From where I sit: boiling point

March 4, 2010

While the fatal shootings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville last month were shocking in themselves, they also must have prompted much pondering among academics about the stressful road to job security.

Despite working at the institution since 2003, Amy Bishop, the assistant professor of neurobiology alleged to have carried out the shootings, had failed to gain tenure and faced the end of her contract.

Stress is believed to have contributed to her killing three colleagues at a faculty meeting.

Dr Bishop was, I can only surmise, very ill and in desperate need of help, which brings me to another matter: with all the emphasis on occupational health and safety, why didn't anyone at work notice she wasn't quite right?

The actions she is accused of perpetrating were extreme and tragic - but I wonder how many academics in similar positions are at breaking point?

In the wake of the killings, experts were quoted in the media criticising cumbersome, stressful university employment systems.

The chairman of the university's chemistry department, William Setzer, was reported as saying that "politics and personalities" were important in the tenure process, particularly within a close-knit department.

"If you have any lone wolves or bizarre personalities, it's a problem," he said.

In Australia, we don't offer tenure any more, and it is incredibly difficult to land the nearest thing, a "continuing" position. Someone I know missed out on one last year and was told privately that it was because of "the fit", or lack thereof.

Many jobs are earmarked for certain people, although the university goes through the motions of advertising the roles and interviewing the shortlisted applicants.

But even if you are lucky enough to land a continuing position, you are still not secure: you have to wait three years for your position to be confirmed.

I ask you - what other occupation requires such a long probationary period? In the meantime, particularly if your politics or personality are not the right "fit", you may be let go.

About half of Australia's tertiary educators are sessionals, part of an ongoing trend to casualise the workforce, leaving people with no holiday or sick pay and no promise of ongoing work. Hiring takes place just weeks or even days before a semester starts. Many more are on short-term contracts for as little as three months.

You end up having to apply for your own job twice a year and often have to teach something different every semester.

Add to that the abysmal sessional pay rates for the amount of preparation required, and the almost complete lack of interest in employee welfare by universities that favour cost-cutting and profit-making, and you have a seething, bubbling academic cauldron.

One university says that it will cut sessional staff numbers by 5 per cent within three years.

If that means more ongoing jobs, it's good news; but I have a horrible suspicion that it will simply result in heavier teaching burdens for fewer continuing staff.

This translates into a lot of stress for continuing staff, too.

While sessional or short-term staff complain about having to find other ways of supporting themselves over the three-month summer break, this is not necessarily a bad thing for their mental health.

Continuing staff sometimes envy sessionals' freedom: one of my colleagues recently told me he drove cabs for years before he secured a continuing position.

"Sometimes I wish I was still doing that," he said wistfully.

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