A Solution to the Problems of the Faculty Majority

Most higher education instructors these days are not comfortably tenured professors—they’re contingent workers, struggling to make it on a patchwork of short-term contracts at discounted wages. Northeastern students staged a Halloween “Thriller” dance flashmob to show support for adjunct faculty who are organizing to join SEIU. “It’s after midterms, and we’re all gasping sighs of relief,” they sang, “but across campus, injustice has its claws sunk in deep...” The action was part of a nationwide week of creative actions by United Students Against Sweatshops, protesting all kinds of poverty jobs on campuses. Photo: USAS.

Contingent faculty—now the majority in U.S. higher education, especially at community colleges—are almost always paid on a discounted secondary pay scale.

That’s one reason for Campus Equity Week (October 28-November 2), established in 2001 to draw attention to the lack of equity for non-tenure-track faculty in the higher education workplace. Without the job security of tenure and its associated academic freedom, these mainly part-time professors, usually hired semester to semester, work in decidedly unprofessional working conditions. Some even qualify for food stamps and other low-income benefits.

I thought about Campus Equity Week during a recent conversation with a university student. “What about the hobbyists?” she replied, referring to faculty who are working professionals in fields outside the university but occasionally teach courses. She discounted their need for equal pay, since they weren’t teaching as their primary profession.

A relative joined the conversation and pointed out that part-time faculty are not all hobbyists, citing the student’s own aunt, a part-time instructor who struggles with limited workload and pay. The student said her aunt lacked the proper academic credential, but the relative countered that her aunt, in fact, has a graduate degree.

Non-egalitarian attitudes like this student’s predominate in legislatures, university administrations—and even faculty unions.

Who Are the Real Faculty?

In this view, tenured professors are presumed to be the real faculty. Contingent teachers are seen as illegitimate representatives of the profession, even though they now make up the majority. Elitists may see their part-time brethren as paraprofessionals not deserving of job security, equal pay, or equal distinction.

The thinking goes that, since tenured faculty members receive greater job security and higher pay, they must deserve it. But such attitudes fly in the face of the notion of equal pay for equal work, not to mention the union principle that all workers deserve a family-wage income and protection against unemployment.

One example of the domination of the elitist attitude is the widespread practice of “overloads,” where tenured faculty members elect to teach courses in addition to their full-time teaching load. When they do, they displace the jobs that would be assigned to part-time faculty.

Rarely is this practice challenged as unfair—on the contrary, it is often seen as the privilege of tenure-track faculty and defended by faculty unions.

We sometimes hear it proposed that the solution to substandard working conditions is to hire more full-time, tenure-track faculty members. But that move does very little for the majority of the non-tenured, who remain in the same poverty-level jobs. If anything, hiring more tenure-track faculty makes their professional lives worse, since one new full-time faculty member will often displace two or more contingent faculty members.

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The real improvement needed is to professionalize the treatment of the majority of faculty, those not on the tenure track.

A Counter-Example

The higher education workplace doesn’t have to be so inequitable. A counter-example is the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia, which is thoroughly egalitarian in its approach to part-time faculty.

The largest college under its auspices, Vancouver Community College, bars full-time professors from teaching overtime, in order to protect part-time faculty jobs and job security.

All faculty members—whether full- or part-time, permanent or temporary—are paid on the same 11-step salary scale.

Workload is not divided up along full-time or part-time lines, but according to seniority. People pick their courses according to seniority, and it is also a primary factor in assigning non-teaching tasks, such as course development. At Vancouver Community College, a part-timer can be senior to a full-timer—unheard of in the U.S. higher education workplace.

VCC instructors can keep teaching part-time indefinitely, if they choose, or they can seek to ratchet their workloads up to 100 percent, the normal way people become full-time.

Perhaps the most significant measure is the job security provision, called “regularization,” which allows instructors who teach half-time or more and have served a probationary period to be granted tenure-like job security. This differs sharply from most U.S. campuses, where non-tenure faculty members can work for years without the confidence that they will have a job the next semester.

In Vancouver, the goals of Campus Equity Week are already realized—a ray of hope for those battling elitist perspectives here in the U.S.

Jack Longmate is an adjunct English instructor at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington. He is active with the Washington Part-time Faculty Association and co-authored with Frank Cosco of the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association “The Program for Change” on how to convert U.S. campuses to the Vancouver Model.