic shifts in university labor issues, but it is certainly true that this volume brings a new sense of urgency to the situation by focusing on the fact that academia is currently organized into two separate faculty tiers, in which, as Hoeller explains, “the upper tier, the tenure track, is treated in a vastly superior manner to the lower tier, the non-tenure track, which is treated as inferior.” This division—between tenure-line faculty and contingent faculty—forms the basis of the volume’s analysis of university labor practices.

In this respect, the title of the collection—Equality for Contingent Faculty—is somewhat misleading, for the book is not really about the situation of contingent faculty, as such. Instead, it is about whether the fracturing of the faculty as a whole into two vastly unequal tiers has foreclosed the possibility that a professoriate uniformly characterized by shared governance, academic freedom, and pedagogical autonomy can exist in the future. The contributors to this collection, a diverse and experienced group of labor activists, are generally hopeful in this regard, and they are frank about the necessity for those who currently occupy the tenured ranks to be involved in the struggle. Tenured voices are particularly privileged on faculty senates and in other shared-governance bodies, and tenure-track and tenured faculty tend to dominate the membership rosters of unions operating at the public institutions discussed in this volume (incidentally, contingency at private colleges and universities is not addressed in any of the book’s essays, though it is unclear to what extent the collection’s focus on public institutions is by design or coincidence).

As in any other labor movement, there are disagreements among the contributors to this volume about how to proceed and what to prioritize. Elizabeth Hoffman and John Hess document the gradual advances in contingent-faculty working conditions made by the California Faculty Association (CFA) over several decades, while Lantz Simpson rejects gradualism as a strategy and calls on faculty to demand that “the contingency system [be] abolished immediately without any foot dragging and incrementalism.” Similarly, while Hoffman and Hess view the AAUP as a valuable partner in the CFA’s ongoing advocacy for both contingent and tenure-line faculty, Hoeller criticizes the AAUP for declining to investigate the circumstances surrounding retaliatory action faced by contingent faculty members on campuses in Washington State. Jack Longmate’s essay pushes such issues further, arguing that contingent and tenure-line faculty must have separate bargaining units altogether, because their interests frequently come into direct conflict. He points out, for instance, that the ability of tenure-line faculty to increase their take-home pay by teaching overloads depends on their ability to limit the workload of contingent faculty, either by “bumping” contingent faculty from courses or mandating that contingent-faculty workloads be capped at less than 100 percent of a full schedule. No bargaining unit, he contends, can simultaneously advance the interests of both parties in such a situation. Moreover, Longmate’s essay argues that when the overwhelming majority of union members are tenure-line faculty— as they are at Olympic College, where he teaches—the result is that even when unions do address issues of contingency, the particular solutions they propose are often the solutions preferred by those in the tenured ranks.

Equality for Contingent Faculty covers a broad range of general issues and specific situations related to contingency: it raises the question whether tenure is the guarantor of academic freedom; it offers examples of administrations that make false pedagogical claims to justify wage-slashing; and it explores how transforming current definitions of scholarship might rebalance the two-tier system. Most of the book, however, is occupied with parsing the ways that the two-tier system is maintained, and here a core set of problems crop up repeatedly— salary, workloads, job security, benefits, and personal dignity.

Perhaps most fascinating are the affective issues the collection addresses. Several essays delve into the unique challenges of organizing contingent faculty whose daily experiences are often characterized by profound isolation and invisibility. Unlike most other organized workers, who typically develop a sense of solidarity through working alongside one another, many contingent faculty do not know the names or faces of other adjuncts on their campuses. They are often without office space and are denied participation in departmental meetings. But contingent faculty are not the only group to bear a psychological burden. Hoeller’s essay points out that the two-tier system produces cognitive dissonance in tenure-line faculty, who are faced with the problem of how to justify “why they are treated so well while so many of their non-tenure colleagues are treated so badly.” He argues that tenure-line faculty cope by developing the belief that contingent faculty are inferior academics and, as such, deserve their inferior circumstances. Such an attitude, which Hoeller calls “tenurism,” goes a long way toward explaining how and why contingent faculty too often face indifference and even contempt from their tenure-line colleagues, even when they share similar credentials and do the same kind of work.

The final section of Equality for Contingent Faculty focuses on roadmaps for the future, and in one of the collection’s highlights, Frank Cosco describes how Vancouver Community College has managed to do away with the two-tier system. Key to the VCC system is that no faculty members are ever permanently slotted into contingent appointments. The vast majority of VCC faculty members are initially hired into contingent positions. After remaining at VCC for roughly two years, they are automatically regularized into permanent employees with protections comparable to tenure. Such regularization procedures transform contingency into a temporary, probationary phase that all faculty pass through at the very beginning of their careers, and which they age out of after a modest period of time. To be sure, the VCC system is more complex and nuanced than this brief description may suggest, and it requires initial hiring procedures far more intense than most US adjuncts currently experience. That it effectively does away with a permanent faculty underclass, however, is reason enough to begin thinking seriously about how it might serve as a model for other institutions.

Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how the VCC system—or any other particular solution—might be transferred to very different types of institutions, and not only because of differences between Canadian and US labor laws. The variety in faculty roles at community colleges, at teaching-intensive colleges, and at research universities complicates a one-size- fits-all approach to reform—not to mention the variety among adjuncts themselves, some of whom hold terminal degrees and have strong publication records, some of whom are ABD or hold nonterminal degrees, and some of whom are moonlighting profes- sionals. Moreover, the differences between public and private institutions can be profound, particularly in terms of how collective bar- gaining can proceed and who can participate. The constellation of possible combinations among all these factors is dizzying and helps to explain the fragmentation of activist efforts and the enormous difficulty of finding broadly applicable solutions to the very real problem of contingent labor on college campuses.

Despite such obstacles, many of the contributors to this volume frame their arguments as calls to action. Richard Moser, for example, speaks directly to tenure-line faculty, arguing that because of the democratic structures that are embedded in shared governance, tenured faculty (and, to a lesser extent, tenure-track faculty) have the power to do away with contingency as soon as they simply decide to do so. Lantz Simpson focuses on rhetoric that might be productive with administrators, arguing that it is cost-effective to eliminate the massive paperwork and administrative oversight associated with issuing hundreds or thousands of last-minute con- tracts each semester. He offers the management-friendly term “infinite flexibility” to describe regularization procedures that could replace the “budgetary flexibility” administrators often cite as justification for the use of contingent faculty.

The least compelling element of this collection also has to do with rhetoric. Several contributors use racial analogies to suggest that the situation of contingent faculty is comparable to slavery or apartheid. Such analogies simply do not hold. The conditions under which adjuncts labor are exploitative, to be sure, but the unfair professional situations faced by highly educated people are in no way parallel to the violence and lifelong forced servitude of slavery. To suggest a comparison between the two diminishes the real horrors and consequences of enslavement. To be fair, none of the volume’s essays seriously attempts to flesh out an actual historical comparison between contingent labor and slave labor; instead, the authors’ racial analogies function largely as sloganeering, as attempts to harness for adjunct activism the passion and intensity harnessed by abolitionist, anti-apartheid, and civil rights movements in pursuit of major progressive change. Strategically appropriating the rhetoric of race to access its cultural potency is deeply problematic, but it is also born out of adjunct activists’ desire to somehow capture the attention of an audience that has proved largely indifferent to the deplorable situation of contingent faculty, despite much hand-wringing and sympathetic murmuring.

Overall, Equality for Contingent Faculty is a valuable and much-needed volume that brings a compact history of university-based labor activism into contact with discussions of the ethical and affective implications of the two-tier system. This collection makes clear that in our current historical moment, when 75 percent of university professors are contingent laborers—many of whom must scramble for last-minute sections, scrape by on near-poverty wages, and forego access to health care and other benefits—the popular perception of professors as secure, comfortable, and well-paid professionals is already a vision of the past. What has yet to be determined is how we will choose to shape our profession’s future.

Rachel Collins teaches a variety of courses in American literature, cultural studies, and composition at Arcadia University, where she is a contingent faculty member. Her e-mail address is


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