Contingent Faculty and Labor Justice: Opportunity, and Incorporation

The third post in our “professional development and reflections on the discipline” series, curated by the WPSA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, discusses contingent faculty. Julie Novkov, current WPSA President, reflects on the realities of adjunct and contingent faculty, and suggests what we and our universities can do to transform thinking around, and acknowledge the crucial contribution of, contingent faculty. Other posts in this series include Failure and Success in the Academy, By Susan Sterett, Jennifer Diascro, and Judith Grant, and The Personal is Political, or At Least, Relevant, by H. N. Hirsch. If these topics are of interest to you, we would like to encourage you to register for the short course at the APSA conference in Philadelphia in September on Unlocking Success with Failure. This half-day short course will focus on unlocking our success – as individuals and institutions – by exploring the failures in our personal and institutional stories. We will do so in the context of the many interdisciplinary intellectual frameworks that illuminate failure as inevitable and necessary for achievement.

By Julie Novkov


Susan Sterett’s and Jennifer Diascro’s recent explorations into themes of failure and success have struck me particularly in the last several months as my university grapples with the silent growth in, and regularization of, contingent labor as a critical piece of fulfilling its educational and service missions. Our provost convened a panel in 2015 that brought together faculty and professional staff from across the university, including both “regular” workers with eligibility for permanent appointment and a variety of workers holding temporary appointments, both full-time and part-time. We studied the issues for half a year and produced a full report to the president. The university is now in the process of figuring out how to implement the panel’s recommendations, and I am fortunate enough to serve on one of the implementation committees. I’m provoked to ask myself an important question: what is to be done with the various frames of failure that shape our understandings of contingent faculty labor?

At UAlbany, like most of its peers, the use of contingent labor has increased dramatically in recent years. Our investigation found that between 2009 and 2013, “the number of part-time and full-time contingent faculty grew . . . from 376 to 535, and the number of such faculty with ten or more years of experience doubled” (Committee Report 2015: 1). We found that, while some colleges had different floors, the minimum rate at the university for a full semester course was $2800. The adjunct faculty who had participated in a recent survey and talked to the panel in focus groups expressed anxiety and dissatisfaction about their status, working conditions, and compensation. Different frames of failure, both personal and institutional, captured the situation well. As a panel and going forward into the implementation phase, we hope to change these frames as we change our university for the better. For me, the key to this change lies in acknowledging the power of my colleague Katherine Briar-Lawson’s suggestion that we consider this a social justice issue as well as a labor issue. As I would put it, addressing contingent labor in the modern university environment and developing effective policies going forward will be more successful if we start from a standpoint of labor justice that incorporates and respects the human value that adjunct faculty add to our universities.

From professional failure to professional respect

Who are the people teaching courses on an adjunct basis? Here (as in most institutions), the question has multiple answers. Some are current or retired professionals who enjoy teaching a few classes but don’t depend upon the position as anything more than a modest supplement to their incomes. Others are graduate students gaining independent teaching experience, trying to make enough income to support themselves, and possibly needing health insurance. Still others may be recent graduates of our doctoral programs who are currently seeking tenure-track employment elsewhere. Many are adjuncting at multiple campuses in the region to try to cobble together something resembling a livable income. And some are the partners and spouses of people with long-term full-time positions on our campus; they mostly have insurance through their families, but many are hoping to develop meaningful independent full-time careers.

Regardless of the reasons for being in an adjunct position, adjunct faculty all too often are not understood to be full professional partners in the academic mission of the university. If they are graduate students, some tenure-stream faculty view them as apprentices rather than fully independent and autonomous teachers, even in circumstances in which they are not getting a lot of thoughtful mentoring. Local long-term adjuncts, if they have alternative careers, are presumed to have their primary professional investment elsewhere. And local long-term adjuncts who rely on a patchwork of classes as their primary career focus, at times despite years of engagement with the university, are often regarded and treated as one-shot players. They either fill curricular gaps as needed, or are tolerated as the price of retaining their more valuable spouses or partners. Some are appreciated for their long-term service to departments, but their status as different from and almost inevitably lesser than tenure-stream faculty implies a sense of professional failure.

If tenured status is the Holy Grail, the adjunct faculty member – even the one with a successful professional career outside of the academy – is a failed questor. When a tenure-stream appointment is the only real faculty career opportunity at a research university, individuals with strong backgrounds as adjunct instructors are often quickly eliminated for consideration for these positions for a variety of reasons. It’s exceptionally difficult to maintain a strong and active primary research focus without any financial or structural support for research, and increasingly even institutions that have traditionally focused on teaching are demanding some evidence of potential research productivity. Some adjuncts are tied to particular geographic areas because of their families, and this drastically limits the pool of available opportunities. And all too often, adjuncting for more than a few years underlines a candidate’s status as a person who’s been unable to secure a more stable form of employment, reinforcing a narrative of failure.

How can we change this narrative? I suggest a good starting point is recognition of individual circumstances coming from a place of respect for individual expertise. Acknowledging the different career paths that have led a person to a position as a contingent faculty member need not imply condescension but rather can open the door to recognition of what unique things adjunct faculty may be able to offer. The current graduate student may not have the breadth of expertise to match her advisor, but she likely has fresher knowledge in her own areas and may be more willing to innovate in the classroom. The recent graduate may have connections in the local community built through his years of residence there, and may be able to connect himself, his students, and his peers to other senior graduate students and recent graduates more readily. Adjuncts who have worked at other institutions may possess a great store of institutional knowledge with the potential for comparative leverage that they can share. Partners and spouses of non-contingent employees may be able to take their disciplinary training and put it to good use in the classroom, or, perhaps with some creative assistance from individuals with broader knowledge of the entire university’s structure, use this training to fill critical gaps in other places at the university. (UAlbany’s current Director of Assessment and Survey Research, for instance, holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and has ten years of university teaching experience – and happens to be my spouse.) But these individual considerations and solutions don’t go far enough.

From institutional failure to institutional transformation

Budgets are squeezed and administrative costs have risen as institutions are expected to shoulder meeting a broader array of demands from students, parents, accreditors, state and federal regulatory agencies, and the public. As the difficulty of meeting these demands has grown, institutions have often responded by shifting the responsibility for meeting their core educational needs to the shoulders of contingent faculty. Pleas to hire long-term tenure-stream faculty compete against myriad other needs, and the present need simply to cover the core class or elective is often addressed through a one-shot hire that over time transforms into a regular practice. The result has been a creeping and unintentional institutionalization of the shift to contingent labor. The remarkable thing is that no one really seems to be enthusiastic about the new institutional order we have produced: adjuncts feel undervalued and disrespected, tenure-stream faculty feel threatened and outmoded, students and their parents worry about educational quality, administrators fret about the stopgap nature of these practices and the potential negative reputational effect of increased reliance on contingent labor, and unions struggle to assimilate and address the needs of sharply divergent faculty groups. Even those managing budgets struggle to develop ways of addressing a working population that flows in and out of the institution. The overall narrative is one of institutional failure, whether this narrative is framed as a critique of the institution’s greed/need to fund administrative costs, the institution’s desire to undercut faculty governance, or its exploitative orientation toward contingent labor.

Shifting institutionally to a labor justice perspective could help here as well. This first requires recognizing the value of the work that contingent faculty do. One step is to identify and reconfigure the status of potential long-term contributors to the mission of the university. Several universities are experimenting with term contracts, some of which can lead to protected forms of employment, for individuals who are anticipated to fill long-term instructional needs. The most efficient of these systems trigger automatic review and the presumption of a shift to a longer-term contract for individuals who have served on a term-to-term basis for some set length of time. While short-term needs will still arise, often the hiring practices for contingent faculty are organized around the presumption of filling a short-term need and have not yet caught up with the reality that many contingent faculty are indeed long-term players in departments.

Another reform is to create accessible and relevant professional development opportunities and recognition for contingent faculty. Many universities allow broad access to their teaching and learning centers, but far fewer subsidize travel to professional conferences oriented toward teaching. Contingent faculty often cannot use the offices and staff devoted to grant application management and assistance, even if relevant grants are available that could enhance a contingent faculty member’s contributions to the institution. Investing even small measures of resources in faculty development can have significant payoffs for contingent faculty, just as these investments pay off for tenure-stream faculty. Creating honors and recognition for contingent faculty or opening up existing awards so that they are eligible is also a good step to take.

The most important institutional shift, however, is to view the contingent faculty member as someone who can enrich a department, a college, and a university. As noted above, some contingent faculty may be underutilized resources, and a labor justice perspective suggests finding more ways that their varied skills and experience can benefit their institutions, as long as they are compensated for the work that they do. While not all contingent faculty are long-term players with a stake in governance issues, some are, and can play critical and valuable roles in conversations about how to design higher education to move forward.

Shifting an institution requires individual work, and tenured faculty should take the lead in calling for this work, though contingent faculty must be involved in structuring solutions in order for the work to succeed. Unions can provide another critically important venue for thinking through how best to redesign institutions. I believe that professional organizations might also have a role to play. Change isn’t coming. It’s here. It’s up to us to try to transform failure into justice.

Julie Novkov is Professor of Political Science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and serves as Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is the author and co-editor of several books, articles, and book chapters addressing American law, political development, and subordinated identities. She is the president of the Western Political Science Association.

Other posts in this series:

Failure and Success in the Academy, By Susan Sterett, Jennifer Diascro, and Judith Grant

The Personal is Political, or At Least, Relevant, by H. N. Hirsch

2 thoughts on “Contingent Faculty and Labor Justice: Opportunity, and Incorporation

  1. Pingback: Unruly bodies: My life as an academic with disabilities | The New West

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