I am excited to kick off our next roundtable with a response to Kerry Danner’s insightful article on the moral perils Catholic universities accept when they rely on contingent faculty.
Danner’s article is well written and clearly states her case. Her article includes a great section situating the rise of contingent faculty within a broader shift across the US economy toward “business practices that deliberately try to evade long-term employer-employee relationships and responsibilities to persons from whose work [the businesses] benefit” (27). Additionally, her points about how the reliance on contingent faculty exploits the theology of vocation (by encouraging people to accept unjust conditions so that they can fulfill a calling) offer a creative, and incisive, challenge to the status quo that shows the flipside of Derek Thompson’s critique of “workism” as a flawed religion in an Atlantic think piece.
Perhaps the thing I appreciated most was Danner’s the final section, with its numerous recommendations for changes, including concrete steps allies can take at the departmental level to embody the Catholic Church’s preferential option for the poor and make a real difference for faculty in contingent positions (e.g., prioritizing contingent faculty requests in course scheduling). It is always enlightening to see clear-cut strategies from the people who have thought most carefully about a problem, and Danner’s nicely address the problems identified in her theological diagnosis.
The one area where I think Danner could still extend her critiques of this structure of sin lies in the harm a reliance on contingent faculty inflicts on the common good.
To be clear, this is already a point Danner acknowledges in her article. Most of the thrust of this acknowledgement falls on just one component of the common good, however.
In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II succinctly defined the common good as “the good of all and of each individual” (SRS, no. 38), and I would say 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.
For instance, Danner outlines how the low wages paid to contingent faculty, and outsourced university workers, undermine the common good by “limit[ing] worker agency” (32). She also regularly describes the ways contingent faculty arrangements—with their implied lower status, unpredictable schedules, little to no benefits, and numerous structural slights in addition to their limited remuneration—harm the spiritual and material wellbeing of the men and women employed in these jobs.
With these concerns, Danner sets up a violation of the common good in the rejection of the good of these individuals. In the background, supporting her assessment, I hear echoes of the USCCB’s notion of “contributive” justice, an element of justice in social life that accounts for the fact that both “persons have an obligation to be active and productive members in the life of society and that society has a duty to enable them to participate in this way” (Economic Justice for All, no. 71). Danner’s point as I see it is therefore that 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.”
While it is essential to acknowledge the violations of justice involved in contingent faculty arrangements, and necessary to stress the nature of these violations from the perspective of the faculty in these exploitative situations, there is also a harm to the common good that speaks to the “good of all” part of its definition. In other words, by refusing to provide contingent faculty with the resources to contribute to the life of the community, universities not only harm the faculty members, but also harm themselves.
On one level, this harm occurs by excluding voices that could be helpful for the university’s larger mission. For example, in my home department, our contingent faculty are some of our best teachers. We try to create space for their pedagogical insights to inform our common project, but structural obstacles remain as a result of their contingent status (e.g., contingent faculty are not adequately remunerated and already have heavy teaching loads, so a formal teaching presentation at a faculty meeting can become a serious imposition). As a result of these constraints, we miss out on insights that would benefit us all.
Or, think about the negative effects of inequality. The pay disparities between tenured faculty and contingent faculty can create a chasm that is hard to breach, something Danner alludes to in her conclusion (48). As our most recent roundtable, with posts from Matthew Shadle, Christina McRorie, and David Cloutier, illustrates, there are a number of deeper ethical problems with inequality. My own Marquette colleague, Kate Ward, has done great work on this and even has a forthcoming book on how economic inequality stunts the moral growth of both the rich and the poor for different reasons. By thinking about how the harm to the common good involved in contingent faculty arrangements extends to the community itself, there is room to say more, and with more precision, about the insidiousness of this structure of sin.
There are other illustrations, but my overarching point is that when we understand the common good as both the good of all and of each individual, we can see the breadth of the harms caused by unjust social structures more clearly. Danner gets to this issue very briefly when discussing the role of universities as anchor institutions (34), so I am just noting here that I would love to see some more analysis from this side of the coin so that her indictment of contingent faculty arrangements can deliver an even stronger takedown.
Go read her excellent work!