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Contingent Faculty: Living on the Academic Edge


The general public might think of universities as places for learning - and that would make teaching a valued resource, but a growing number of people at the head of college classrooms are making less than the minimum wage, have no job security and no benefits.  In the first part of our series, we look at how a majority of college instructors are not tenured or even on track to full-time, tenured positions.

Rose Forp spent many years training adults in the workplace.  Over time, it dawned on her that she loved to teach.

“I loved being able to take ideas, explain them and then see that goes on in the eyes.”

So she quit her job and went back to school - to get the degree she needed to teach at the college level, but when it came time to look for a full-time post, she was dismayed to find slim pickings.

“You cannot imagine the number of jobs today that you see:  Visiting assistant professor - one year only.  You see that nine times out of ten.”

In fact, a majority of those who teach college are known as contingent faculty.  Full-timers may be salaried, but part-time adjunct professors get a flat fee for each course they teach, with no guarantee of on-going employment. Peter Schmidt is a senior writer with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“At a doctoral institution, on average, 32% of the instructors are part-time, and about 21% are full-time contingent.”

Few have benefits, and Schmidt says the pay is often poor.

“Top research universities will pay them nearly $5,000 per course, but at a mid-size rural community college, some are making only $1,000 for every course they teach, and so we’ve done stories here at the Chronicle of people who are actually homeless. They’re looking at a life of poverty.”

Some schools in small towns or rural areas have defied this trend.  Virginia Tech says less than 15% of its faculty members are part-time, and 70% of full-timers are tenured or on track to get tenure.  Jack Finney is Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs.

“In an urban area, there is a group of people who wish to be affiliated with the university, and they are willing to come in and teach one, two or three classes, and universities located in urban areas have saved money by hiring on contingent faculty on a part-time basis.  Because of our geographic area and the availability of expertise, we have not gone down that road.”

"If they start being outspoken what can happen is the next time their contract comes up, they just don't get a contract. No one tells them why. They're just not working at that place anymore."

  But at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, a group called the New Faculty Majority says more than half of those who teach are grad students or contingent faculty.  Research Director Marisa Allison helped survey 244 of them and found many were hired just before the start of school - given limited training and time to prepare.

“Folks will be hired at the last minute and then also fired at the last minute depending on how enrollment turns out, and so we found in our survey at George Mason that 25% of the respondents were given one week or less to prepare for their courses.”

GMU’s Provost David Wu says that issue is one of many being addressed by a newly formed task force on adjunct professors.

“You know instead of sweeping it under the rug, we want to put this on the table and really address these issues head on.”

One matter unlikely to be discussed at this and other schools is non-tenured  faculty members’ right to speak their minds.  Again the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Peter Schmidt.

“If they start being outspoken what can happen is the next time their contract comes up, they just don’t get a contract.  No one tells them why.  They’re just not working at that place anymore.”

Which is why we used a pseudonym for Rose Forp.  She’s taught at Virginia Tech, at George Mason and Georgetown.  She says her reviews are excellent, but she’s not sure she’ll ever get a full-time, tenured position.  In our next report, we’ll explain why colleges and universities rely on contingent faculty.  

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