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In my opinion

We’re not in Kansas anymore

The dean of Carleton University's faculty of arts and social sciences department responds to Tim Pettipiece's article on sessionals.


This is reprint of a blog post by John Osborne, dean of Carleton University’s faculty of arts and social sciences. It has been reprinted with permission. Be sure to also read part two of the series.

In a piece published in the current issue of University Affairs, one of Carleton’s “Contract Instructors”, Timothy Pettipiece, raises some interesting issues about what others are calling the “lost generation” of scholars, particularly in the humanities and social sciences: those who would dearly love to undertake an academic career, and have the qualifications to do so, but are stymied by the sheer lack of full-time tenure-track positions at Canadian universities. A number of his points merit some comment.

The first relates to my previous statement about the absence of jobs. This absence is very real. When I was a junior faculty member in the early 1980s, the monthly issues of University Affairs and the CAUT Bulletin were of considerable thickness, with roughly 50 percent of the pages devoted to ads for full-time faculty positions. Now the few ads that remain in the very much slimmer publications tend to be larger, often occupying full pages, but are primarily for Canada Research Chairs or senior management positions, with only a few rare postings for entry-level tenure-track professorships … and those almost always in the STEM disciplines.

It is not hard to understand why. University budgets are increasingly being squeezed, and most have experienced significant budget cuts over the past decade, with no end in sight. In Ontario, the per capita student grant has not changed in many years, and the only way for institutions to cope with inflation has been to take on increasing numbers of students while at the same time devising ways to teach them at a lower cost. With the demographics suggesting that increasing student numbers can no longer be taken for granted, and indeed we have witnessed an actual decline in applications in Ontario for the current year (particularly in the “arts”) after many years of continued growth, the proverbial you-know-what is about to hit the fan. Other possible solutions – for example, putting all of one’s eggs in the basket of attracting more international students, or borrowing money to fund operations in the hope that there will be more prosperous days ahead – are risky, and more than one university has already come to grief as a result. Simply put, the system that has been in place for many decades is now “broke”, and no one knows how to fix it without spending a lot more money on PSE than the government can afford or that taxpayers are willing to commit. As the Executive Director of OCUFA confided to me about seven years ago: “John, no government will ever get elected by promising to raise taxes to pay for more university professors.” Taxpayers (and students) will of course get the university system that they pay for, and at the moment in Ontario that is a system in which a lot of the teaching is done by part-time faculty: about 25 percent at the undergraduate level in FASS. No university is happy with that situation, but none have any real control over their income. If we charged fees comparable to American or even British institutions, things would be different. But we don’t, and can’t (as governments regulate fees) and there are good reasons for that too.

The only alternative to increasing income is decreasing cost, and that means asking full-time faculty either to take salary cuts (not very practical in a unionized environment, although I know at least one faculty member who is advocating this), or to teach more classes (but the trend is markedly in the other direction), or else to have more courses taught by those who are paid at marginal rates only to teach, and who are not offered much in the way of benefits or job security. I am reliably informed that the long-term cost of hiring a tenure-track faculty member in an age when no one can ever be required to retire is roughly $4M. That’s a big commitment for institutions which themselves are offered no medium- or long-term security with regard to their funding.

So, yes, it is indeed a very different world from 30-40 years ago, and in some respects not a better one if you are a graduate student just completing a doctorate and looking for an academic job. More on this next week, and I’ll also comment on Dr. Pettipiece’s thoughts regarding the behavior of hiring committees, much of which I happen to agree with.

John Osborne is dean of Carleton University’s faculty of arts and social sciences.


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  1. Andrew Robinson / September 4, 2014 at 15:59

    Dean Osborne is, of course, aware that the strategy of deliberately squeezing the pay of contract instructors/sessional lecturers is a CHOICE by Universities, who have hired many more administrators, presumably at around the same lifetine cost and invested in fancy new buildings and facilities. I’m afraid this “hand wringing” that it’s not up to the Universities to do anything is not an acceptable response to someone at the sharp end of this problem. As a contract instructor at the Dean’s own University I make $36000 per year doing a full time teaching load. No benefits or pension. The University has defined full-time instructor positions defined in the administrative structure. It is CHOOSING not to fill them. Less hand-wringing, and a more positive approach to attacking this problem vigorously would be aporeciated by the dedicated teachers whom the University system is ignoring.

  2. General Intellect / September 5, 2014 at 11:24

    Some evident problems here. To say that the only alternative is to cut costs, and then to offer only one area where those costs can be cut, is arguably myopic. There’s too much buck-passing and hand-waving when there are quite a few parties in this affair that need to stand tall before the wagon: the province, Boards of Governors who agree to pay ludicrous salaries to top administrators, and said administrators who spend lavishly on non-educational areas (or otherwise shift operating budgets into restricted investment funds). Budgets are CHOICES, and it is obvious many institutions opted to make the wrong choices. Strong accountability is required here rather than simply just blaming the provincial government. And even if universities could charge higher tuition fees, what guarantees would faculty of all ranks have that this additional revenue would be allocated to where it is needed most?

    The warning signs of a bottleneck were there long ago. Instead of addressing the issues head on (now reacting by jumping on the alt-ac bandwagon), graduate programs were increased to admit ever more graduate students. That may speak to negligence, or an absurd head-in-the-sand approach.

    I would suggest that Dean Osborne spend a bit more time with contingent academics and hear what they have to say, address their real working conditions, and start fighting for real equity.

    If administrations choose to throw up their hands because they can’t find a solution to the problem that the institutions themselves helped create, then perhaps it is time for them to step aside and bring in those who can. To do nothing or shift blame elsewhere when so many of our precarious teachers suffer is simply shameful. Someone must wear that shame.

  3. John Osborne / September 8, 2014 at 16:01

    To General Intellect: Well, you are of course free to believe what you like, but 97% of the budget I administer is spent on people (salaries), and over the last 10 years there has been a substantive increase to the number of full-time faculty members and at the same time zero increase to the number of admin staff who provide service to them and to increasing numbers of students. We welcomed 11 new tenure-track members last July 1st, with only 3.5 retirements. (The .5 was cross-appointed to another Faculty.) So, at least in my Faculty we have put our additional resources into faculty positions. But I could certainly use another $10-15M for that.

  4. John Osborne / September 8, 2014 at 16:06

    To Andrew Robinson: I can assure you that this is not a strategy of choice, and I don’t know any senior administrator who is happy about it. All deans are struggling with budget issues, and most have been required to deal with severe cuts over the past few years … some more than others, admittedly. But we don’t have a licence to print money. And if you are at Carleton you do now have medical and dental benefits, which is a welcome and long overdue step that I am pleased to have had a personal role in implementing.

  5. Andrew Robinson / September 18, 2014 at 07:01

    The Dean congratulates himself on bringing health care benefits to Carleton contract instructors without mentioning that the University refused to fully fund the plan. I have to fund 35% myself, which is a considerable sum of money for someone officially classified as poor. Yes, I get provincial refunds on HST. Yes, your business plan is broken, but your strategy to carry on until “someone else” fixes it, while continuing to exploit precarious faculty abdicates responsibility. I don’t see University working groups trying to solve this problem, I see money being poured into new buildings and infrastructure.

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