Contingent Faculty: Terms and Concepts to Enhance Dialogue on Crisis

The crisis is clear. Tenure and academic freedom are dying by a thousand cuts with the onslaught of non-tenure, non-tenure track contingent faculty. There is unfortunately in academia a tendency to overload simple concepts with a plethora of terms and phrases probably meant to exclude the general public from comprehension. The inclination to create a patois exclusivity to denote learning and impress colleagues with one’s intellectuality even infects activist faculty in their search for social justice for the roughly 1,000,000 contingent teachers in higher education in the United States of America.

Contingent Faculty: This refers to college or university level teachers that are off the tenure track and are tenure ineligible. What that means is they are unable to secure a position leading to tenure. They may be full-time or less than full-time but are basically at-will employees.

At-will Employees This means that a teacher can be fired without cause. His or her position is generally no more secure than an office manager, a secretary, a custodian, a staff person or a director without tenure. They have absolutely no job security and this was the dominant kind of employment in academia before tenure was established beginning in 1915 with the formation of the American Association of University Professors. Contingent faculty have no academic freedom and are marginalised with a total absence of job security due to their being excluded from tenure-track positions. We are back to the future in which 70% of the professoriate (may be spelled professorate as well which refers to the higher-education teaching profession) are contingent. Only about 30% or so of the professorate are tenured or tenure-track.

Tenure-Track Positions: This refers to a teaching position that leads to a tenure decision generally in one’s sixth year of service and beginning, if successful, with one’s eighth year of service. Tenure is an obligation on the part of the university to issue annual contracts until retirement. Tenured faculty have academic freedom, although few exercise it with daring, courageous pedagogy or research, and can be dismissed only for cause. It is not a guarantee of life-time career employment but it usually results in that since the probationary period has ended and the burden for termination rests solely with the administration.

Probationary Faculty: This simply means one is on probation. One is evaluated in a summative manner (leading to decisions on fitness) throughout this period. The term is somewhat harsh but bascially is confined to the period from an initial hire to the decision to grant or not grant tenure. It is usually six years in duration although it may be shorter and longer but the accepted norm is six years. A tenure decision is made during that year. If granted the seventh year is no longer probationary as one, if successful, is subject to dismissal only for cause before the actual tenure kicks in the eighth year. There has to be a year’s notice if tenure is denied so that is why the decision is made in the sixth year.

Adjunct Faculty: This term which I think is demeaning but we are stuck with it is the most common form of contingency and job description in higher education. It usually refers to part-time labour in the academy (the term refers to higher education not to a military or other specific institution). They are usually paid per course and the most exploited in higher education. Generally, they have no offices, no office hours, no online university access, no campus mailbox, no rights that other faculty have and are frequently without health care, pension and other benefits. About 50% of teachers in higher education are in this group–NOTE almost half based on recent Department of Education data at 48%. It is certainly not less now.

Academic Freedom: This basically refers to the rights of the professoriate to teach, publish and engage in extramural utterances without fear of retribution or sanctions. Extramural utterances are frequently used to describe some type of public advocacy: an op-ed, a letter to an editor, a speech, an interview, civil disobedience, a blog posting, a website that engages in advocacy. Academic freedom was formalized in the A.A.U.P. 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure that has been endorsed by 100s of academic and other learned societies. Contingent labour don’t have this. They can’t since their jobs are at-will and there is no prospect of job security. While some probably do express themselves with candor, the degree of self-censorship is rampant out of fear that if they get bad course evaluations or upset a department chair or dean, then they will be fired. This is utterly at variance with the notion of quality education in this country in which students cannot be free if their professors are not.

Conversion from Contingency to Tenure: This refers to the beneficial and essential process in which a contingent position is converted to tenure-track. It could be a full-time contingent position or less than that.  It does elevate the position and require greater scrutiny for excellence and achievement which is what we want from those who walk into a classroom. It also removes the at-will nature of a slot and places it on the tenure-stream which could lead to tenure and the embellishment of academic freedom. Education is enhanced when the professorate is able to pursue the truth, engage in critical thinking, challenge student views, exercise rigour in the classroom, without fear of negative evaluation and termination leading to unemployment and catastrophic economic crisis.

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