Including Contingent Faculty in Governance

By Berry, Joe; Hoffman, Elizabeth | Academe, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

Including Contingent Faculty in Governance


Berry, Joe, Hoffman, Elizabeth, Academe


More effective inclusion in union and institutional governance requires more job security.

Setting out to consider models for including contingent faculty in institutional governance and daily life at unionized institutions, we rapidly discovered that we could not meaningfully discuss inclusion in the institutions in which contingent faculty work without also discussing inclusion in the unions that bargain for - or fail to organize or bargain for contingent faculty. This is true for several reasons. The leaders of the instruments of faculty governance - faculty senates and councils, departments and programs, and various joint faculty-administration committees - are most often senior, full-time, tenure-track or tenured faculty. The faculty unions, and their various subdivisions and committees, are likewise typically led by senior, full-time, tenure-track or tenured faculty. The same people often lead these different groups, either concurrently or consecutively. In unionized institutions, the degree of inclusion of contingent faculty in the daily life of the institution and its governance is also often largely determined by the degree of influence contingent faculty have in their unions and by the priorities placed on their needs.

To frame the discussion, we need to remind ourselves of the key characteristics of the world of contingent faculty, which, though it overlaps considerably with the world of our tenure-track and tenured colleagues, is radically different.

1. Contingent faculty are now the majority of higher education teachers, by a ratio of about three to one.

2. The majority of us have no substantial job security to replace tenure, even where unions exist, though the degree of contingency varies from per-course assignments to multiyear fulltime contracts, with many of us moving from one to another over our faculty careers. Most of us, at any given moment, are virtually "at-will" employees. This means that disagreement with our tenure-track and tenured colleagues is expressed publicly (or even privately) at great risk.

3. Most of us live in economic circumstances quite different from those of tenure-track and tenured faculty. In fact, our personal economics are likely to be more similar to those of nonfaculty higher education staff, white or blue collar. Most contingent faculty say that their academic pay is necessary to their family's support.

4. Contingent faculty operate in the context of near-universal second-class status, which becomes only worse as we age and gain "experience."

5. Contingent faculty do the majority of the teaching in higher education, but our participation in the full range of faculty work is generally limited or unrecognized - a cruel waste of talent and energy for us and for the institutions.

6. This second-class treatment is internalized variously and results in fear, anger, lack of self-confidence and esteem, and general insecurity. As longtime activist John Hess has often stated, contingent faculty are never more than fifteen seconds away from total humiliation. Despite this, most contingents remain committed to higher education and report that they would accept a full-time tenuretrack position in their department if it were offered.

7. Finally, when given the chance, contingent faculty nearly always vote for union representation in secret ballot elections, but many do not vote and fewer participate in organizing drives or in unions once they are established.

These factors point to an overarching reality: the fact of contingency makes democratic and participatory inclusion extremely problematic. The door to inclusion is labeled "job security," or the true reduction of contingency. Anything else runs the risk of being window dressing or worse. Given this reality, we can point to some examples where the conditions of contingency have been mitigated substantially, especially by unions that have taken it upon themselves to oppose contingency directly. …

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