“Not Contractually Obligated”


Suggest that contingent faculty deserve equal pay, and someone is sure to tell you, in smugly reasonable tones, that while contingent faculty deserve better pay they do not deserve equal pay because, after all, tenure-stream professors are contractually obligated to publish, serve, and teach advanced courses, while contingent professors — those lucky bastards! — are not. In fact, however, more and more precarity is used to extract from contingent faculty the very labor we’re defined as not doing so that that work can go unpaid.

All across the country, for example, there are contingent faculty members who publish peer-reviewed scholarly work, and even see their publications featured on department web pages alongside those of tenure-stream faculty. Those same publications are sometimes featured again in departmental reports of productivity to administration. At the same time, tenure-stream faculty’s higher salaries are supposed to reward their research, yet TS faculty do not always publish, or they publish primarily or only in edited collections put together by their friends. This dirty fact is well-known (admit it, dear R1 reader; at least one colleague of yours springs readily to mind), but contingent faculty are not supposed to mention it. This silence is ostensibly necessary to protect tenure’s virtue but in fact hides double standards in the academy. It is true that TS faculty at research institutions (meaning institutions which value research only when it is done by TS faculty) today are held to much higher, even brutal, publishing expectations than in the past, but times have changed for contingent faculty as well, and contingent faculty at research institutions and elsewhere are now quite likely to publish articles in top journals and books with top presses. Precarity is a factor: those contingent faculty who publish do so in part because they fear losing their current jobs and desperately desire a better-paid, more secure position. Yet contingent faculty are too often told, loftily, that they do not deserve the same pay as their TS sisters and brothers because TS faculty publish and contingent faculty don’t.

All across the country, contingent faculty serve on committees, advise student publications, help conduct job searches, lead workshops, even mentor teaching assistants and run programs. Sometimes, contingent faculty are told that this will be “good experience” for them.1 At other times, they are bullied by deans, administrators, and even fellow faculty who know that contingent faculty are not in a position to say no. Others of us serve out of the goodness of our hearts. Meanwhile, I am sorry to say that TS faculty, no doubt busy with other duties, do not always serve. At my institution, Temple University, for example, the Faculty Senate website lists 24 committees, each with slots for from five to 10 members. If we call that an average of nine faculty members per committee, which is generous, that comes to a total of 216 slots, while Temple employs roughly 900 TS faculty. Many of these committees have at least one non-tenure-track member; many committees also have empty slots. Of course there are a few committees not listed on the Senate website, and many other service “opportunities” — chairing a department, serving on search committees, advising student publications, and so on — but the numbers indicate that in fact many TS faculty are given substantially larger salaries (not counting additional stipends, merit pay, or course releases) than their contingent colleagues in return for services they do not in fact perform. But let contingent faculty so much as breathe the phrase “fractional pay,” and watch how swiftly the reply comes that contingent faculty do not deserve fractional pay because contingent faculty “only” teach, and do not serve.

Contingent faculty are of course expected to bear the brunt of teaching lower-level courses to impressionable young college students in search of a major (“service courses,” as they are sometimes called, usually by the same persons who argue that contingent faculty do not perform service). But contingent faculty — again, all across the country — also routinely teach advanced courses. I myself taught a number of senior seminars as an adjunct, at more than one institution. Many colleges and universities in fact list in their catalogues a number of vaguely-described courses for which contingent faculty and graduate students are increasingly hired to teach what is usually described as “variable content” and which students can therefore take multiple times for credit. Universities not only rely on graduate students and contingent faculty to develop this “variable content” and have therefore, in the interests of efficiency, established these place-marker course numbers with catch-all titles such as “Themes and Genres in Women’s Literature” or “Special Topics”; universities trust contingent faculty to do an excellent job of developing new, advanced course without feeling the need to vet their syllabi ahead of time. Yet because administration has established these catch-all course numbers which function to facilitate the exploitation of contingent faculty’s research and teaching expertise without going to the bother of establishing new course numbers (because that would imply a stable faculty), contingent faculty are told that they are not real teachers because they do not design or develop new courses.

In the end, “contractually obligated” simply means “what some faculty get paid for, whether or not they do it” while “not contractually obligated” means “what other faculty don’t get paid for, no matter how much they do it.”


  1. James Donahue pointed this out in his comment on my previous post, “Academic Freedom for All Academics.” ↩︎

7 thoughts on ““Not Contractually Obligated”

  1. I would just like to note that the more we debate in an “us” versus “them” mode, we help administrations keep us divided. There is one faculty, and it is in the best interest of all to avoid defensiveness and putdowns to and about a different group of our colleagues.Everybody is okay.

    • Asking for equal pay is the opposite of divisive. Everything I say here is true, and necessary to say in order to argue for equal pay and to RESPOND to put-downs. Pablumized concepts such as “let’s never criticize” serve only to entrench an us vs. them system, and that tone of smug reasonableness of which I spoke is usually a sign that people are almost about to apprehend an uncomfortable truth.

  2. Anna Peak makes a number of excellent points here, though I am somewhat unclear about what “equal pay” would mean for her. I doubt that Dr. Peak could mean that adjunct faculty should receive exactly the same salaries as tenure-track full-time faculty. No system would support that, and it seems foolish to demand it. What then is meant by “equal pay”? I’ll assume that she means equal pay for equal work.

    Would adjunct faculty support a kind of a la carte approach? My university has a very specific formula for calculating the portion of a faculty member’s salary that is credited to teaching, and it could be a major improvement in adjunct income if some comparable amount was used to compensate adjuncts for teaching. Rather than paying $3000 for a course, we could pay the portion of an average TT faculty salary that is credited to teaching. If the figure is 16.5% of the average salary of a TT faculty member per course, and the average salary in, say, a Chemistry department at an R1 is $90,000, adjuncts would be paid $14,850 per course, considerably better than the peanuts we now pay. That would be “equal pay” in an important sense.

    And the a la carte feature kicks in with research/scholarship and service. If an adjunct faculty member serves on a committee, they could earn another several thousand for their work. How this could be calculated remains to be seen, but paying people for their work, whether service or scholarship, seems reasonable, yes? And doing so at the rate paid to TT faculty is “equal pay” — adjunct positions would still be precarious, but at least they would get equal pay for equal work, whether that work was teaching, service, or scholarship used to boost the reputation of a program.

    Forgive me if all of this has been proposed before, which I am sure it has — my faculty position is in our medical school, in which adjunct physician faculty makes loads of money anyway, and use their university medical school affiliation for public relations more than anything else, so they are in a very different position than the stereotypical adjunct…. Dave Taylor, MD

    • The à la carte solution sounds reasonable but misses the important “not contractually obligated” gray areas, especially those involving research and publishing, that Anna’s piece teases out very well. Adjuncts who manage to find time and opportunities to do research and keep publishing have no way to factor that into the equation, since it’s not officially a part of what we’re hired to do. Yet our universities and classes benefit from this work and many of us feel compelled to do it for a variety of reasons (eg. the need to stay current in our fields and the love of scholarship that got most of us into those fields in the first place).

      • That’s what I meant about it remaining to be seen how “non-contractual” work such as service and scholarship would be compensated. Adjuncts shouldn’t have to factor their scholarship and service into an equation: that should be in the job of bean-counters in the administration, and they should find ways to do it that reward adjuncts whose scholarship and service are of material benefit. My point was that the “non-contractual” issue should be irrelevant, especially for service: if an adjunct is asked or invited to serve on a committee, for example, that service is a form of work that should be paid for — it’s not “non-contractual”, it’s extra-contractual, and open to compensation. Dave

  3. I agree 100% with Anna’s stance. Although it’s NOT an “us against them” situation, the situation itself forces this issue. Many of us who strive to publish do it because it makes us engage in our discipline in a different way, making us better teachers…and raising job satisfaction. I serve on two department, one college, and one university committee. Although I receive a token stipend for the college and university committees I get nothing for my department committee work. Why do I do it? Because I view myself as faculty and these are important committees for our students. Am I part of the problem…maybe. But I can’t do a job unless I do it 100%.

  4. Well said, but there lies the rub. Some tenure faculty and administrators think this is a good thing, and invest in the scholarly and research activities of nontenure faculty. But some are very threatened by this, and want to restrict such activities to tenure stream faculty only.

    The easiest way to tell who’s in which camp is to ask them how intramural resources should be allocated. Those who welcome these contributions by nontenure faculty will say resources should be allocated based on the merit of the proposed work or work in progress, regardless of the rank of the principal investigator.
    Those who are threatened by these contributions will say that tenure stream faculty should be given priority (or sole access) to such resources. They will argue that if there is anything leftover, then nontenure faculty may be given some small portion. And they see nothing wrong with thinking this way.

    For example, there are senior professors who believe they are entitled to merit money BECAUSE they are senior, regardless of whether they have accomplished anything recently to warrant a merit award. And they insist that the awards be apportioned as a percentage of salary. Given that they make considerably more than junior or nontenure faculty, this means they consume the lion’s share of the award money, leaving little for the rest of the faculty who may in fact be far more productive than they. They believe this is not only fair but logical.

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