“If there are any students reading this who are hoping to become professors, please understand that the struggle of contingent faculty at Ithaca College is not only about us — we are also fighting for the future of academia, which we have entered willingly because we love and value knowledge, and consider teaching a noble profession. That profession is under existential threat right now across the country, and needs to be defended by anyone who cares for it — faculty, students and administrators.” — Tom Schneller in commentary published by IC Chronicle
Part V: The Unionization of Contingent Faculty—For traditional scholars nostalgic of a golden age of academia, when professors were at the heart of campus operations, the rising proportion of part-time faculty signifies the devaluing of the professorship and the commodification of liberal arts. The devaluing of long-term professorships contributes to what Linguist Noam Chomsky calls a “neoliberal assault on the population.”
“It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Wal-Mart, employees that aren’t owed benefits,” Chomsky said of contingent facultyin conversation with the American Association of University Professors. “It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.”
Increasing reliance on contingent faculty members threatens to make obsolete careers in scholarship while reducing the quality of education. This is because professors occupying contingent positions have less time to establish themselves in their fields and rush between several jobs in order to make ends meet.
Since the 2008 financial crash, Ithaca College has remained between 90 and 95 percent dependent upon income from students—tuition, fees, room and board. As a result of fluctuating or low rates of enrollment, departments with declining or unsteady enrollment numbers like writing, art history and anthropology are much more likely to be replaced by contingent faculty members rather than a tenure-track professor.
Contingent faculty members are paid low wages per credit hours and have low job stability due to their short-term contracts. Since they are on less steady contracts, the administration uses contingent faculty to respond to a decrease in student tuition.
With a limit of 12 credit-hours per academic year, the most a part-time contingent faculty member can theoretically make in annual salary is 16,800 dollars before the administrative and faculty union bargaining committees reached a tentative agreement on March 27, 2017.
However, a spreadsheet detailing the negotiations between the bargaining committees revealed that the average number of credit hours worked by part-time faculty members per academic year is 4.68, totaling an annual salary of $6,552.
Let’s say a tenured professor retires from the department of philosophy. They likely made an annual salary of somewhere around 110 thousand dollars, the average according to the American Association of University professors. If the college sees a drop in enrollment in that department or a significant portion of philosopher majors receive large amounts of financial aid, the college will turn to contingent faculty members. By hiring three adjuncts to teach the class sections for 7 thousand dollars each instead of hiring a full-time professor for 65 thousand dollars, the average for assistant professors, the college saves 58 thousand dollars.
The reason for the low pay is that the part-time contingent faculty position is traditionally filled by a professional with an alternative source of income, like a museum curator or business executive. It was never meant to be an individual’s main source of income. Like at Ithaca College, many part-time faculty members are qualified for a tenure-track position, and would have established themselves in their field in previous decades. However, colleges across the country have gradually increased their dependency on contingent faculty since the 1970’s.
In 1975, full-time tenured and tenure track faculty occupied 57 percent of all faculty positions in the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That number dropped to 30 percent in 2011. The number of part-time faculty members steadily inclined from 30 percent to 51 percent in the same time period.
Ithaca College’s Office of Institutional Research reveals a similar trend for the college. The percentage of faculty that worked part-time grew from 22 percent to 30 percent from 2002 to 2016, according to a report from the college’s Office of Institutional Research.
Cornell Labor Economist Ronald Ehrenberg wrote in his study “American Higher Education in Transition” that the financial struggles faced by contingent faculty members will likely discourage many students from going to graduate school and seeking a life in academia as a tenure-track and tenured professor.
The coveted tenure status is mostly unaffected by the capricious market forces of tuition income because it grants professors the highest level of job security. Contingent faculty positions on the other hand are hired in direct response to student enrollment, according to Linda Petrosino, vice president of academic affairs. This was why the administrative bargaining committee was so unwilling to meet the union’s demands: contingent positions are not supposed to occupy more than a few percentage points of the operating budget because they have no long-term financial support systems.
This model inadvertently creates unstable livelihoods for those who occupy them. The result has been widespread unionization of contingent faculty across the country, demanding they be paid a more equitable wage. Tenured scholars banding with them as a way to barter with the administration more funds to support scholarship in the humanities.
Mathematics Professor John Rosenthal said for him and other tenured faculty, for the administration to agree to the union’s demands would reveal the college could support more tenure-track lines, although far less than contingent lines, if they were willing to spend the money.
David Turkon, associate professor in the department of anthropology, said the competition for financial resources has led departments to compete amongst each other for operational funds at annual meetings with the Institutional Effectiveness and Budgeting Committee (IEBC).
Turkon said If an anthropology professor retires, that position will likely be filled by part-time professor or no professor at all, depending upon the support from student income.
“If [the anthropology department] loses a faculty member, that faculty member is not replaced, unless we can show that we have the numbers among our students to justify replacement of that line,” Turkon said. “It puts us in competition with other programs to attract the most number of students that we can.”
Retribution against the “corporatization” of Ithaca College came in the form of an open letter campaignduring the Fall 2015 semester when the School of Humanities and Sciences wrote in solidarity against the “culture of fear” instituted by Tom Rochon and by his administration through their extensive cost-cutting and use of unstable faculty contracts.
“The administrative university is concerned above all with efficiency, resulting in a time crunch and making those of us subjected to it feel powerless. Talking about professors’ stress is not self-indulgent; not talking about it plays into the corporate model.” — From The Slow Professor
During that same semester, part-time contingent faculty members registered with the National Labor Relations Board to become a union. Later that academic year, in the spring of 2016, full-time faculty became a union and began negotiating alongside part-time faculty as a collective bargaining unit.
As tensions mounted between the union and administrative bargaining teams as the two bodies tried to reach a contract agreement, 13 departments published open letters announcing their support of the union. Eleven of these departments were from the School of Humanities and Sciences.
The Slow Professor, which served as a vital galvanizing force, first introduced the term “corporatization” into the conversation as it was passed around in a reading group by the center for faculty excellence, according to Chris Biehn, vice president of institutional advancement.
Written by Canadian English Professors Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg, The Slow Professor is at once a dissertation on the changing nature of higher education and a call to arms that urges professors to rail against it.
The book’s thesis argues that the “managerial” culture’s entrance into higher education is antithetical to a professor’s scholarly labor of research and publication.
“Corporatization has compromised academic life and sped up the clock,” reads the book’s introductory “Slow Professor Manifesto”. “The administrative university is concerned above all with efficiency, resulting in a time crunch and making those of us subjected to it feel powerless. Talking about professors’ stress is not self-indulgent; not talking about it plays into the corporate model.”
For decades, professors have turned to subversive texts to revolutionize academic discourse. In the spirit of combating neo-liberalism in higher education, Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed offers an egalitarian model for classroom learning. Asma Barlas, IC politics professor and outspoken critic of neo-liberalism in higher education, teaches Freire’s work in a class called “Race and Colonialism.”
And thus, a new proletariat is born—the contingent faculty and their supporters fighting for the soul of higher education against administrators who supposedly seek to commodify and dehumanize it.