“What if I were to tell you that I don’t know if I’ll have a job from one semester to the next? …Or that a lot of us don’t get health insurance?”
These questions begin the dialogue of the homepage of , an organization of non-tenure track faculty at Duke University who voted two weeks ago, in an overwhelming majority, to unionize in order to achieve better working conditions for contingent faculty.
“Universities are turning to temporary workers. They’re cheap, expendable, and can’t really complain because who would listen?” the video continues.
The case at Duke is not unique. According to statistics from the SEIU, part-time, fixed term, “contingent” make up 41 percent of the Duke faculty. Though numbers are hard to come by at the national level, but the estimates that over 50 percent of faculty are part-time, though that term itself is misleading. Many part-time faculty actually teach more classes than tenured full-time faculty. They cobble together jobs at various universities, woefully underpaid and with little to no benefits.
“But is this the best we can do?” asks a Duke contingent faculty member.
As Duke Teaching First moves to unionize, it is clear that this is not the best model for all involved.
Published in The Journal of Higher Education, the study surveyed over 4,000 part-time faculty members at over 300 colleges and universities nationwide. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed characterize themselves as underemployed or involuntarily employed-part time, with the rest comprised mainly of individuals who teach one class in their field of outside expertise (think retired accountant who teaches one class at the business school). As for the underemployed majority? They are unhappy for myriad reasons, according to the survey.
What would make part-time faculty happy, according to the survey? A private office. Of those surveyed, only eighteen percent had their own office space, while less than half had a shared office. Also making adjuncts happy? Computers provided by the university.
Finally, here’s what part-time faculty really want, according to Audrey Jaeger, one of the authors of the study: respect. They desire respect from their students, and from the institutions for which they work. “We can say with confidence that part of the reason involuntary part-time faculty initially appeared to be significantly less satisfied with their working environments can be attributed to their likelihood to feel less respected by full-time faculty and a reduced sense of having good working relationships with the administration.”
These markers, both “tangible and intangible,” constitute the “low hanging fruit” Jaeger and her colleagues suggest is a fairly easy fix to the misery of the part-time majority.
Thus, while the article takes into account the many reasons why part-time faculty may be unsatisfied—the lack of respect, the need for stable, full-time employment, the transient life of office sharing, the lack of resources—it fails to address the elephant in the room. The new adjunct labor model is exploitative.
And while the study is at least a step in the right direction, it puzzles over the simplest of things. For example, it repeatedly cites a “persistent satisfaction gap between White and non-White faculty, with non-White faculty reporting lower levels of workplace satisfaction than their White colleagues,” but merely suggests that “further exploration” is needed. Given that, back in 2003, foretold of the “creation of a permanent underclass of professional workers in higher education” where women of color would be the hardest hit, and that, as Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, the has been a source of contention since the 1960s.
Not only do the authors of the study seem to be suggesting to “fix” the “adjunct problem” with some offices, a head-fake toward respect, and a new computer, but they seem genuinely surprised that the historically exploited classes in academia (and everywhere else) are the most unhappy about continuing to be exploited.
And this easy fix is necessary, according to Jaeger, because “the trend of hiring part-time faculty isn’t going to reverse anytime soon.”
Perhaps this is what bothers me the most about this study. If the academy is an old decrepit house with a weak foundation and in which every single window is broken, this study proposes to fix it by hanging some curtains, giving it a new coat of paint and labeling it “historic.”
In a , Kathleen Fitzpatrick considers the possibility of what it might mean to knock the house down and build a new one. They way to do it? Rethink tenure. The current structure, she argues, was designed to “ensure a future for scholarship, but it at present only ensures one kind of scholarly future.”
Now, Fitzpatrick does not go as far as to argue for the elimination of tenure, but she certainly advocates for a severing of the associative link between a productive academic life and a tenured position.
And this was, perhaps, something that the survey did not think to ask, or did not think to articulate. If academic labor was paid equally both on and off the tenure-track, if there was a possibility for productive scholarship as a contingent faculty member, would they be satisfied?
Fitzpatrick’s portrayal of a life “off the tenure track,” where we “develop a range of more flexible forms of academic jobs and job security, as well as new means of valuing the academic and intellectual work that takes place both within and without the strictures of tenure, “is somewhat fantastical, given the current climate. Most of the dissatisfaction in the survey by Jaeger and colleagues stemmed from underemployment or involuntary part-time employment. But it is a step in the right direction.
Another step in the right direction? Contingent faculty banding together to suggest that there is and must be a better way for universities to treat all faculty. Respect, recognition, and job security doesn’t seem like too much to ask.