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Understanding the Contingent Academic Workforce

Faculty BuildingYesterday saw the release of “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” a new multiyear study from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. Since contingent faculty make up the majority of the professoriate today, you’d like to think there was some good news in the study.

In reality, however, the news is bleak:

  • Median pay per course in 2010 was $2,700. ($2,235 at two-year schools; $3400 at four-year doctoral or research schools).
  • Pay doesn’t correspond with credentials–wage premiums for better credentials within the contingent workforce are small; likewise, there’s not much of a career ladder. And, of course, contingent faculty pay lags behind similarly-educated professionals in other fields.
  • Part-time faculty have access to limited professional development, and are generally excluded from governance.
  • Most part-time faculty teach in such positions for extended periods of time, and most would prefer a full-time appointment, if one were available.

As Robert Townsend noted on the AHA Today blog:

These data are striking, but there’s even more emotional impact contained in the Wordle text cloud used as visual at the front of the report (and in this post). It depicts the responses to an open question about the biggest challenges they face as contingent faculty. Not surprisingly, “job,” “security,” and “time” all stand out. But the most important word here is “lack”—as it’s the absence of so many of these things that looms large. The dominance of the word “faculty” points to one of the largest recurring concerns from respondents, the perceived lack of collegiality and respect from many of their colleagues.

Contingency is not just a problem in higher education, of course. At Web Worker Daily, Jessica Stillman explains “How to Make Contingent Workers Feel Like Family”, in terms that will be uncomfortably familiar to many faculty members:

Treat them like employees. When a contingent worker needs training to complete a new type of responsibility or keep current in her field, facilitate it. Give regular performance evaluations and gather survey feedback just as you would for any full-time employee. If you’re happy with his work, reward him by providing access to other people and opportunities within the organization. Don’t make your contract workers feel like a vendor who should be lucky to be working with your company and can replaced at any minute.

Many contingent faculty are never evaluated for their teaching, setting the stage for highly capricious decisions about who should or should not get teaching assignments. And at many schools, professional development beyond self-organized brown bag lunches is a bit of a dream.

One of the most alarming aspects of the consultant-and-corporate-raider-inspired strategic dynamism on display at UVA and elsewhere is how much it depends on continuing to deprofessionalize higher education, and specifically on driving down faculty costs. The consulting firm McKinsey and Company has a study, Winning By Degrees, popular with management and legislative types, boasting that “our research shows that it is feasible by boosting graduation rates and improving cost efficiency.” But when you look at the statistics they present, and the colleges they take as exemplary, it becomes clear that their focus is more single-minded: If you drive down salaries enough, nothing else matters. (You’ll note that the retention rates and time-to-degree stats they present are often worse than usual, but the schools pay so cheaply that this waste doesn’t matter.) A strategically dynamic university aspires to have a fully contingent faculty workforce.

It’s important to have a clear-eyed understanding of the state of contingency today, and the CAW’s detailed report is useful in exactly this way. (Maybe keep The Adjunct Project up in another window.)

As the saying goes, don’t mourn, organize: groups such as The New Faculty Majority, The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, and the AAUP are all doing important work on this front. Why not join?

Photo “Faculty Bldg” by Flickr user Property#1 / Creative Commons licensed BY-NC-ND-2.0

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