The hidden costs of exploiting contract faculty

Universities’ growing reliance on the exploitation of contract faculty erodes institutions of higher learning, and MUN is no different.

A workplace is as strong as the way it treats its most vulnerable employees. If employees are compensated fairly for their labour, if they are in a position to report difficulties or abuse to their supervisor, if an atmosphere of cooperation and communication are present, then the entire institution is stronger.

The University is a workplace. Its faculty are workers, among the many other workers that help a university function. That basic fact—that faculty members exchange access to their expertise, a talent for teaching, and an ongoing commitment to scholarship, scientific investigation, or creative activity—for the ability to pay for housing, food, and other basic necessities of life, often appears to be forgotten among the loftier ideals of the University.

Perhaps it is this lofty amnesia that has permitted Memorial University (MUN) to gradually shrink the salary and the union protection of some of its most vulnerable faculty members, most notably by bringing down the length of short term teaching contracts—over the course of two decades—from 12 months to eight months.

Repeatedly hired, key to the ongoing mission of the institution, these short-term workers have watched their pay disappear for a full third of the calendar year, even as they are asked to do labour throughout the summer. By denying—speciously—that these faculty members are in any way associated with the university during the summer, they have also denied them access to the full protection of the faculty union, MUNFA.

Thus these actions have weakened the entirety of Memorial University, in manifold ways, shrinking the amount of research it is possible to do, even as it has made its employees more vulnerable to sexual harassment, assault, and workplace coercion.

Collective bargaining between MUNFA and the MUN administration will begin this fall. Both parties must address the hydra-headed monster of problems that reducing short-term faculty contracts has created.

The solution is simple. Recognize that a significant percentage of your teaching faculty actually exist, eat, sleep, raise children, and seek medical and dental care for all 12 months of the calendar year. Recognize that fact by restoring the 12-month contracts that recognize the significant amount of teaching prep, research, and creative activity that they do during the summer.

By addressing these problems you will also strike a blow against the encroaching privatization—a privatization brought on by a growing, bottomless addiction to student tuition dollars and fees, and a simultaneous increase on the reliance of contractual faculty—that has hollowed out public universities across the United States, and poses a grave threat to the public institutions of Canada.

Unrecognized labour and exploitation

The eight-month contract creates a bizarre fantasy world every summer. The eight-month contract faculty member is routinely asked—throughout the summer months—to review textbooks, to prepare syllabi, and to reinvigorate class lectures in order to deliver thoughtful courses in the fall. The current contract demands that the eight-month contract employee, the administration, and MUNFA participate in the bizarre group hallucination that this labour is not taking place.

The contract employee is implicitly encouraged to either neglect her courses until her contract actually begins on Sept. 1, or, essentially work against her own labour interests—and without the protection of the Union she is no longer a member of—to protect her students from the neglect that MUN’s administration encourages.

The practice of restricting contracts to eight months has been justified on the grounds that contract faculty are not being paid for their research, scholarship, or creative activity. Contract workers are thus, subtly but effectively, encouraged to impoverish their own classrooms by neglecting a crucial aspect of university life. MUN’s administration is apparently comfortable with hiring content deliverers, not scholars, scientists, and artists. The university thus ceases to function as a university.

Pull Quote Nathan ElliottThis idea that these contract workers are not paid for their research is also hypocritically contradicted by another message sent by the university. Every spring they must reapply for a new contract: at that time their CVs, research activities, and service is put into relief against the CVs and cover letters coming in from outside competitors for the same contracts.  These eternally reapplying applicants must assume that their competitors are doing research and service. Thus the very request for an application tells them that they should be doing further research.

Historically MUN offered 12-month contracts to employees in the same position as recently as the 1990s. Some members of MUN’s current administration worked such contracts upon first arriving at campus — the same administrators who even now justify the eight-month contract.

Labour market conditions—as adverse as they have been to university instructors of all ranks—have allowed this slide to take place with relatively little protest from those most exploited.

This hyper-capitalist rationale—that those most vulnerable should be exploited because they can be exploited—is immoral. That approach to labour and production drives entire communities—even nations—into a spiral of exploitation, over-development, fear of employer reprisal: existential and spiritual despair, in other words.

Because market forces make it possible to pay people a dehumanizing wage does not make it moral to dehumanize them. This casual moral turpitude has already had an adverse impact on the overall morale of Memorial University, as it has on many Canadian universities.

Faculty disenfranchisement and the corresponding threat to the University

These shortened contracts have also disenfranchised a significant portion of the faculty of MUN, potentially costing the University on other budget lines. Consider the fact that contract workers have little avenue for recourse at this time. When conflict arises, administrators wash their hands by cheerfully telling the employee to discuss the issue with union representatives.

Upon discussing the same issues with union representatives, the employee is often told in sympathetic, dour tones that the administration has not been open to any reforms, and that tenure-track faculty have a difficult time getting excited about the concerns of contract workers.

The complicity may not be intentional, but the impression that MUN’s administration and MUNFA have been essentially supporting one another to render contract workers impotent and voiceless is inescapable; both entities are content to point to the other to justify avoiding the elephant in the room: MUN’s growing reliance on contract teaching. This very loud message is all the more pernicious for being the implied communication of institutional practices,rather than the evil diktat of a single James Bond-style villain.

And that is the case when the contract worker is actually a member of the Union. For a full third of the year, contract workers have no protection from their Union. The potential for disaster is a clear, present, and ongoing danger to the integrity and financial well-being of the University. Sexual harassment, intimidation, and other forms of workplace bullying and exploitation are certainly going on even now across the campuses of MUN, simply because there is no avenue for contract employees to report abusive behaviours. These workers are no longer members of the Union, even as they continue, in so many ways, to be participants in everyday University life.

Union membership that disappears for one-third of the calendar year is not functional Union membership. Both the University and the Union put themselves at risk by denying this crucial safety valve to a significant portion of MUN’s faculty.

The need for academic freedom

It used to be that contract workers were, essentially, junior faculty in every sense of the word. Fresh from graduate school, with freshly minted degrees—often with Master’s Degrees, rather than PhDs—such workers were still getting their feet wet professionally. They were thus far less likely to be put in professional situations where the power situation might be inversed in such a way that could lead to a toxic work environment. Historically, institutionalized sexism guided the hire of short-term faculty: faculty wives, perhaps with an M.A., might be brought in on short notice to teach a class or two as an emergency hire.

That previous state of affairs is no longer the case. The adverse labour market appears to be flooding the ranks of American and Canadian contract faculty with successful and experienced scholars, writers, and scientists. Even the competition for short-term contracts has become intense.

Due to my own experience, qualifications, and recent artistic successes, I was recently asked to sit on a grant-giving board not associated with Memorial University. I agreed, and was frustrated to find out—at a later date—that I was thus being asked to consider the grant application of a tenured faculty member in the department where I currently teach.

A mere two weeks later that same tenured faculty member participated in the interview I was required to conduct for the following year’s contract. There was no real way to resolve this ongoing conflict of interest; the protections of anonymity and recusal in such a small academic and artistic community were far too weak. I felt compelled to hide an important professional accomplishment in order to reduce my vulnerability even as I applied for another contract.

Looking at the impressive CVs and visible professional profiles of other contract workers, I am confident that comparable situations must be replicating themselves across the campuses of MUN, and indeed across Canadian university campuses. When experienced, accomplished contract workers are thrust into the awkward position of having little voice or power within the university, everyone needs a stronger system of protection.

Infrastructure issues

There are no shortage of small infrastructure issues that adversely impact contract workers, needlessly antagonizing them, and making it difficult for them to do the jobs they have been hired to do. Policies need to be written—and just as importantly, successfully implemented—that make basic day to day working conditions better for contract employees.

Pull Quote Nathan ElliottA worker trying to teach a full load of classes—often more classes, with more students than the tenure-stream faculty—needs a functional phone, a reliable email address, access to decent office space, and access to library resources. Contract faculty need to be paid promptly, and should not be put in the position of having to pester those in positions of power over their future contracts to address inexcusable lapses in pay.

Many full-time faculty members remain unaware of the manifold unintended consequences of endlessly cycling a significant portion of the faculty from ‘employee’ to ‘no longer affiliated,’ back to ‘employee’—in some kind of god-awful imitation of a Beckett play—year after year. These existentially challenged contract faculty members spend a significant portion of the year fighting battles to make sure that they have access to the library, a functioning office, an open email account, and to ensure that pay will be delivered on time in order to pay for rent and groceries. 

A recently hired tenure stream faculty member might face similar issues, but once their email address is established, their need to be paid recognized by Human Resources and payroll, and their office assigned, such basic needs remain met.

For contract employees these problems are perennial and persistent to the point that they make it difficult to do the jobs they have been hired to do.

A final word and a simple solution

Occasionally interested and compassionate tenure-track faculty and administration members have alleviated some of the problems listed above. Some have even contributed to the arguments made in this piece.

It is crucial to note that individual heroism will never be sufficient.

Pull Quote Nathan ElliottNo university, nor union, nor any institutional entity, should rely on individual paragons of virtue. No one faculty member, administrator, or union representative is above the regulations of the collective agreement, and the current collective agreement—just like the precedents that guide the interpretation of that document—is inherently hostile to contract faculty.

Because union membership disappears for a full third of the year, contract workers are always one professionally jealous chair, one disgruntled dean, one retributive administrator away from disaster.

Restoring the length of short-term faculty contracts to 12 months alleviates or solves every single one of the problems listed here.

Not only will restoring those contracts to their historic precedent be the moral thing to do, it will also dramatically increase the safety of MUN’s workplace, and thus reduce MUN’s institutional liabilities.

At the same time such contracts will also foster a greater atmosphere of research, scholarship, and creative activity. It will allow MUN to move forward toward being the research and teaching institution that it once was.

Note: This op-ed is an edited and condensed version of a letter that was sent to MUNFA and key members of MUN’s administration on June 19, 2017.

Nathan Elliott will soon begin his third contract teaching English Literature at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland; he defended his Ph.D dissertation at the University of Notre Dame in 2006. He has published peer-reviewed work on the playwright Joanna Baillie, the novelist Charlotte Brontë, and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; he has published creative nonfiction in the American literary magazines Creative Nonfiction and Tahoma Literary Review, as well as the ‘feminist nudie mag’ Peach Fuzz. In April Nathan was announced the winner of the 2016 Newfoundland and Labrador’s Arts Council’s Lawrence Jackson Writer’s Award for his in-progress manuscript How Red Became My Favo[u]rite Colo[u]r. He can be followed on Twitter @writeronabike

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