Part V: “A fight for the soul of the university”: the unionization of contingent faculty

By Justin Henry, Editor in chief

“If there are any students reading this who are hoping to become professors, please understand that the struggle of contingent faculty at Ithaca College is not only about us — we are also fighting for the future of academia, which we have entered willingly because we love and value knowledge, and consider teaching a noble profession. That profession is under existential threat right now across the country, and needs to be defended by anyone who cares for it — faculty, students and administrators.” – IC faculty union member Tom Schneller in commentary published by The Chronicle

There is a specter haunting the administrative university. Professors have awoken from corporate compliance and allied with a new proletariat class—contingent faculty—against a workplace culture increasingly hostile to the process of research and publishing.

Part-time contingent faculty at Ithaca College—lecturers, adjuncts and instructors—are hired on short-term contracts and cannot work more than 12 credits per academic year. Full-time contingent professors or “n-tens” can work the full-credit course load of 24 credits per year but are not on a pathway to achieve tenure, the highest job security attainable by a college professor.

Many contingent faculty, perhaps 20 years ago, would have attained a tenure-track position shortly after achieving their PhD. Nowadays, they may work for several years in a dead-end contingent position with little job security, the equivalent of a sales associate at Walmart in linguist Noam Chomsky’s judgement.

“It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility,” Chomsky said in a Skype conversation with the Adjunct Faculty Association of United Steel Workers. “When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line.”

In 1975, full-time tenured and tenure track faculty occupied 57 percent of all faculty positions in the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That number dropped to 30 percent by 2011. Nearly the inverse of this downward slope, the number of part-time faculty members steadily inclined from 30 percent to 51 percent in the same time period.

Ithaca College’s Office of Institutional Research reveals a similar trend locally. The percentage of faculty that worked part-time grew from 22 percent to 30 percent from 2002 to 2016, according to institutional data.

 

The office declined to disclose further information.

From the perspective of tenured faculty, college’s increasing reliance on contingent faculty threatens to make obsolete careers in scholarship while reducing the quality of education. The unsteady nature of contingent positions, lack of benefits and low pay makes establishing one’s self in their field a herculean effort.

With a limit of 12 credit-hours per academic year, the most a part-time contingent faculty member can theoretically make in annual salary is $16,800 dollars. However, a spreadsheet detailing the negotiations between the bargaining committees revealed that the average number of credit hours worked by part-time faculty members per academic year at Ithaca Colelge is 4.68, totaling an annual salary of $6,552 dollars.

The reason for the low pay is that the part-time contingent faculty position is traditionally filled by a professional with an alternative source of income, like a museum curator or business executive. It was never meant to be an individual’s main source of income. However, as the graph demonstrates, full-time tenure track openings have steadily decreased in the last 40 years as contingent positions have increased.

Like the other components of the corporatized college, these hirings are not deliberately oppressive. Offices of human resources and academic affairs use contingent professors as a way of responding to last minute changes in student enrollment in a given department. This is especially true for a college like Ithaca College, which has been upwards of 90 percent dependent on income from students since the 2008 financial crisis.

As a result fluctuating student income, departments with declining or unsteady enrollment numbers like writing, art history and anthropology, are more likely to be staffed by high numbers of contingent faculty, rather than departments like business administration and integrative marketing and communications.

Let’s say a tenured professor retires from the department of philosophy. They likely made an annual salary of somewhere around $110 thousand dollars, the national average for tenured professors according to the American Association of University Professors. If the college sees a drop in enrollment in that department or a significant portion of philosopher majors receive large amounts of financial aid, the college will turn to contingent faculty members. This way, the college saves tens of thousands of dollars for that particular year but also millions of dollars in the long run since the contingent contract doesn’t provide for a long term career as does a tenure-track.

The graphs of student enrollment by school and budget allocations from part I all but mirrored each other because Ithaca College is a tuition-driven institution. For the college to pay for a class with more money than its students provide in tuition income is unsustainable.

This trend creates a self-confirming vicious cycle, according to a study by Ronald Ehrenberg, a labor economist at Cornell University. By witnessing the struggle faced by their contingent professors, undergraduates will feel discouraged from attending graduate school and seeking a career in academia.

Ehrenberg’s study also reported that the redirection of academic funds, for example those that support a new full-time professor after one retires, to support a college’s features to retain students has had a positive effect on retainment and therefore, retaining tuition dollars.

This has not been the case at Ithaca College which has seen devastating drops in student enrollment during the last two years.

In fact, Ithaca College’s use of contingent faculty has led to grassroots protests from students and faculty intended to pressure the administration into complying with the faculty union’s demands by garnering the college a negative reputation.

“One of the best things we can do is generate pressure not just within the school but from outside…to make the college think, this is going to affect the enrollment, this is going to affect the bottom line; we need to make a change to avoid that,” said Taylor Ford, President of Students for Labor Action, at a teach-in on Oct. 11, 2016.

A week later on Oct. 19, SLA and the faculty union rallied outside a banquet in Emerson Suites hosted by the Board of Trustees to celebrate newly tenured faculty. By February 2017, the union voted to authorize a strike.

In a one-on-one meeting during the week of Feb. 6, Ford told Nancy Pringle, vice president of human resources, that unless the administrative bargaining committee made “substantive change” to their negotiations with the union, student activists would inform prospective students of the plight of contingent faculty at the college’s open house days. On Feb. 20, SLA made good on his promise.

For tenured professors who had decreasing influence in whether or not tenure tracks would be re-opened in their departments, the union’s cause offered the chance to challenge the executive control of the administration and bargain with the provost’s office. As a result, multiple professors planned to cancel class in support of the union.

During the 2016-17 winter break, Susan Adams Delaney, professor in the department of writing, offered advice to students through a Facebook post on how to participate in a strike even if their professor does not intend to take part. She advised students to talk with friends who had previously taken the class to learn what they should expect from the workload and ask their professors for their class syllabus ahead of time.

Mathematics Professor John Rosenthal said for him and other tenured faculty, for the administration to agree to the union’s demands would reveal the college could support more tenure-track lines, although far less than contingent lines, if they were willing to spend the money.

During the Spring 2017 semester, 13 academic departments announced their support for the contingent faculty movement, insisting they would not re-fill any positions left vacant by striking professors. Eleven of these letters came from the School of Humanities and Sciences whose faculty had historically been among the loudest voices lamenting the college’s corporate techniques.

The Slow Professor, a book which first introduced the term “corporatization” into the debate, served as a galvanizing force for faculty members of all statuses. It was passed around in a book discussion hosted by the Center for Faculty Excellence, according to Chris Biehn, vice president of institutional advancement. Written by Canadian English professors Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg, The Slow Professor is at once a dissertation on the changing nature of higher education and a call to arms for professors to resist it.

The book’s thesis argues that the corporate culture’s intrusion in higher education, requiring professors to write department’s budget, abide fiscal years and meet stringent deadlines, is antithetical to a professor’s scholarly labor of research and publication.

“Corporatization has compromised academic life and sped up the clock,” reads the book’s introductory, “Slow Professor Manifesto”. “The administrative university is concerned above all with efficiency, resulting in a time crunch and making those of us subjected to it feel powerless. Talking about professors’ stress is not self-indulgent; not talking about it plays into the corporate model.”

And thus, a new proletariat is born—the contingent faculty and their supporters fighting for the soul of higher education against administrators who supposedly seek to commodify and dehumanize it.

On March 26, two days before the union’s scheduled strike, the bargaining committees reached a contract agreement. It included a three-year wage increase, a “kill fee” if a professor’s contract is not renewed and a general statement that contingent faculty were to be appreciated at Ithaca College.

“This agreement recognizes that Contingent Faculty make valuable contributions to the College’s academic community, and allows participation in academic and community events,” the contract read. “Schools, departments, and programs are encouraged to invite contingent faculty members to participate in meetings and activities where appropriate.”

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