In chapter four of his book, University Ethics, Jesuit theologian James F. Keenan remarks that “there is within the university structure a cultural myopia that allows us not to think about the adjuncts.” He acknowledges his own previous blindness in this regard, and invites tenure-line faculty to consider how little they know about the real struggles of contingent faculty on their campuses.

Perhaps Labor Day is a time to reflect on these faculty members’ realities in light of problematic contradictions between Catholic teachings on labor justice and the everyday practices of most Catholic institutions of higher learning, and then to ask ourselves what we can do to further justice for adjunct professors.

Catholic Teachings on Labor Justice

Justice for workers is a key theme in Catholic social teaching, that body of documents beginning with Rerum Novarum (1891) and going right through to Laudato Si, in which church teachings reflect on the just ordering of a stable society. A key encyclical within this tradition is Laborem Exercens by the newly canonized John Paul II. There, the pope says that while work is toil, and that toil is universally known, work is still good in that it is fulfilling (contributing to both personal empowerment, ‘to know that he is working for himself,’ and contributing to society). When we evaluate work in its subjective dimension, we can see that some work makes one “more a human being,” while other work exploits. The first is dignified work; the second is symptomatic of a sinful social structure. In the second, people in power (corporate managers, higher ed administrators) make decisions rooted in a profit or ratings motive without sufficient attention to the well-being of the workers within the organization itself. The pope clearly states that the church is against the exploitation of workers. An often-quoted section is section 12 on the priority of labor over capital. Here St. John Paul II describes the principle of the priority of labor over capital, explaining that human persons are to be valued over things. The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.

In Catholic social teachings, workers have rights that cannot be taken away by employers. These include the right to participation, the right to a just wage, and the right to organize. Professor Joseph J. Fahey and his colleagues at Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice have many resources on these topics including “Catholic Social Doctrine and Worker Justice: A Call to the Common Good.” I’m indebted to their work in the summary that follows.

The Right to Participation

The right to participation means that workers should be included in the decision-making process in authentic and collaborative processes. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that participation is “expressed essentially in a series of activities by means of which the citizen, either as an individual or in an association with others, whether directly or through representation, contributes to the cultural, economic, political, and social life of the civil community to which he belongs” (189). “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled consciously by all, with responsibility and with a view to the common good” (Compendium, 189). This is rooted in an understanding of the dignity of each person as imago Dei, created in the image and likeness of God. The church’s social teaching has an anthropological vision rooted in human interdependence and solidarity; leaders must create viable means of listening to and learning from all workers so that each worker’s voice is respected and heard. Each person should participate as s/he is able so each person is empowered to act for justice; together with this, the principle of subsidiarity argues that decisions should be made at the most local level possible. The Compendium also notes the essential value of participation among those most marginalized: “It becomes absolutely necessary to encourage participation above all of the most disadvantaged” (189). (See Compendium, 151, 189-203; Gaudium et Spes, 26-32, 68-75; Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 32-40).

The Right to a Just Wage

“Remuneration is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships. The just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. They commit grave injustice who refuse to pay a just wage or who do not give it in due time and proportion to the work done.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 302). The Church further defines a fair wage as a wage such that workers “may be furnished the means to cultivate material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependants” (302, see also the ‘family wage’ described by John Paul II in section 19 of Laborem Exercens). In this context, then, it is appropriate also to consider not only wages but benefits that workers receive, such as health insurance, retirement savings accounts, and other standard compensation packages.

The Right to Organize

Labor unions are a “positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensible element of social life” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #305). Unions must plan an active role “in the whole task of economic and social development and in the attainment of the universal common good” (307). “The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labor unions whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions” (305). In 1986 the U.S. Bishops gave their full support to the right of workers to form unions, saying “We vehemently oppose violations of the freedom to associate, for they are an intolerable attack on social solidarity.” (Economic Justice for All, #104).

Contingent Faculty on Our Campuses

The first problem we encounter in trying to describe the problems faced by adjunct faculty is how to name the faculty. Some reject the term “adjunct” because of how it implies a hierarchy and de-valuing of the faculty; they are, even in the name “something added to another thing but not essential to it; a person of lesser authority, status, rank” ( The American Academy of Religion uses the term “contingent” to refer to full- and part-time faculty who serve under limited contracts off the tenure track (AAR Board of Directors, “Responsible Institutional Practices: A Statement on Standards Pertaining to Contingent Faculty in the Study of Religion, 9/20/2015). In my department, full time non-tenure track faculty members have the title Teaching Professors, while part-time non-tenure track faculty members have the title Lecturers, and tenure-line faculty members have the titles Assistant Professors, Associate Professors, and Full Professors. To be sure, all are faculty. All professors we put in front of students are qualified to teach students and should be treated with respect, equity, and professionalism, and given the support they need. A move away from the descriptor ‘adjunct’ is probably a good idea because of what it implies.

According to the American Associate of University Professors, more than 73% of faculty members are contingent (as reported by Menachem Wecker in National Catholic Reporter, 10/14/16). Fr. James Keenan also cites the 2010 American Federation of Teachers survey of part-time adjunct faculty in chapter four of University Ethics. In that survey, 57% of respondents say their salaries were falling short; just 28% received health insurance of any kind; only 39% had any kind of retirement benefits; 44% believed they were not given a fair opportunity for advancement. I could not find data to indicate that the realities are different at Catholic colleges and universities. In fact, I often hear market-driven rationales even in my Catholic university context, which, as Janet Casey notes (as cited by Keenan), allows us to dismiss it as something largely beyond our control, instead of viewing contingency hiring as a social justice issue.

While tenure-line faculty members have work obligations encompassing teaching, scholarly production, and service, contingent faculty members usually have contracts focused only on teaching commitments. They often do not have private offices, they do not have much of a voice in course scheduling or curriculum, their contract can be cancelled if courses do not meet minimum enrollments, and they do not have long-term job stability. Sometimes they are hired within weeks of teaching a new course, and are given little access to orientation materials or even library and photocopying privileges on campus. Keenan cites Sarah Kendzior who provocatively refers to contingent faculty as “indentured servants” at the university. Keenan also describes the stories of contingent faculty members Barbara Lynch and Margaret Mary Vojtko to humanize the statistics cited throughout.

On average, contingent faculty earn $2,700 per 3-credit course at 2- and 4- year colleges and universities, and $3,400 per 3-credit course at research institutions, according to New Faculty Majority (see Wecker’s reporting, linked above). Both are considerably below the AAR BOD recommended compensation of $7,350 (in 2015-2016) for a 3-credit course. The AAR BOD also recommends compensation of contingent faculty for course preparation when courses are cancelled due to low enrollment, and “mechanisms to allow faculty members serving in continuing contingent positions who are not employed during one or more academic terms (for example, for reasons of childbirth, illness, family leave, or other exigencies) to maintain benefits until their return to the institution.”

While some contingent faculty members are unionized, most are not; some Catholic universities have even argued that to protect their religious values they should be exempt from federal labor laws allowing unionization (see Keenan).

While acknowledging that there are many different kinds of contingent faculty laborers, the AAR BOD offers a set of guidelines to help department chairs and administrators comply with best practices across varying institutions. I strongly urge other department chairs to read these guidelines; it is interesting to see how they not only align with the principles of Catholic social teaching but provide suggested applications to our everyday realities in university contexts. In particular, I want to highlight that the AAR BOD recommends that contingent faculty “should be invited to participate in department meetings and other departmental activities and committees,” which aligns with the CST principle of participation; that contingent faculty should be “paid fairly” and that full-time contingent faculty “should be provided with basic benefits,” (see compensation recommendations above), which aligns with the CST principle of a just wage; and that contingent faculty members “have the right to organize to improve their working conditions and pay, and to address other workplace matters with no fear of retaliation or retribution for organizing,” which aligns with the CST principle of the right to organize.

The Distinctiveness of Catholic Higher Education- Mission and Values

What makes Catholic higher education distinctive? Jason King’s new book, Faith with Benefits, reports on interviews with students from different kinds of Catholic colleges and focuses on hook-up culture on college campuses. As part of that overarching argument, King describes different components of what makes up a “Catholic culture” on campus, both from student interviews and information he tallied, including whether the school had a religious president, the existence of an office of service learning, the number of required classes on Catholicism, the frequency of daily Mass, the frequency of Sunday Mass, the type of visitation rules in the dormitories, the enforcement of alcohol policies in the dormitories, and the presence of coed or single-sex dorms (Faith with Benefits, 22). One sub-heading in that chapter notes that Catholic culture revolves around “Classes, Masses, and Dorms.”

But I’d like to argue here that how we treat workers–all workers, but especially those with the least amount of compensation and job security, including food service employees, maintenance staff, custodial workers, and contingent faculty members–is one of the measures of how we are living out the missions of our Catholic institutions. Too often Human Resources departments are focused only on compliance with civil law. But institutions of Catholic higher education should aim higher. It isn’t enough to ask “Is this legal?” We must ask, “Is this ethical? Does this hiring practice/compensation plan align with our university’s stated values?”

Keenan’s book is a wake-up call for administrators and faculty members at Catholic institutions and invites us to “expand our own circle of who deserves that meritorious title of colleague.” Keenan describes the virtue of solidarity as “the appeal to forge interpersonal relationships between and among diverse constituencies who recognize the need for one another.” He urges tenure-line faculty to “enter into interpersonal relationships of concern and commitment” with adjunct faculty members. To do so, all of us must learn the facts, commit to exploring change, enter into collegiality with all faculty regardless of their status, and prepare to make sacrifices (Casey, cited by Keenan).

Perhaps this Labor Day weekend, this is a commitment that all faculty members can renew as we begin another school year.