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Margin Notes

The ‘new majority’ of contingent faculty try to get heard

Summit held in Washington, D.C., at end of January continues to cause a stir.


The New Faculty Majority summit, “Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education,” held in Washington, D.C., at the end of January, continues to cause a stir. The New Faculty Majority is a U.S. organization supporting adjunct and contingent faculty and is so named because these groups represent the majority of teaching staff at American higher education institutions. It’s aiming to work with several other organizations supporting contingent faculty, such as the Coalition on Contingent Academic Labor.

Josh Boldt, Lee Skallerup Bessette, John. A. Casey, Jr., Eliana Osborne, Brian Croxall and Karen Kelsey have all posted their thoughts on the summit on their respective blogs. This week (Feb. 13) the “21st Century Scholar Blog” from the University of Southern California is totally devoted to the topic of contingent faculty. Michael Bérubé, president of the Modern Language Association, added his own pointed observations about the summit – making him, as one blogger observed, the “newfound hero of contingent faculty everywhere.” His succinct summation of their miserable plight:

Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities. Many of them are working at or under the poverty line, without health insurance; they have no academic freedom worthy of the name, because they can be fired at will; and, when fired, many remain ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Although the use of adjunct and contingent faculty is more widespread in the U.S. than in Canada – and some of the issues the writers address are unique to those working south of the border – nevertheless many of their reflections will resonate with adjuncts and part-time faculty working at Canadian universities.

Dr. Bérubé recapped some of the MLA’s recently-released recommendations for fair standards concerning non-tenure track faculty. Among these, the MLA recommends minimum compensation for 2011–12 of $6,800 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course or $4,530 for a standard 3-credit-hour quarter or trimester course. These recommendations are based on a full-time load of 3 courses per semester (6 per year) or 3 courses per quarter or trimester (9 per year); annual full-time equivalent thus falls in a range of $40,770 to $40,800.

To which instructor Mr. Boldt responded: “Almost $7K per course! Most adjuncts have never seen anything close to that figure. I personally have taught at schools that pay right at or below $2,000 maximum per course.”

Also at the New Faculty Summit, Jack Longmate of Olympic College in Washington State presented his Program for Change developed with Frank Cosco of Vancouver Community College. It was based on “the most equitable existing conditions the authors are familiar with,” particularly the collective agreement between VCC and the VCC faculty association.

University Affairs editor Peggy Berkowitz attended the summit, which coincided with the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She observed that many at the summit “seemed to feel that hell would freeze over before they got the benefits that VCC sessional faculty enjoy.” At the summit, a speaker noted that in some states faculty are forbidden from unionizing. At many private universities as well, faculty are forbidden from forming unions. Indeed, she said, “it really struck me how much better the situation seems to be for sessional faculty in Canada, on the whole.”

This seemed to be borne out by a remarkable spreadsheet developed by Josh Boldt “to crowdsource information from adjuncts about the conditions at their respective universities.” The spreadsheet is a Google Doc document to which anybody can add information from their institution, and hundreds of universities and colleges are now represented.

The information on the spreadsheet makes for dispiriting reading, with pay for most 3-credit courses in the $2,000-$4,000 range, with the exception of some of the big-name universities like Johns Hopkins, where the pay is $8,500. Quite a number of Canadian universities are on the list, located on a separate page (click on the tab at the top, “Outside U.S.”). Their pay ranges from a low of about $3,800 to a high of $8,000 per 3-credit course.

This new data certainly fills a gap, for there is a definite lack of reliable up-to-date information on the plight of Canadian contingent faculty. There are not even any reliable data on the percentage of faculty in Canada who are contingent or working part-time. This is shameful.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Canadian-trained Scholar / February 14, 2012 at 14:17

    Thank you for this interesting and informative piece. The plight of Canadian sessional and contract faculty may well be a little better than that of our US counterparts, but not by much.

    In this country, we have other issues, primarily having to do with the limited prestige accorded to Canadian PhD degrees. I wonder if you might say a thing or two about how in Arts and Social Sciences faculties across Canada, tenure-track positions regularly go to US PhDs, and not to Canadian-trained scholars. The ranks of contingent university labour in this country are filled with Canadian PhDs whose limited prospects are solely the result of their Canadian training. It’s the elephant in the room that no one talks about. Occasionally, when in the company of fellow underlings and teaching mules, we commiserate with one another, but very discretely; we don’t dare make a peep to anyone else for fear that we may be seen as complainers, and end up completely out of work as a result.

    My question, and I speak for legions of others like myself: Why must Canadian-trained academics be second-class citizens in our own country, destined to be regularly passed over in tenure-track competitions for scholars holding foreign (most US) credentials? Some disciplines are worse offenders than others, but really the Canadian academic landscape as a whole is thoroughly blighted by this reality, and it’s nothing less than a national embarrassment.

  2. lcharbonneau / February 14, 2012 at 14:47

    Thank you for your comments, CTS. In fact, University Affairs has devoted significant attention to the apparent disadvantage for graduates of Canadian PhD programs, beginning with “PhD: To what end?” in November 2009 (ranked fourth on our list of most read articles of all time), followed a year later by “The end of the Canadianization movement” and most recently the opinion piece, “Yes, Canadian universities do discriminate against their own graduates,” posted this January.

    Here are the links to the three articles:

  3. Canadian-trained Scholar / February 16, 2012 at 15:21

    Thanks for your reply, Leo. I had not seen the latest of these, the excellent piece by Mann. It never ceases to amaze me how we all so eloquently commiserate with one another about the plight of the academic underclass, and how we are systematically discriminated against, and then just go home and do our own thing. I am heartened to see that our US counterparts are taking steps to get their concerns heard, and I wonder whether or not something of the sort could be dreamed up in this country. The concerns of contingent academic labour in Canada are different from those of our US counterparts, and, again, are closely associated with having humble Canadian credentials.

  4. Fellow Canadian Sufferer / February 24, 2012 at 03:34

    I think the critical point expressed above is well-taken and quite pertinent. I am myself a humanities phd graduate from Canada, seemingly stranded forever on the island of permanent un- or under-employment. The reason I leave this comment is that the article above (and US students in general) have a rather troubling tendency to admire and offer a blank cheque on the unionized Canadian system. (It’s the same with the healthcare system, you envy our so-called free service, but you would never think of putting yourself on a year or two waiting list for a bypass, spend on average 8 hours in the emergency room to see the next available doctor.)
    Yet, no one seems to speak of the profound and insurmountable problems that this very same system creates. It indeed seems that Canadian sessionals tend to be paid a little bit more than their US counterparts. But no one mentions first the higher taxes. Second, no one remembers that a certain fee is automatically (yes, automatically, as in one cannot ever opt out) deducted from every monthly paycheck. Next, if in their heroic wisdom the union leaders decide to go on strike and manage to convince a small majority to join them, then even that meager 1000 or so dollars per month is severely compromised, unless, of course, one is willing to go picketing, which would be fine, if one did not have to face temperatures linger around 0 Celsius or even less. But these problems pale when compared to what I regard as the most crippling. It is called: seniority rights or the right of first refusal. If any of you has any difficulty understanding what that might be, I’ll briefly explain: if an instructor gets to teach the same course for two consequent years, then it practically becomes “tenured” on that course, that is, every time the course comes up for advertisement, then the university administration is obligated to ask the “seniority” person if she’s willing to teach it that year. Of course, unless death (or tenure-track miracle) strikes, no one is his/her right mind could say no. And by the way, the law, created at the demand of the very union spirit that you, guys, vehemently aspire to, stipulates that, aside sexual harassment, no other offense (not even a catastrophic performance) can justify firing that person. What does that imply? Most simply put, the available courses for part-time teaching become more and more rare. That is why in the past couple of years, the offer of such courses in my country verged on (Sartre’s) nothingness. My hope is that before you deplore the lack of unionization in the US and wish to implement a similar system, you think twice. The risks are equally high or even higher, the utmost of which is the encouragement of mediocrity, the drop in teaching quality, and an even higher rate of phd’s working for McDonalds. Greetings!

  5. Christopher J. Duncanson-Hales / April 10, 2014 at 14:15

    While I understand how the right of first refusal became a part of many collective agreements, and I would, if necessary, walk a picket-line, I have to agree that its effect has not been what might have been anticipated.

    In my situation, I live in a University town in Northern Ontario. There are a number of courses that I could be teaching, however, the instructors with right of first refusal started teaching these courses when there were ample tenure-track positions for PhD’s. This resulted in a shortage of qualified instructors for these courses. As a result, many instructors were hired with the minimum Master’s degree required to teach a course.

    That leaves people like me who have our doctorates locked out of the US hiring, discriminated against by Canadian University hiring practices and unable to even get what meager sessional contracts there are available because right of first refusal creates a closed shop. My own solution is to start, which is a University Preparation Program for secondary school students. At least this way I get to teach, support my scholarship and provide some income for our family. I’m happy to have picked up one course this year, but given the precariousness of sessional contracts, I need a back-up that doesn’t involve me saying, Welcome to Tim Horton’s, Can I take your order. . .

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