I joined a protest yesterday. It was held at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus in Midtown Manhattan. It was attended by faculty, students, and alumni on behalf of contingent faculty and their efforts to unionize. If you’re not sure what that means, just know that there is a pecking order in academia and that part-time faculty (e.g., adjunct and visiting professors, lecturers) are at the low end. Know, too, that if you have a family member, friend, or neighbor in college, they are being taught by contingent faculty members.
Contingent faculty make up the overwhelming majority of teachers in higher education nationwide, with tenured faculty accounting for only seventeen percent of the total. Contingent faculty are contract workers even though they receive a W2 at the end of the year. They do not get a regular salary and are not eligible for health benefits or a retirement plan. Yet, like permanent faculty, they contribute to the intellectual life of the community by publishing in academic journals, conducting research, and bringing their extracurricular experience into the classroom.
In addition to the legal battles other temporary workers face (think of Uber and Lyft drivers fighting to be recognized as employees rather than contract workers), contingent faculty are invisible. It is not merely that they are not seen as “regular” faculty by administrators. They are not seen at all, which is why they have no voice in university governance. This is particularly troubling on Jesuit campuses, where social justice is proclaimed as a constitutive part of the mission and critical thinking—praxis—as a hallmark of classroom pedagogy.
Like the tango, invisibility takes two. The contingent faculty member agrees to the conditions of invisibility: limited number of courses, limited pay per course ($2,500-$5,000), the threat of a last-minute cancellation if a tenured faculty member’s class is under-enrolled, no benefits, and no representation. The reasons for agreeing to these vary. Some faculty want to get their foot in the door, others feel committed to their students and the institution despite their inferior status, and still others need the money. They may gripe about invisibility, but in the end they accept it.
The other side consists of tenured faculty and administrators, both of whom see the world through the economic lens of limited resources. So they protect their own, which is natural enough. What is not so natural is the way those resources are distributed. With each new budget, the percentage spent on instruction goes down while the amount for upper-level administrative support goes up. This includes everything from the provost’s office to the head basketball coach.
While it would be nice to think that faculty of all ranks would come together to challenge this trend, the reality is that baser instincts prevail. Simply put, those who are invisible have no power over their working conditions and no place at the bargaining table.
I have seen a similar situation at Macy’s and Wells Fargo Bank, both of which reduced operating expenses (human and capital) as much as possible to pay out dividends to shareholders. In the end, both companies suffered. In academia, you can teach the same number of courses for much less by hiring adjunct faculty and then hiring one or two star scholars to show an overall increase in faculty salaries. Thus, the financials look good to potential donors, but this is a shell game.
If you think this trend exists only in universities, consider this. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 2017), more than eighteen percent of the American workforce consists of temporary workers. That’s nearly twenty-eight million people, and the numbers are growing across industries. The only viable option for contingent faculty, the one that aligns with Jesuit values, Catholic doctrine, and justice, is to unionize. But will Fordham’s administration let them?
Will they have the eyes to see?