First, to all adjunct and contingent faculty, a shout out of appreciation for your hard work as teachers, parents, and caregivers in what has been a time of unprecedented struggle. It is in this time that we, who represent the majority of higher ed faculty in this country, have, out of base necessity, rallied to meet adversity and provide the needed buttress of our labor to support the larger system of US higher education. We not only undertook the creation of online remote and distance education platforms on short notice, but did so often with limited, or conversely, extensive but unpaid training. And in contrast to many of our tenure-track faculty, we had to do separate and repeated trainings for each of our institutions, some of us teaching class loads in excess of what our tenure-track faculty endured. It was not without a sacrifice and cost that is still being given and paid.
And now to both these faculty and a larger audience, as COVID rates are tentatively appearing to subside, many Americans speak of a return to normalcy, and this extends to our colleges and universities.
But as adjunct/contingent faculty truly know, the real impacts of COVID on their ability to work, live, and function are, in many ways, yet to be fully realized. For them, a contagion of precarity, one which became pandemic before even the outbreak of COVID, continues and worsens.
US higher ed is experiencing system wide declines in enrollments, meaning a loss of work for adjunct/contingent faculty, and with it, a loss of access to what little if any healthcare benefits they may have had. These same faculty, in many states, get to experience the double blow of not only being unemployed, but because of poor language regarding “reasonable assurance,” are also denied unemployment benefits. For public institutions whose funding is tied to enrollment, the inevitable crash in funding will lead to further class cuts, not only costing adjunct/contingent faculty work, but disenfranchising students, particularly BIPOC and lower income students, whose institutions of learning are most impacted. This is further reinforced by a US Congress’s failure to fund free or even affordable public higher education. Equally troubling is the significant reduction in additional aid to Historic Black Colleges and Universities.
Yet sadly, even with this needed funding, adjunct/contingent precarity would remain in place, in that the larger inequity in US higher ed, and US culture would remain.
In an equitable system of higher education, all instructors, on the basis of experience and education, would be paid equally or proportionate to the work they do, simply in that students themselves do not distinguish between a professor as an adjunct, contingent, or tenure-track faculty member, let alone understand the distinction. They would also have access to the same or proportionate healthcare and retirement benefits, and would be allowed and encouraged to participate in curricular development, shared governance, and other institutional matters. Further, they would after a proscribed time with satisfactory evaluations, enjoy an equal degree of job security to the fullest extent enrollment would allow it, and if in the event of loss of work, be afforded unemployment benefits.
Instead US higher ed, to save costs, pays adjunct/contingent faculty a fraction of what tenure-track make for the same work, sets workload limits within institutions and districts largely to avoid paying healthcare and retirement benefits, or simply denies these benefits altogether. They are more often than not further barred or discouraged from participating in curricular development, shared governance, and other institutional matters, and when there is exception to this, usually not compensated. Finally, as adjunct/contingent faculty work is defined as “temporary” in nature, many states will deny unemployment benefits. Ironically, many of these “temporary” faculty have been hired and fired on a term-by-term basis for decades, paying into a system from which they will never collect.
The fractional treatment of these faculty, who in contrast to tenure-track faculty are, in larger proportion women or ethnic minorities, points to an even deeper systemic inequity born out of America’s darkest impulses. As such, it not only harms the lives of these faculty and their families, but their students, the US higher ed system, and America as a whole.
Much of this inequity is permitted to exist by the willful ignorance, or insincere rhetoric, of politicians and policymakers who acknowledge but then defer from the problem, and by a media uninterested in discussing the mass scale of the problem, and connecting the problem to its causes, let alone entertaining solutions.
In spite of the recent Congress’s shortcoming regarding high ed funding, it has the means, and with little relative cost, to at least end the ignorance and neglect.
The US Government, empowered by congressional action, can and should conduct a full study of adjunct/contingent pay and work inequity in US higher ed either through the Departments of Labor or Education, and publish those results. Following that, the Congress needs to then make the true effort to truly create a necessary and equitable US higher ed system as suggested above–one which, as a place of equity, can also be a place of promise, and a place for a better America.