The US hiring freeze is leaving contingent faculty out in the cold

It is time for those most vulnerable to huddle together in solidarity, says Tian An Wong

May 7, 2020
Juvenile penguins huddling

The sudden, nationwide transition to remote learning that swept the US in mid-March quickly revealed the inequities among students, faculty and institutions.

A month later, these inequities persist. Universities and colleges are tightening their belts as refunds flow to students sent home in the middle of the spring semester and institutions brace themselves for lower enrolments amid what is expected to be a worse recession than that following the 2008 financial crash.

The academic job market is frozen solid. According to a crowd-sourced list maintained by Karen Kelsky of the website The Professor is In, more than 300 US universities and colleges have announced hiring freezes, in some cases even rescinding offers that have already been made. Graduate school offers are also being withdrawn, and staff furloughs are being implemented.

In the same document, we find that more than 100 schools are extending the tenure clock of tenure-track faculty, recognising the impacts of the pandemic and the accompanying transition to online learning on their research progress and teaching evaluations. Such extensions rightly concede that the present circumstances will adversely affect tenure portfolios.

On the other hand, contingent faculty – those not on the tenure track – are being lined up on the firing line. What the hiring freeze means for many contingent workers across the nation goes unsaid: contracts that were promised to be renewed for the fall semester are vanishing, leaving us unemployed and uninsured in a global pandemic.

Contingent faculty is a heterogeneous category, the result of decades of adjunctification of the academy. We are postdoctoral researchers, lab instructors, lecturers, adjunct instructors, visiting assistant professors, and more, and we now account for between 50 and 75 per cent of all academic staff nationally. And while the two-tiered nature of the academic labour system is well documented, it is in this moment that our precarity is most evident – and most useful to the academy. We are imminently expendable and infinitely replaceable.

The losses to our research and teaching productivity incurred in this moment are sunk costs – not to mention the additional labour that we expend in transitioning our courses online, caring for students and supporting our departments. These negative impacts will leave us handicapped the next time we enter the job market, which we surely will.

It is not that we as contingent faculty deserve to hold on to our jobs more than the 30 million and counting unemployed in the US. But we do deserve to be treated much more equitably by the institutions that depend on our labour, intellect and passion for their existence.

As our petition argues, the salary reductions of between 5 and 20 per cent taken by the president and nine vice-presidents, together with the $2 million (£1.6 million) in federal aid received, would surely be enough to prevent contingent faculty being forced to take pay cuts of 60 per cent as a result of retooling the fall course catalogue according to “curricular need”, which was carried out by departments chairs in good faith. In other cases, some courses are no longer being offered, meaning that a contingent faculty member is out of a job. Even contracts that are being renewed have an added clause stating that the offer may be rescinded if the courses assigned are cancelled.

As mutual aid networks grow in the absence of government support and infrastructure, so must academia be reorganised as a place of cooperation, rather than capitalist competition. This starts when university and college leaders make the necessary sacrifices to maintain the integrity of their institutions, rather than sacrificing their most vulnerable workers as quickly as the Dow Jones falls.

We believe that institutions like Smith still have time to change course. In a “Statement of Academic Solidarity”, hundreds of prominent academics explain why, in solidarity, they are boycotting institutions that fail to “mete out cutbacks in the most graduated fashion possible – such that they shield the most vulnerable”. Perhaps this pressure will help.

But we contingent faculty cannot wait for the institutions that we serve and often love to offer themselves. Everyone from Amazon and USPS workers to University of California graduate students are growing conscious of their inherent value and the power that they possess. So must we.

Tian An Wong is a visiting assistant professor at Smith College, Massachusetts.

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