The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be an exceedingly difficult challenge for higher education, including Catholic higher education. With very little time to prepare, administrators had to make difficult decisions about which programs to continue, how to fund payroll, how to move to remote teaching quickly, which employees are deemed essential, which events to cancel, what support systems to put in place, and how to communicate effectively in the crisis. I do not underestimate the scope of this work or the enormous burden borne by administrators during this time. I know that most are doing the best they can with the cards they are dealt and they face tough choices.

I want to write about a tendency I have noticed. This is not only about my school. I’ve reached out to colleagues at other places and I am hearing similar stories. I write as a faculty member with tenure. I know the privilege that my job security entails. I write as someone in my fourth year of serving as department chair, “middle management” in the hierarchy of a Catholic university’s structure. I care about my university’s financial solvency and I care about my students. But this is only secondarily about them. It is mostly about faculty members on annual renewable contracts.

I do not find it helpful to talk about non-tenure track faculty as if they are shark teeth.

Do you know what I mean?

“Of course we are not cutting faculty. Well, maybe adjuncts.”

“We always cut adjuncts when we have low enrollments, but then we can rehire them when we have another big class. It will work out.”

“You have tenure. Why do you care?”

“Contingent faculty are essential to our mission. But if we don’t have classes for them to teach, then they are non-essential.”

There are lots of different species of sharks, and according to the National Aquarium blog, they vary by species. But what I have always found fascinating about shark teeth is that when a shark loses a tooth, a new one pops up to replace it, usually within 24 to 48 hours. Some sharks have eight or more rows of teeth just waiting to be called upon for duty. And a shark can lose as many as 30,000 teeth in its lifetime. How cool is that!?

Here’s the thing. Contingent faculty are not like shark teeth. While it is true that nationally, 75% of faculty are contingent, there is considerable variation from university to university and even amongst departments within a single university. (The % of faculty who are contingent in my department is far less than 75%). Here is what I have learned: Faculty do not magically appear ready to teach your classes when you have a faculty member who needs to take family leave, or gets a Fulbright teaching award half way around the world. There are not eight rows of faculty members ready to step in at a moment’s notice. We are trained in highly specialized subjects and in order to find the right person we need the right combination of educational training, pedagogical experience, and support for the mission of our unique institution. It takes years to cultivate relationships with teachers in our departments, both full-time and part-time teachers, who know our curriculum (can speak our strange language of LOs by number and letter code), know our students, plug their classes into our community partners, and get excited about our mission. When we invest in that mutual relationship, seeing how each member of our non-tenure track faculty contributes to our mission, it is not possible to envision “us” without “them.” They have become “essential” to who we are and what we do. We need them. Our loyalty to contingent faculty now, in these financially difficult times, is ethically necessary now because of the hard work they have accomplished for our institutions during easier years. And because they are human beings to whom we have an obligation. If we have evaluated them in our professional annual evaluation as meeting or exceeding standards of teaching excellence, we should find a way to keep them. Trim someone else’s salary. I can think of a few suggestions, but I won’t publish them here. I wouldn’t want to shame the elites who are benefitting from the labor of our contingent faculty.

I hope that as Catholic universities face the difficult choices ahead–and there will be many–those with more power in faculty rank decide to stand up and speak up with/for those without rank or benefits. Doing so can take a variety of forms: reaching out personally to ask how someone is coping, sharing lesson plans or field trip/speaker funds to create joint events with students, advocating for non-tenure track faculty contract renewals, organizing to support them behind the scenes, etc. Ultimately this approach is rooted in the principles of human dignity, labor justice, and solidarity. But also, in the basic distinction: contingent faculty are not shark teeth. They are human beings.