This is a guest post by Matthew J. Gaudet, one of the editors of the special issue of the Journal of Moral Theology on Contingent Faculty.
Today over 70% of college faculty in America work off of the tenure-track on some kind of fixed contract: for a term, a year, or rarely, multiple years. Even the longest of these is typically revocable at the discretion of the university and wholly dependent of the needs of the university. At some schools it is even common practice for contracts to be revoked after the term has begun, as course enrollments are ironed out, and the final needs of the school are accounted for. Moreover, contingent professors are often bumped out of their classes not only if their courses don’t fill, but also if a tenure-line faculty member needs a course. That means that when a tenure-line sabbatical is cancelled at the last minute or a tenure-line faculty member is unable to draw enough students to fill their own courses, or if the department decides it needs course A more than it needs course B, it is usually a contingent faculty member that bears the consequences of such decisions. In short, to be a contingent professor is to risk losing one’s livelihood any given term.
Even when work is consistent, it is not sustainable. While 7 of every 10 faculty members works off of the tenure track, 5 of those 7—a full half of all college faculty—are employed on “part-time” contracts. To be clear, this is not saying half of all faculty work part-time. Many who occupy part-time positions actually work far more than “full-time” by combining part-time work at multiple schools to make ends meet. A 2014 congressional report suggests that 89 percent of adjuncts work at more than one institution; 13 percent work at four or more. (The literature has even coined a term for this reality: the “freeway flyer.”) Still, even if one is able to cobble together a full schedule, pay and benefits for part-time faculty is abysmal. According to the American Community Survey, 31 percent of part-time faculty are living near or below the federal poverty line. And, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, one in four families of part-time faculty are enrolled in at least one public assistance program like food stamps or Medicaid or qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Few part-time contingent faculty have funded health care, retirement, or other benefits.
Finally, most contingent professor lack their own offices or even desks, working instead out of their cars and meeting with students in libraries or coffee shops (yes, most faculty are still required to hold “office hours” even without an office), and giving out their personal cellular number in lieu of an office phone. Contingent faculty are not invited to meetings that concern their interests, and often, they have no voice in school governance. Most part-time faculty are responsible for their own computer hardware, which may or may not be compatible with the university network, printers, or projectors.
Of course, the business model of most contemporary universities, colleges, and seminaries today is deeply reliant on contingent faculty labor. Not only do short and revocable contracts allow universities to provide students with “just in time” scheduling with little risk to the institution, but the low pay and lack of benefits that typically go with contingent contracts also enable many schools to remain fiscally solvent. But this doesn’t make the individual professor any less vulnerable.
None of this is news to anyone who has bothered to look. The subject of contingency has been a staple of academic periodicals such as the Chronicle of Higher Education,Vitae, and Insidehighered.comfor decades. Over the last decade, the topic has been taken up by mainstream news outlets as wide spanning as the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, CNN,Forbes,The Atlantic,Huffington Post, . Even Gawker.comrecently did an 8-part series on the struggles of contingent faculty. When it comes to scholarly journals, however, very little has been written about the contingency crisis in contemporary colleges, and even less has been written specifically from the perspective of Catholic Moral Theology.
The most recent special issue of the Journal of Moral Theology, edited by James Keenan, S.J. and myself, aims to change that. The eight essays collected in this volume attend to the reality of contingency today in light of pertinent Catholic teachings on education, social structures, and economic justice. Keenan opens the volume with an essay that situates the issue of contingency within the broader field of university ethics. Kerry Danner then explores recent but significant shifts in the economic structures of academic life and the relationship of these shifting structures to Catholic social thought, the mission of Catholic higher education, and the vocation of the professor at Catholic schools. Debra Erickson follows with an examination of the role of faculty unions at Catholic colleges. Using recent trends and specific cases, Erickson plots the range of recent responses to unionization by the administrators of several Catholic colleges and challenges those Catholic schools who have sought to thwart unionization as not only not in keeping with Catholic Social Teaching on worker justice but also in violation of the Catholic notion of the university.
Next, Lincoln Rice makes a strong case that tenure protections are as necessary for quality teaching as they are for quality research, even if the contemporary university continues to hire faculty into non-research teaching roles. Karen Peterson-Iyer then addresses the ‘gradual but distinct feminization of contingent labor in institutions of higher education.’ Claire Bischoff compellingly argues that contingent work is not just a moral but a spiritualcrisis for both individual contingent faculty and the institutions they serve. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty offers a view from the seat of (marginal) power, as she wrestles with the limits and responsibilities of tenured faculty and, in particular, department chairs in the contemporary university structure. Finally, in the coda essay of the volume, I call upon the entire institution of Catholic higher education to a recommitment to solidarity and the common good as we collectively work towards a better and more inclusive university community.
As a whole, this volume is intended to fill lacunae in the fields of Christian ethics and higher education studies. Our hope is that this volume both en-genders further conversation on the ethics of contingency and be-comes the scholarly foundation of many future conversations.