Editor’s Note: This guest post by Kerry Danner is a response to previous essays (linked below) on her essay. Thanks to all for participation in this roundtable.

It is always deeply humbling to receive such careful consideration of one’s work. I extend my gratitude to each of my respondents. When I wrote Saying No to an Economy that Kills: Undermining Mission and Exploiting Vocation in Catholic Higher Education, I never imagined that within two years Catholic higher education, and really all higher education, would be facing such formidable tasks of addressing COVID-19 and its concurrent death, sickness, and unemployment as well as the long-awaited wider recognition that Black Lives Matter. In fact, I am sure otherwise well-meaning folk are, right now, dismissing the relevance of concern for or focus on contingent faculty at this particular moment. Yet, the last few months have laid bare the inequalities not just in our colleges, but in our country, and perhaps, even in our hearts. Here I respond to the generous and thoughtful responses of Conor Kelly, Lorraine Cuddeback-Gedeon and Maria Morrow and situate how and why the current context continues to cry out for thoughtful dialogue on the responsibilities of Catholic employers.

Initial Responses to Authors

Conor Kelly’s July 8 response, “Specifying Harms to the Common Good,” offered a helpful suggestion for expanding my analysis. Summarizing my main point, he writes, “contingent faculty arrangements undermine the common good because they reflect the university’s failure to live up to its responsibilities to ensure the members of its community have the resources necessary to contribute to the life of this community as “active and productive members.” He then, in turn, reminded readers of John Paul II’s definition of the common good as “the good of all and of each individual” (SRS, no. 38).” He continues that “this definition informs Danner’s analysis. Yet in the article, much of the emphasis seems to fall on the “and of each individual” part of the definition.” It is a fair critique: universities also harm themselves and local communities by their practices around contingent faculty. Such harms, as Kelly notes, are to mission, collegial strategy sharing and to other faculty and staff. Additionally, it often harms students from minor frustrations of finding a contingent faculty member at the coffee shop, not an office, to missed opportunities for additional mentoring. To the extent institutions deprive workers of the material good needed to thrive and participate in the common good, they also harm the towns and neighborhoods in which the workers live.  The current university structure often renders invisible the complex world of labor that supports students and tenured faculty. In doing so, it often renders people of color and staff as well as neighboring communities as backdrop—even perhaps as supplemental, as adjunct. Insofar as Catholic educational institutions in particular, and all colleges and universities more broadly, contribute to this narrow, selected thinking they harm the common good, distorting our institutions and all those who comprise them and live near them. Such tensions should raise issues of vocation and mission, issues that Cuddeback-Gedeon shone light on.

I deeply resonated with Lorraine Cuddeback-Gedeon’s response, “The Weight of Vocation,” and her concerns with the notion and use of the term vocation. She identifies the cultural tendency to underpay and exploit professions so often called vocations (“social working, teaching, healthcare”) while also noting that the concept of vocation can be invoked to keep institutions accountable. She also points to the formal understanding of vocation as one’s call to “priestly, religious or married life.” Whether single or married, laity are the ones who most often have to negotiate paid work under the pressures of meeting the requirements for food, shelter and health care for themselves or those they care for.

Even when we understand vocation as most fundamentally about a call to holiness as found in Lumen gentium, it leaves the laity shouldering a heavy burden when it comes to work, whether paid or unpaid, and quality of life issues. Such a grounding may however help institutions take seriously how its entire compensation and employment structure may hinder or help this most fundamental call to holiness. Cuddeback-Gedeon’s insights add to Kelly’s point about the common good, encouraging us to consider responsibilities which would include a commitment to the material and social conditions of all employees, full, part-time and contract that might allow them to pursue and foster their call to holiness in its many forms. Such issues are even more relevant in the time of COVID, issues noted by both Cuddeback-Gedeon and Morrow.

Maria Morrow, in addition to bringing light to bear on the role of doctoral programs in contingent faculty concerns, asks the question that trembles in the hearts of contingent faculty: “Can we say no?” Usually, the answer is, “no.” We cannot say “no” to accepting the work. Like Morrow, I earn money that my family depends on. Many hopeful and sometimes overly helpful colleagues encourage us to just leave, just find another job, and say no. Yet, after many years of PhD study and teaching in an often wildly misunderstood field, it is not easy to find a somewhat satisfying position that brings in necessary funds. Further, such advice often overlooks how care for the common good is impacted if one is leaving one broken system for another. It should not be the primary responsibility of the stressed worker to say no to an economy that kills. “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the [worker] accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford no better, [they are] made the victim of force and injustice” (Centesimus Annus, no. 8, emphasis mine). This is the reality of many contingent faculty and lowest-paid employees on campus. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict reminds society of the need to prioritize stable employment (no 32).This is the long festering wound on all Catholic institutions: its often poor record on paying a just wage and providing just benefits and discouraging collective action even though its own tradition teaches otherwise. As Cuddeback-Gedeon and Morrow point out, the vulnerability of contingent faculty—and staff and contractors too—are further laid bare with the advent of COVID-19.

Contingency in the Present Time

We are now facing twin pandemics that call Catholic institutions to accountability in new ways: responding to both COVID-19 and racism. Two recent articles, one in The Atlantic and one in U.S. News & World Report, shed light on the vulnerability of staff and contingent faculty respectively with regards to COVID-19. Jeffrey Selingo of the The Atlantic, referencing data compiled from the College Crisis Initiative, writes “Some 250 schools have instituted furloughs, but two-thirds have taken that action only for staff” and only one-third of the 900 colleges that allowed faculty to telework also allowed staff to do so.

The U.S. News & World Report confirms what we have known for years: pressures to meet expenses keep contingent faculty in situations where there are few good options. Few adjunct faculty have healthcare through their employers and if they don’t they likely rely on their teaching income to pay for it themselves. Contingent faculty and low-paid staff members are also more likely to be working multiple jobs and taking public transportation, increasing the risk to their own health, their family and larger community.  In short, the lowest-paid workers and those on contract are the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, it remains more likely that these same people are women and brown and black people. While we may not personally have access to this data, I see no reason, except perhaps the wish to delude ourselves, to think these larger cultural patterns are not present at our own institutions. We also know that Latinos and African-Americans are much more likely to die from COVID. Catholic institutions have both a financial problem and a moral one—whom will they choose to protect? And, it’s not just institutions but all of us. Whom will we prioritize in our decision-making? To stand with the financially vulnerable is always a risk. It doesn’t just include our vulnerable students. It includes staff and faculty who have often been paid too little and not enough for adequate savings for years.

In June, Matthew Shadle and Christie McRorie’s responded to David Cloutier’s excellent article, “Exclusion, Fragmentation, and Theft: A Survey and Synthesis of Moral Approaches to Economic Inequality.” Cloutier’s focus on theft, exclusion, and fragmentation are particularly helpful categories when thinking about exploitation and exclusion of contingent faculty and other low-paid / low-status workers on university campuses.

My own article addressed exclusion and fragmentation. With the advent of COVID, exclusion and fragmentation are even easier to see. Contingent faculty, for example, have been excluded from childcare help or other temporary efforts to ease family burdens. However, my analysis only hinted at theft. The category of theft does not just function in the realm of million-dollar salaries of CEOs.  It is well-known that, particularly if a department has a budget allocated by seats filled, it is the labor of contingent faculty that directly funds their tenured track colleagues’ salaries. I also noted that from 1976-2011, senior university positions and full-time nonprofessional employees grew exponentially (141% and 369% respectively) the hiring of part-time and non-tenure track contingent faculty increased (286% and 259%)—and over the same period, university CEO pays grew by 175%. When one considers the lowest-paid full-time workers, the same moral questions arise. As I wrote in my 2019 article, “In 2012, more than 700,000 university workers earned less than a living wage and a significant percentage of food service, janitorial, grounds keeping and security workers did not earn enough to meet the federal poverty line of $24,300.” While I don’t know if Cloutier might consider this gaming the system, it is reasonable to ask that if, as a matter of policy, workers deprived of a high enough salary for savings, retirement, educating their children and benefits to provide a lifestyle of excess to some are not also stolen from?

Cutting adjuncts and staff is, frankly, an easy way out that continues to abdicate institutional responsibilities to the common good. Colleges and universities while stretched and weary have an opportunity as they face these challenges; they can choose an economy of life that seeks to manifest the common good in its fullness. Catholic institutions in particular function as both direct employers and as intermediary organizations, or organizations that help people reach human fulfillment (Rerum Novarum, no. 19). Now is the time for institutions to take a hard look at their own disparities in compensation and benefits and how such disparities create obstacles to rest, health and yes, sometimes even protection from police brutality. In short, it is an opportunity for all colleges and universities to change the status quo and realign the budget with mission. To do so, is not only for the direct benefit of its workers. It would model to students and the larger community how to see one’s failings and to make amends, to adjust, reorient to one’s most fundamental values. The current health and racial crisis calls us on a personal and institutional level to make changes and do better. To slash jobs without taking a long-term and critical look at the current structure of higher education is not only a lack of imagination and missed moment, it is culpable ignorance; our faith calls us to more, as individuals and institutions.