Relying on contract instructors threatens higher education,
The Ottawa Citizen
Monday, November 07, 2005
Contract instructors are the new majority faculty at U.S.
post-secondary institutions, and that's a threat to higher
education, says the author of a new book.
"The casualization of the faculty and staff is really the leading
edge of the corporatization of higher education as a whole," said
Joe Berry, whose book is called Reclaiming the Ivory Tower:
Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. Public and private
not-for-profit universities are increasingly mimicking the new
for-profit universities, such as the University of Phoenix, and
becoming more profit- than service-oriented, he said.
Exact figures on the prevalence of casual workers in U.S. higher
education are hard to pin down because contract academic staff, also
known as contingent or adjunct faculty, are a diverse group with a
They include part-timers hired on a per-course basis, full-time
temporary instructors on term contracts of varying lengths, and
graduate students; and they work in different institutions,
including universities, community colleges and associate colleges
(which grant two-year associate degrees).
But Mr. Berry, a veteran contract instructor who teaches labour
relations and American history at Roosevelt University and the
University of Illinois, said: "Even without good numbers, it's a
safe estimate to say that it's a majority."
What statistics are available show about 44 per cent of teachers in
post-secondary institutions in the U.S. are part time, nearly all of
them (95 per cent) non-tenure-track. Add to that the 24 per cent of
full-time faculty who are hired off the tenure track at institutions
with a tenure system, and more than half the teaching workforce at
post-secondary institutions "working as the academic equivalent of
day labour," Mr. Berry wrote in his book, published last month. "The
tenured or tenure-track professors are now the privileged minority
and not the norm," he said.
U.S. contract instructors work for little pay -- about $2,500 U.S.
per half-year course, or about half what their tenured colleagues
make. Most have no benefits and no job security. They may not even
have an office. They are paid only for their teaching time.
But it's uncertainty over their future that is the most significant
of the "unprofessional conditions" under which contract instructors
work. Mr. Berry said he's heard the term "precarious faculty" used
to describe this new majority. Contract instructors never know from
one term to the next if they'll be asked to teach again. In his
book, he notes: "To put it bluntly, the employer's flexibility is
Retirement is a constant, nagging worry. Mr. Berry recalls that at a
conference of contingent faculty from across North America, one
instructor quipped that his only retirement plan was "a bullet in my
It's not only the instructors themselves who suffer when the
post-secondary teaching workforce is casualized. Mr. Berry argues
that students also lose. "Faculty teaching conditions are student
learning conditions," he points out. Students are left to blindly
register for courses taught by "TBA" or "staff." They have
difficulty meeting with their instructor outside of class, and often
can't find their teacher after the course has ended. There is
"almost none of the informal relaxed student-teacher time so
important to college life and learning."
Perhaps most important, contingent faculty may feel reluctant to
speak out and teach controversial material. "You can't have academic
freedom without job security," Mr. Berry says.
He no longer worries about tiptoeing around sensitive issues. He
just finished teaching students about the Patriot Act and compared
the political climate in the U.S. today with the charged atmosphere
after the two world wars, when teachers were fired for un-American
views. But, at 57, he's given up on ever getting permanent
employment. "This (book) is going to ensure that I'll never get a
tenure-track job," he says, laughing.
"But I would like to get health insurance," he adds. He doesn't
expect to get it through his employer. All he can hope for, he says,
is that the U.S. will someday have a public health care system like