Confronting Precariousness


Not all stories are big stories, but sometimes the small stories are illustrative in ways that bigger stories cannot be because as the scope of a story becomes narrower, the implications can be seen in a more personalized way.

In the Music Department at Pacific Lutheran University, changes have been proposed that, on the whole may seem like a good thing. Several new tenure-eligible positions have been created to fill needs previously met by contingent faculty. In addition, the compensation for contingent faculty in the department, long calculated in a disadvantageous way, has been brought into line with the compensation paid to contingent faculty throughout the rest of the university.

So, on the surface, these developments would seem to be quite positive.

But there are several elements of the changes that make the situation more disquieting.

First, the Department of Music includes contingent faculty who have taught at the university for decades and hold the rank of Senior Lecturer. That rank provides benefits to faculty with course loads above half of the full-time equivalent teaching load. That rank and the benefits that come with it are being phased out over the next academic year.

Although the rank does not exist elsewhere in the university, there clearly has been a reason for its existence in the Music Department: that is, the department clearly wished to retain and succeeded in retaining contingent faculty, despite the fact that they were being paid less than contingent faculty in other departments within the university.

So, in effect, although these faculty will be paid more per course, they will almost certainly be offered fewer courses and will have to pay for their benefits out of the increased compensation that they are receiving per course.

The university has not indicated that these faculty are precluded from applying for the new tenure-eligible positions, but, at best, long-time colleagues will be competing with each other for those positions and, at worst, none of them, despite lengthy records of service to the university, may end up being selected for the positions.

Paradoxically, if the positions are understood to be intended to meet the long-term needs of the department, as most tenure-eligible positions are, then most long-term contingent faculty will, in effect, be precluded from consideration–t—ugh no one will, of course, admit or even imply that.

So, a small group of committed professionals are being reminded very painfully, and late in their careers, just how precarious contingency is.

I suspect that many of their departmental colleagues are genuinely sympathetic, but, let’s face it, their contingent colleagues who had course loads that did not provide benefits are getting somewhat significant increases in their compensation. And it is very difficult for tenured faculty to object to the creation of new tenure-track lines.

Hillary Clinton was right when she said that the details matter a great deal to the individuals who are most affected by a situation, even if they don’t seem especially important to the rest of us.

And, yet, to circle back to where I started, these sorts of stories that may not seem broadly illustrative are, in most cases, exactly that—illustrating the ways in which our institutions have been exploiting contingent faculty by giving little more than lip service to the contributions of even those who have served our institutions very effectively and professionally over long periods of time.


11 thoughts on “Confronting Precariousness

  1. Job gentrification is real. This is precisely why “career” adjuncts should be careful what they wish for. As adjunct positions are converted to more lucrative full time positions, new and better-qualified applicants (read: people with research and a terminal degree in hand) will be enticed to compete for those positions. They stand a better chance of being hired over weaker “career” adjuncts who only possess a master’s degree and/or who don’t do any research.

    The result: those “career” adjuncts will be even worse off than they were before the new positions were created. Can’t say I didn’t try to warn you on this one!

    • Perhaps you don’t know about all the long-term conttingen faculty who hold doctorates, or the tens of thousands of non PhDs who do excellent research and public projects outside of the university. They should not be described as “weaker” candidates. Should this very large group of people be afraid to hope for fair treatment from their institutions? Probably they should. That is why government regulations are needed to protect them from their more fortunate colleagues who don’t want to share what little wealth there is.

      • I know of plenty of individuals in that situation. They are, however, a small statistical minority of the adjunct labor force. The vast majority of adjuncts (70-80%, as confirmed by multiple surveys) only have master’s degrees…or less. These people will be viewed as weaker candidates for the simple and unavoidable reason that they have weaker credentials. The creation of new full time positions will squeeze them out of their current jobs, leaving them worse off.

  2. Those of us who hold doctorates would do well to remember that some of our own PhD professors were not so good. And we should also take note that some of our non-PhD colleagues are outstanding scholars and teachers. The PhD is no guarantee of excellence in higher ed. It should count for something on a salary grid, but it shouldn’t be used to force out highly experienced non PhD faculty.

    • I never argued that a PhD in hand makes one a strong teacher, just like I never argued that the small minority of adjuncts who hold doctorates are subject to the job gentrification effects I described. You should really work on your reading comprehension skills.

      When evaluating an applicant’s credentials as a whole though, persons with a PhD in hand will be deemed to have met the minimum qualifications of a full time academic job. Persons without one will be considered a weaker applicant by comparison and likely find themselves out of a job.

      • I see your point. My criticism is of search processes that are superficial, giving too much weight to the letters behind a candidate’s name, rather than the intrinsic qualities of the candidate. I realize those are subjective judgments, and fraught with bias as well. In the end, I think we need to grandfather in high-functioning long-term contingent faculty when new tenure lines open up, regardless of their degree status. Time served well under egregious working conditions should finally be rewarded.

  3. The letters behind a candidate’s name are an imperfect but time-effective screening mechanism to narrow down an applicant pool that far exceeds the number of available positions. If 100 people apply for a job, and 70 of them don’t have a PhD, can you really blame the hiring committee for throwing those 70 in the trash simply to make the remaining pool somewhat manageable? They can’t realistically interview all 100 applicants after all. I’d therefore suggest that the fault lies not so much with the application process, but rather with adjuncts who apply for jobs that expect a higher level of qualifications than what they possess.

    I’d also add that while the full time hiring process has its flaws, it is at least a process. Adjunct hiring is often conducted ad hoc with almost no merit-based consideration when the number of applicants exceeds the number of classes. The person that gets the adjunct job might be the most qualified. But he/she might also simply be friends with the department chair, who has sole discretion in hiring. Or perhaps it’s the guy who’s been teaching that class for 15 years, even though he hasn’t kept up with the latest research in his field like the younger applicant he beat out. Or maybe it’s the lady who has deep political connections to the adjunct union and will use them to raise a stink with the university if she isn’t rehired, even though her teaching performance is below that of other applicants.

    Terminal degrees don’t solve all of these problems, but they do create a minimum standard of qualifications that reigns at least some of them in to manageable levels.

    • I agree with everything that you said, except that it also applies to tenure line hires. Nepotism, who you know, a candidate’s political or religious views vis a vis the university’s— all of these come into play in any kind of faculty hire. If a job description says ‘Master’s required, PhD preferred’ that lets in a lot of candidates. You are right, the problem is too many candidates, too many who are qualified. Your answer is to cut the non PhDs, mine is to give new tenure line positions to the strong faculty who are already doing the work. In the Pacific Lutheran case written about so eloquently by Prof.Kich , it looks like that university is eliminating some of its most experienced people.

      It sounds to me like you have fought your way up from the bottom and were able to catch the brass ring. Good for you! You can afford to be generous to your hard-working colleagues who have not been so lucky. Wishing you the best.

      • I was about to make the same point. There’s plenty of nepotism (or even if not that insidious, plenty of poor results) in national searches for tenure-line hires too. There’s ad hoc hiring at the highest ranks. If you want to make sure hiring is done carefully, implement and enforce rigorous protocols. That has nothing to do with people’s degree status. This is the argument Maria Maisto and I have been making elsewhere on this blog: there are reasons for preferring PhDs, but none of those has anything necessarily to do with solving the problem of ad hoc hiring.

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