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Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education


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Relying on contract instructors threatens higher education, author says

Maria Kubacki
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 high turnover.

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 our uncertainty."

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 dresser drawer."

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 Canada's.



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