A congressional report on the working conditions in higher education, released in January of 2014 brought an important issue for Springfield College into the national spotlight.
That issue is unknown to many students at Springfield College, but it is well known to the administration and faculty, and there is growing evidence that it affects students’ lives in ways that they may not even notice.
According to the congressional report, there is a second class citizen of instructors across the country, including Springfield College, but students won’t know it by looking at them.
They act and teach and carry on their professional duties just as the “first class” citizens do (sometimes even better, according to some studies). They are an invisible minority.
The problem is that this minority in many institutions of higher education is fast becoming the majority.
Called contingent faculty, this group of instructors, says the congressional report, is treated as cheap labor, and live by the whims of the administration.
They are also known as adjunct faculty, and these instructors have no job security, little office space, no benefits, and earn from 1/3 to 1/6 of what other faculty earn at the same college.
This trend began in the 1970’s with colleges reaching into the community to provide students with instructors who have real world experience to bring to the classroom, but as higher education has moved to adopt corporate management practices, higher education changed.
The reality now is that adjunct instructors are obliged to travel between different institutions to put together a living wage, and can’t pursue the research that first attracted them to higher education.
In the wider conversation about the “crises in higher education” various authors have commented on contingent academic labor as “untouchables” or “in the basement” or as “academic lettuce pickers” highlighting the lack of support from the administration.
As some of these authors point out, there is little incentive to change the system.
At Springfield, both full-time faculty and administrators express genuine concern for their adjunct colleagues, but because their respective relationships with adjuncts arise from different purposes, contingent faculty is left betwixt and between.
The chairpersons of departments are concerned with creating and maintaining schedules, full-time faculty colleagues are busy with their specific responsibilities and the administration is concerned with the efficient running of the institution.
Contingent faculty members are left unconnected — in a kind of limbo — because of these differing purposes. Individual full-time faculty, individual administrators, and individual chairpersons may be supportive, but as a group, contingent faculty are not connected to the institution.
William Deresiewicz, who writes in The Nation, has a darker interpretation of the source of adjunct unconnectedness: “Contingent labor is desirable above all because it saves money for senior salaries.”
He describes the current situation in academia as follows: “What we have in academia, in other words, is a microcosm of the American economy as a whole: a self-enriching aristocracy, a swelling and increasingly immiserated proletariat, and a shrinking middle class. The same devil’s bargain stabilizes the system: the middle, or at least the upper middle, the tenured professoriate, is allowed to retain its prerogatives—its comfortable compensation packages, its workplace autonomy and its job security—in return for acquiescing to the exploitation of the bottom by the top.”
He also points out that administrators “are no longer professors who cycle through administrative duties and then return to teaching and research. Instead, they have become a separate stratum of managerial careerists, jumping from job to job and organization to organization like any other executive: isolated from the faculty and its values, loyal to an ethos of short-term expansion, and trading in the business blather of measurability, revenue streams, mission statements and the like.”
Adjuncts are seen as a source of cheap and plentiful labor.
Whether or not this bleak picture of higher education accurately reflects Springfield is not the point, the point is that contingent academic labor (as a group) should find itself connected to the college, to both full time colleagues and to the administration – and this unconnectedness has important implications for the future of the college.
The purpose of this article is to open up a conversation and suggest that Springfield College can rethink its relationship to its contingent faculty, and take a leadership role.
This connection of adjunct faculty to the institution is essential for two important reasons: students and students. First, it is important to students that the college retains excellent instructors and committed faculty members.
High-quality adjuncts are now crucial to an institution’s success and the more connected adjuncts feel, the better chances Springfield has of retaining them.
Second, there is a correlation between student retention and adjunct faculty.
A 2010 study showed that students do much better in courses taught by “well-supported” adjuncts than by adjuncts with less support and shows that “If institutions seek to improve various student outcomes [then] no matter who is the faculty member leading a class, that individual should be adequately connected to the institution and supported in their role as an institutional agent for students.”
So why has Springfield College chosen to be less supportive of its adjunct faculty? Springfield College pays one of the lowest wages compared to other colleges and universities in Massachusetts. At Springfield, adjunct faculty make less than 1/3 of their full-time colleagues, and have not had a raise in over eight years.
As more “first class” instructors retire more “second class” instructors are being hired to take their place.
It’s important to stress that these faculty members are “second class” only with respect to how they are treated by the administration, but are “first class” for their students.
The reliance on contingent faculty saves the institution money, but it neglects the needs of students. The congressional report tells us that this trend should be of concern to all of us. Not only because of the exploitive nature of contingent hiring, but more importantly because Springfield College students deserve better and hopefully the national conversation, lead by Congress’ report on the working conditions of contingent faculty in higher education will help encourage the administration at Springfield College to put students first, by recognizing the important work of all its faculty.