Contingent Faculty and Academic Freedom

As we witness the meteoric rise of contingent faculty in this country we need to ponder what the implications of this are on the quality of instruction and student outcomes. As a basic principle, if professors are not free, their students cannot be. Self-censorship, fear of job reprisals and the absence of job security are counterintuitive in seeking and expecting innovative and creative instruction.

Let us be clear and let us be direct. Contingent faculty are at-will employees as are support staff and custodial personnel. Their job security is basically non-existent in which they can be terminated for reasons other than cause: administratrive decisions to fund a position can be altered arbitrarily. Contingent faculty are not free to engage in courageous or robust critical thinking either in the classroom or outside of it. Contingent faculty must eat and support themselves and possibly others. Without job security, they must hedge and go along to get along.

They are indeed academia’s potential industrial reserve army. This term was used by Marx as capitalism was disintegrating to describe the majority of jobless, homeless, alienated labour that eventually acquires class consciousness and replaces the bourgeoisie during a proletarian rebellion. Many contingent faculties are moving toward unionization and organising to afford them some protection from the corporate university that mimicks business firms. There is a growing percentage of employees who are temps, without labour contracts and frequently benefits such as health care and pension plans. Contingent faculty are striking such as graduate assistants at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. At some institutions, yet all too few, they do have contracts and are organised in unions at such institutions as Illinois State University and Columbia College.

As the tenure/tenure-track pie continues to shrink, one sees academic freedom slowly becoming eviscerated as the power of administrators and tenured faculty to lord over contingency increases. Students need professors whose jobs are secure with a tenure system to buttress it. Only 30% or so of the professoriate in this country are tenure-line faculty. So tenure is becoming a rarity as the new majority is hired to provide “flexibility” for the corporate, all for profit, university.

Critical thinking cannot perdure if its thinkers and educators are timid and marginalised. Critical thinking and the pursuit of the truth are mere commencement and mission-statement propaganda when the institution’s “faculty” really includes only the tenure-stream component. It is immoral to expand contingency for financial purposes when the quality of education is inevitably and ineluctably damaged. Contingency must be contracted not expanded and used only in those circumstances when a full-time position would NEVER be suitable for a tenure-track person or when unexpected enrollment fluctuation requires short-term part-time adjuncts. The burden is on the administration and certain faculty to demonstrate that a full-time faculty appointment should be off the tenure track.

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