WE ARE NOT CONTINGENT: An Adjunct Manifesto

We are the non-tenure track faculty who now constitute two-thirds of the instructional workforce at universities and colleges across the nation. We are frequently invisible to administrators, yet we are the first professors and instructors that undergraduate students meet on their journey to becoming engaged learners. We are the majority. We have been silent too long, and it is time for us to reclaim our voices and outline our demands.  

WE ARE ESSENTIAL. Words carry within them powerful connotations. Contingency implies that we, as non-tenure track faculty, are incidental or even accidental to the educational mission of the colleges and universities where we work. No employees, regardless of their field, would willingly apply this stigma to themselves. To continue calling ourselves “contingent labor” is to accept the fate that has been chosen for us by administrators who view us as easily disposable freelancers or potential tenure track faculty in a period of transition.  

Recently, Robert Perkins and Carla Weiss’s “Part-Time Faculty in Higher Education: A Selected Annotated Bibliography” repeated several truisms that many of us off the tenure track have already known. Among them was that “Most law holds that part-time faculty have no claim to their jobs and may be replaced at will.” But the time has come for a shift, and changing the way we describe ourselves is only the beginning.  

If we continue to think of ourselves as contingent labor, we also tacitly accept these beliefs about who we are and what we do:

  • That we have no meaningful connection to the mission of our respective institutions

  • That we are not worthy of career advancement

  • That we are forever ineligible for a stable salary and benefits

  • That we do not deserve representation within our departments or schools

  • That we have not earned the right to job security

  • That we are not worthy of respect.  

WE WILL NO LONGER SILENTLY ACCEPT THESE BELIEFS. Although we once were the temporary or freelance employees that the name “contingent labor” implies, today non-tenure track faculty form the backbone of undergraduate education. We are still hired by the course, semester, or academic year, yet we now represent the foundation of most college and university instruction. We are also the face of higher education to our students, who are typically freshman and sophomores, as we are generally assigned to core curriculum courses. Most undergraduates, in fact, do not have the opportunity to take courses with tenured or tenure track faculty until their junior or senior years, a piece of information conveniently left out of most college orientation sessions.

OUR STUDENTS DESERVE BETTER CONDITIONS. IF WE, THE BACKBONE OF THE SYSTEM, FAIL TO PROVIDE THEM, WHO WILL? Our unions have increasingly become stuck in the struggle to secure health care and retirement benefits for adjunct faculty as well as to create a class assignment strategy based primarily on seniority. They have been hacking at the leaves of the weed without uprooting the deep structures that nourish the problem. This myopic focus on self-centered details at the expense of the larger problem is a symptom of the fact that we are a majority that has — as yet — failed to comprehend its true strength. We need to not only recognize that strength, but also to utilize it on behalf of our students, who are paying more than any other generation before them for an education while receiving less in return.

In just ten years, for example, tuition at Columbia College Chicago has risen more than 80%. As reported in the November 7 issue of the college newspaper, the Columbia Chronicle, today it costs an average Columbia College undergraduate approximately $20,000 in tuition and fees to attend the school, while in 2001 that same cost was $11,000. This does not include the cost of room and board, which causes the amount to skyrocket to nearly $50,000 per year. This inflationary trend is also pervasive in Illinois; as reported in Laura Perna and Joni Finney’s “A Story of Decline: Performance and Policy in Illinois Higher Education,” released this November, tuition increased 100% at public four-year universities from 1999 to 2009.

What have students obtained with that inflation? Not much, it seems. Classrooms are more crowded than ever, and facilities are in constant need of repair. Also, students are primarily taught by us — adjunct faculty who are marginalized within our departments to such an extent that many choose to teach our courses and leave campus as soon as possible. We realize that this is bad for both ourselves and our students since it prevents the necessary interaction outside of the classroom needed to insure student success, yet we are constantly told that we have no incentive for loyalty to our institutions. It is time for our administrators to enforce the truism that we are a vital part of our schools’ missions.

WE STAND IN SOLIDARITY WITH OUR STUDENTS AGAINST THE CORPORATIZATION OF HIGHER EDUCATION. Until now we have labored in solitude — either to improve our own individual work conditions, or, in the hopes of advancement, to promote the administrators’ ideals rather than stand in solidarity with our students. We have witnessed, and, through our complacency, abetted the transformation of higher education into a corporation. We failed to see the depth and breadth of this transformation — believing still in the old narrative that hard work, a college degree, and perseverance would serve our students and ourselves in the end. We have worn the humanitarian mask that hides the universities’ bad faith towards its students and their parents, but we will adopt this facade no longer. We care for our students and refuse to allow administrators to treat undergraduates simply as revenue generators.  

WE WILL NO LONGER LABOR FOR THE ADMINISTRATORS. WE WILL LABOR INSTEAD FOR THE GOOD OF OUR STUDENTS. We stand in solidarity with students who are crushed by the weight of student debt and are terrified at the prospect of not finding career employment that will provide a living wage. We stand in solidarity with all those who have the courage to agitate, speak out, and mobilize on behalf of higher education. We share a common cause — the belief that an educated citizenry and a robust middle class are necessary for the survival of our nation. We stand in solidarity with all who want a better future for themselves, their students, and their society. Moreover, we challenge administrators to join us in this cause by changing their current course of behavior.

WE, AS NON-TENURED FACULTY, CALL FOR REFORM FROM WITHIN THE CURRENT SYSTEM. WE DEMAND THAT OUR ADMINISTRATORS ADOPT THESE CHANGES: 

 
  • All hiring and firing of adjunct faculty will be handled by a non-partisan committee composed of tenured and non-tenured faculty in the same discipline, a union representative (if applicable), and a human resources staff member.

 
  • All adjunct faculty will be hired on a contract that is a minimum of one year and a maximum of five. No longer will adjuncts be hired by the semester or the class.

  • Tenure will be opened to all faculty. The current system treats adjunct status as a stigma and blocks advancement from within. Even in corporations, this does not align with common practice.

  • Evaluation of all faculty for tenure and promotion will be based on three components: a dossier of research and/or educational materials, teaching evaluations, and a classroom visit report from a senior member of the faculty in their discipline.

  • Governing bodies of an institution, such as departmental committees and faculty senates, will be comprised of representatives in a ratio that mirrors that of the faculty.  For instance, if adjuncts represent 77% of the total faculty at a college of university, they must account for 77% of the departmental committee appointments and faculty senate membership.

  • Courses will be assigned based on expertise. Many of us hold degrees and experience that allow us to teach courses at the intermediate and advanced level, yet because we are deemed “contingent,” we are only assigned introductory-level classes. Not only is our current system of course assignment arbitrary and unfair, but it shortchanges our institutions. By adopting this practice, our institutions will be supporting greater diversity and innovation of instruction.

  • Salaries will be based on experience in a field of study, evidence of quality teaching practices, adoption of innovation in instruction, job performance, and length of service.

WE HAVE LABORED TOO LONG WITH THE IMPRESSION THAT WE ARE CONTINGENT. WE HAVE FAILED TO ACT WHILE HIGHER EDUCATION AS A WHOLE HAS AVOIDED ADDRESSING THE PROBLEMS OF ITS CURRENT SYSTEM. WE WILL REMAIN COMPLACENT NO LONGER. In the Port Huron Statement of 1962, Students for a Democratic Society President Tom Hayden articulated our concerns brilliantly, albeit in a way that underscores our current failure to act: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” As educators, we have witnessed the disaster that has unfolded in higher education. We refuse to wait silently for the unimaginable: the day that a college education is only available to our society’s elite. The time has come to address the growing gap between the skyrocketing cost of education and its decreasing quality. We ask all who are concerned, including administrators, to join us as we take action to insure that future generations will have access to education and, with it, the chance of a better life.  

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