Contingent faculty issues come to light nationally and locally

This story was originally published in the Feb. 23 print issue.

Provost David Wu called for the formation of an adjunct faculty task force at the Adjunct Faculty Dialogue. The announcement precedes Adjunct Dignity Day on Feb. 25, an event meant to encourage discussion of issues facing contingent faculty members.

The Adjunct Faculty Dialogue, hosted by Wu, provided a space for adjunct faculty to discuss issues they were facing. According to Wu, the faculty population at Mason reflects regional talent, including adjuncts.

The discussion included input from adjunct audience members about how to better involve them at Mason. The conversation about adjuncts at Mason coincides with national movements advocating for contingent faculty rights.

According to a study “Indispensable but Invisible,” conducted by PhD and contingent faculty members Marisa Allison, Randy Lynn and Vicki Hoverman, as many as 3 in 4 university professors are contingent faculty members. Despite the large population of contingent faculty, many work with no benefits, no resources from the university and poor compensation.

“It means that colleges and universities have been saying, and Mason is the case in this sense, that they do value the education that their students are getting. So when you have an entire group of folks who are the majority of faculty on a campus who are making below a living wage, then that’s something that needs to be reexamined because this is an institution where when you get an education, it’s supposed to raise your quality of living, but it turns out that it’s not,” Allison said.

The adjunct faculty task force and Adjunct Dignity Day are parts of a larger, national movement in higher education. “Indispensable but Invisible” studied and presented the conditions contingent faculty must work with at Mason, but the authors noted that these problems are not unique to Mason.

“We weren’t necessarily setting out to start the movement but it’s very obvious it’s just happening everywhere, so it wasn’t surprising to me to find out that people were already organizing on campus,” Allison said.

The Mason Coalition of Academic Labor consists of both faculty and students who advocate for contingent faculty at Mason. MCAL sought help from Service Employees International Union Local 500, an education and public service union, to voice their demands.

“The majority of adjuncts in the D.C. Metro area are now unionized, so the tipping point has happened, and we’re kind of on the other side of it. So it made sense to go with SEIU 500,” Allison said.

According to Allison, a lack of resources and time to prepare courses can negatively affect a contingent faculty member’s ability to teach and connect with their students.

According to a contingent faculty member and member of MCAL, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, some departments provide no support or guidance before allowing them to teach students.

“I was sort of given a course, and I was only given maybe a month and a half [to plan] for it. And this was the first time I had ever taught, so there was no sort of support [from the department] for that, only sort of initial feedback like ‘Oh, show us your syllabus, and we’ll give you some critiques on it, or if we think you’re missing something we’ll tell you to add it,’ and [the department] did that,” the faculty member said. “But other than that, there was no like ‘Here’s how you run the classroom, here’s what to expect of the students, here’s what the students are like at Mason,’”

Working conditions for contingent faculty members usually differ by department or college that employs them. Some departments try to provide resources and foster inclusion for their contingent employees, while others do not.

“I think there is some support but it’s very like – it’s not core, it’s not institutionalized within the department. It’s like, you have a few allies and they’ll help you out if they can,” the faculty member said.

There are various kinds of contingent faculty members. Some working professionals teach part time to help the university and pass on their knowledge to students, but other contingent faculty members work several part time jobs just to make ends meet.

“I think there is a misconception and this kind of runs across the United States, but especially here in the D.C. area, is that that most adjuncts have full time jobs, they work in the city and they come out and share their expertise with students. And that’s just not correct,” Allison said.

A petition created by MCAL and SEIU Local 500 asks Provost David Wu and Mason administrators to meet four demands to improve contingent faculty working conditions by the next academic year. MCAL demands adequate time to prepare for courses, access to a private space for student meetings, a fee for course preparation plus reimbursement for money spent on course resources and a 20% cancellation fee for last minute course cancellations.

“The relationship between the institution SEIU Local 500 and the George Mason MCAL group right now is one [where] we’re supporting them, they lead on what they want to do, we give advice. They’re doing a petition on getting some paid preparation time and other things and you know, we will help them in any way to achieve whatever goals they have in terms of improving their working conditions,” Anne McLeer, SEIU 500 director of higher education and research, said.

According to McLeer, advocacy for contingent faculty is growing nationally, as is the number of contingent faculty employed by higher education institutions. In the 1970s, 75% of teaching positions in institutions of higher education were tenure track positions and 25% were contingent. Today, the opposite is true, McLeer said.

“They’re paid by the course, a lot less than the equivalent full time person; [they] are just as qualified and experienced as full time people, and they’re held to the same standards and expectations, but they’re paid a lot less. They’re usually excluded from benefits,” McLeer said.

While official issues related to compensation, job security and benefits exist, contingent faculty can also face an alienating and isolating work atmosphere.

“[Contingent faculty are] often sort of excluded from the day to day decision making, from departments, from the academic community; they can be a marginalized group. Many scholars have written there can be an academic caste system. I see the academic labor market, the teaching profession of higher education, as highly stratified with tenured people at the top in shrinking numbers and then layers upon layers of different types of contingent positions,” McLeer said.

One of the four demands in the petition requests a private space to meet with students. According to co-author of “Indispensable but Invisible” and MCAL member Vicki Hoverman, a private space for contingent faculty could go a long way in creating a sense of community.

“I guess it does feel kind of lonely, like I said you don’t have any sort of real department support. And there’s no university space where I guess, faculty that are contingent can, like, congregate to either have office hours or to sit there and grade or to use a university resource like a computer to help them keep everything in order. I guess it’s sort of like you’re here, but you’re not really part of it,” the faculty member said.

Institutions of higher education have shifted toward hiring more contingent faculty because they cost universities less, according to McLeer. However, the initiative to save money stems from a larger, national trend in higher education.

“A lot of scholars will point to the fact that starting in the 70’s and 80’s the dominant philosophy in running institutions of higher education moved to a more corporatized model. And a corporate model has financial as the bottom line. So the colleges save a lot of money by hiring more and more part time faculty, and a lot of that money is funneled into and away from instruction. So there’s more administrative professionals today in proportion to faculty than there ever were before,” McLeer said.

Because contingent faculty lack job security, their academic freedom and freedom of expression can be compromised. According to Junior MCAL member Mohammad Abou-Ghazala, colleges are traditionally viewed as democratic spaces but lack of job security challenges this for some faculty members.

“We believe that students and faculty should have a say in what goes on, it’s really top down, the administrative hierarchy is because it’s a whole other issue. So basically, so what happens is anytime there’s a crisis, any time there’s administrative pressure, the ones who it gets taken out on are people who are not protected,” Abou-Ghazala said.

Photo Credit: Cecil Claire

Correction: The study noted is titled “Indispensable but Invisible,” not “Invisible but Indispensable.” This post reflects the changes made.