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How the Pandemic Has Pushed Contingent Faculty to the Precipice

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Image of author, Crystal Chang Cohen Dr. Crystal Chang is a lecturer at UC Berkeley, where she teaches courses on Asian politics and history and the political economy of development.

Dr. Crystal Chang, lecturer at UC Berkeley, provides an insider's view of how the pandemic has worsened the adjunct situation.

Contingent faculty were already living on the margins before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now we find ourselves at the precipice.

"Contingent faculty" is an umbrella category that includes adjunct professors, visiting professors, lecturers, instructors, and graduate assistantships. Some positions are part-time and some are full-time, but all are non-tenure-track appointments. Most institutions have come to rely on contingent faculty to fulfill their teaching missions, but they make little or no long-term commitment to instructors holding these positions.

I am a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, considered by some to be the world's premier public university. In the University of California (UC) system, lecturers are faculty — often with a Ph.D. — who are hired primarily to teach undergraduates. Approximately two-thirds of UC lecturers are hired on semester-long or annual contracts.

Note About Full-time vs. Part-time

At semester campuses, a typical full-time lecturer is paid to teach six classes over the academic year, so the starting full-time salary of $56,900 must be divided by six to calculate per-class pay — about $9,500. Part-time lecturers teach only 1-2 classes per year. On quarter campuses, full-time is typically nine classes per year (three per quarter), with many lecturers teaching only 1-3 classes per year.

The full-time starting salary of a UC lecturer is $56,900. While this may be higher than adjunct salaries at many universities, it is not nearly enough to raise a family in high-cost regions like the San Francisco Bay Area. Plus, because the majority of UC lecturers actually work part-time, the median salary of a UC lecturer is only $19,900, and more than one-third lack access to healthcare coverage and retirement benefits.

As a result, lecturers often work multiple jobs to make ends meet. One colleague works two full-time, non-tenure-track jobs to house and feed his family. I know several lecturers who have simultaneously taught at UC Berkeley and Stanford University — a commute that can take 4 hours round trip. A former student told me that one of her favorite lecturers bagged groceries at Trader Joe's to pay the rent. Sadly, I was not surprised.

When I started teaching back in fall 2012, I drove over three bridges three times per week to teach at two different institutions. I spent hours each day driving and paid out of pocket for parking and bridge tolls. My combined salary that semester was $10,685. Over the years, I have held contingent faculty positions at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University, Mills College, Dominican University of California, and College of Marin (a community college). Unfortunately, my experience is not uncommon.

A former student told me that one of her favorite lecturers bagged groceries at Trader Joe's to pay the rent. Sadly, I was not surprised.

So, why stay in academia, you might ask? Because I love teaching! I derive great joy from designing new courses, staying abreast of the latest research, advising senior thesis projects, and endlessly debating the virtues of theory with my students. I relish getting to know my students and mentoring them through important life decisions. Plus, I feel an immense sense of pride every time one of my students for whom I have written a letter of recommendation gets into graduate school or lands their first job.

How can I afford to stay in this job, you might ask? I am fortunate to have a partner whose salary pays the majority of our family's expenses. If it were not for my partner, I would have to change professions. I used to be embarrassed about admitting this, but in recent years, I have channeled my embarrassment and rage into activism, which I will explain in a moment. First, it is useful to explain how we got here.

The Adjunctification of Higher Ed

Since the 1970s, the ratio of tenure-track faculty to contingent faculty has been steadily declining. Several factors have contributed to this shift.

First, when there is an economic downturn, like now, universities face budget shortfalls. Hiring and salary freezes are enacted to save money. When the economy recovers and austerity measures are lifted, many colleges and universities opt to hire contingent faculty at higher rates than tenure-track faculty. Why?

Hiring contingent faculty is more convenient and cost-effective. We are qualified to teach the same classes as our tenure-track counterparts, yet administrators can bypass extensive search committees, pay us less, deny us benefits, and lay us off with little notice. There have been no less than five major recessions since 1970, each of which has contributed to the erosion of tenure.

We are qualified to teach the same classes as our tenure-track counterparts, yet administrators can bypass extensive search committees, pay us less, deny us benefits, and lay us off with little notice.

During hard times, public universities like the UC also experience significant state divestment. California's funding of UC campuses on a per-student basis has dropped more than 50% since the 1980s and will likely decline further after the pandemic. In California, Governor Newsom has just announced a 10% cut to UC funding this year.

Second, universities continue to train thousands of doctoral students despite an increasingly dismal tenure-track job market. According to the National Science Foundation, 54,904 doctorates were received in 2016. That year, according to the American Association of University Professors, higher education institutions hired 21,511 full-time, tenure-track faculty and 30,865 full-time, contingent faculty.

Third, even when the economy is growing apace and there is a spike in enrollment, administrators have opted to hire contingent faculty instead of tenure-track faculty.

When the so-called "millennial" generation — those born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s — came of age, university enrollments swelled. According to The New York Times, undergraduate enrollment increased from 12.2 million to 18.1 million between 1995 and 2011. During this period, the number of contingent faculty more than doubled, to 1.1 million. The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty, by contrast, increased by only 9.6%, to 436,000.

At UC Berkeley, lecturers teach an astonishing 42% of the student credit hours.

The fact is, the academic landscape is fundamentally shifting from one in which tenure-track faculty teach the majority of students to one in which contingent faculty teach the majority of students. This dramatic change has negative consequences not only for newly minted Ph.D.s, but also for the future of academic freedom, the quality of undergraduate education, and student success.

At UC Berkeley, lecturers teach an astonishing 42% of the student credit hours — the sum of the credit units received by the students enrolled in a given class. Today, there are roughly 1,100 lecturers compared to 1,400 tenure-track faculty on our campus. It is not hard to imagine that there will soon be as many teaching faculty as tenure-track faculty and we will teach at least as many — if not more — student credit hours.

Despite our herculean efforts to uphold the UC's teaching mission and support our students, administrators continue to treat us like disposable workers in the gig economy.

In March, we had less than 24 hours notice to convert our courses to remote instruction. Lecturers like myself spent countless hours recalibrating syllabi and assessments, learning how to effectively use Zoom, and counseling distressed students. When called upon, we stepped up for the sake of our students.

I had an international student who had COVID-19 and was thousands of miles away from home. I had students whose parents had lost their jobs. I had students whose relatives had died. I had students who were suffering from severe mental health crises. Meanwhile, each day, I faced the impossible choice between educating my students and homeschooling my three young children. It was the longest semester of my life.

Despite our herculean efforts to uphold the UC's teaching mission and support our students, administrators continue to treat us like disposable workers in the gig economy.

Contingent Faculty Around the Country Are Facing Layoffs

The pandemic has devastated university budgets. Many institutions like UC Berkeley refunded room and board fees. Student athletic events and campus performances were cancelled. Fundraising has stalled. Many colleges are facing reduced enrollments for the fall term.

In the name of austerity, some administrators have already started to lay off contingent faculty. In May, John Jay College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), laid off more than 437 adjuncts, which is equivalent to nearly 40% of their teaching faculty. Other CUNY campuses are also likely to lay off part-time faculty.

Missouri Western State University announced it is laying off 31 non-tenure-track faculty. St. Edward's University, in Texas; University of Massachusetts; Boston University; Ohio University; and University of Delaware are among other institutions that have announced they plan to let go of contingent faculty this year. The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking employees who are laid off or furloughed by colleges around the country.

Budgets reflect administrative priorities and political choices, not economic realities.

But is letting go of teachers the only way forward? A librarian colleague of mine once said that budgets are moral documents. Budgets reflect administrative priorities and political choices, not economic realities. The UC has plenty of resources and can more equitably reallocate those resources to provide continuity of quality instruction and protect the livelihoods of its most vulnerable and low-paid workers.

What are teaching faculty doing to push back against austerity? A lot, it turns out.

Contingent Faculty Are Organizing and Resisting Austerity

I consider myself very fortunate to be represented by a union, University Council - American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT). Our union represents 7,000 librarians and non-tenure-track teaching faculty in the University of California system. We have fought hard over the years for higher salaries, office space, healthcare and retirement benefits, professional development funding, and clear pathways for promotion. We are in the middle of our contract campaign now.

The unionization of contingent faculty has taken off in recent decades and is reshaping higher education. In addition to AFT, major unions such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Auto Workers (UAW), and Unite Here have had success organizing contingent faculty and graduate students across the country.

The unionization of contingent faculty has taken off in recent decades and is reshaping higher education.

In 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted a study of collective bargaining agreements ratified between 2010 and 2016 at 35 colleges and universities. They found that adjunct faculty at every institution in their sample won salary increases. Eighty-nine percent of the contracts provided health insurance to part-time faculty.

Organizing works. In April, a hiring freeze was announced that jeopardized the jobs of hundreds of Berkeley lecturers. Our union started a petition to stop this hiring freeze, garnering well over 1,100 signatures in a matter of weeks. We received excellent media coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle and our student newspaper, The Daily Californian.

As a result, the administration quickly reversed course and has now exempted lecturers from the hiring freeze. We have also launched a beautiful virtual picket of lecturers and supporters to call on the UC to reconsider layoffs.

Lecturers at Harvard University, Yale University, and Smith College have also started petitions calling on their respective institutions to extend their appointments.

Our students need us, especially those from marginalized and historically underserved backgrounds. They know that we prioritize teaching and their academic success. When there is high faculty turnover each year, students suffer. Contingent faculty have gained invaluable experience teaching remotely this term and want to be there for our students in the fall. Rather than laying us off, universities should see that continuity of instruction has never been more important than it is now.