Solidarity in the Ivory Tower


Ivory Tower or Temp Agency?

“I never thought teaching at a university would become a dead-end job.”

Jason Sager, an innovative professor whose courses are very popular with students, made this comment when he told me of his difficult decision to leave academia, after teaching for seven years at Wilfrid Laurier University (where he earned his PhD in 2007).

Dr. Sager, like thousands of highly educated—and experienced—faculty members, working at universities across the country, are learning that our profession is indeed becoming a dead-end job—an unfortunate new twist on the PhD’s description as a terminal degree.

The growing number of precarious academic workers teaching an ever-larger number of undergraduate students is a threat. It is a threat to our profession, with serious implications for our working conditions, our compensation, and the future of collegial governance. It is also a threat to the existence of higher education and the public university as we know it. Indeed, it is also part of the tale of Canada’s shrinking middle class.

A common adjective for contract faculty is part-time. At one time, such an adjective was accurate because universities employed part-time professors—or, instructors with other careers outside of the university—to share their real-world expertise with students. However, the long trajectory of public funding cuts and massive increases in student enrolment has meant a surge in part-time faculty positions, filled with academics who have no other source of income. These part-time jobs for full-time scholars are the increasingly likely future for many graduates of PhD programs.

Most people, including permanent professors, don’t realize that the number of full-time faculty hires have not kept pace with growing student enrolments. They also might not realize how the expectations for tenure-track jobs have changed, becoming more stringent in response to dwindling positions and an increasing number of young PhDs.

I want to address what the growth in contract faculty means for faculty associations in Ontario. To do so, it is necessary to sketch out the rise of precarious academic employment, and the consequences of the growing use of contract faculty for the public university. Then we can examine the implications of precarious academic work for higher education, the tenure-track professoriate, and faculty associations. This issue is not only about the livelihoods of our colleagues in contract positions, but also the future of the public university.

The precarious professoriate

For decades, corporations have hired temporary workers. These individuals work, often on a semi-permanent basis for months and years, alongside permanent, often unionized, employees. They do the same work, but temps are paid at a much lower rate and usually receive no benefits. Employers often take no responsibility for these workers even when they have worked for the same company for years.

For contract faculty, employment tends to be on a semester-by-semester rather than a day-by-day basis, and many work for more than one university or campus in any given semester.

The employment of temporary workers is also used to threaten the working conditions and compensation of permanent workers. Many unions have often agreed to two-tiered workforces to try and protect their existing membership; however, such actions can also undermine solidarity and actually weaken the ability of faculty associations to protect their members.

Employers often depend on temp agencies to find their temporary employees. These agencies work on commission, and work to fill slots with little concern for the people they put in them.

As the university relies increasingly on precarious professors to teach 30, 40, 50 per cent (and possibly more) of undergraduates, the more it resembles a corporation contracting with a temp agency: hiring workers “just in time” for different programs, paying far less for the same jobs done by permanent employees, and providing few or no benefits.

It wasn’t always so.

The first major expansion of contract faculty or adjunct professors in US universities began in the early 1970s, even before heavy industry underwent downsizing, offshoring, and outsourcing. By 1975, 57 per cent of faculty were permanent and 43 percent were temporary full- and part-time. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), those numbers were reversed by 1993. As the number of precarious positions accelerated, with 92.4 per cent of new faculty appointments between 1995 and 2009 going to part-time positions, the number of tenure-track faculty has dropped to barely one-in-four today (some 1.2 million out of 1.6 million faculty are in temporary positions).

In Canada, between 1987 and 2006, full-time faculty positions increased by 19 per cent, just one-third of the 56 per cent increase in full-time student enrolment. In Ontario, between 2000 and 2012, full-time faculty increased by 34 per cent, just half of the 68 per cent increase in student enrolment. In the same period, half course equivalents taught by contract faculty increased from approximately 20,000 to 43,500 according to data from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA): a massive 87 per cent increase versus the 33 per cent increase in courses taught by full-time faculty.

We can get a better sense of the impact of these trends by focusing more closely on a single example. At Wilfrid Laurier University between 2008 and 2012, while student enrolment increased 23 per cent, there was only a seven per cent increase in full-time faculty (including temporary one- and two-year appointments). Management, however, increased by 44 per cent: almost double the student increase and more than six times the increase in full-time faculty.

At Laurier, the proportion of undergraduate students taught by contract faculty in all areas of the university—labs, tutorials, and lectures—has risen from 38 per cent in 2008 to 52 per cent by 2012 according to data and analysis from the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA). Contract faculty are now responsible for educating half of all undergraduates at the university. Although this growing reliance on contract faculty is certainly not unique, it is certainly notable. The high proportion of students taught by contract faculty at Wilfrid Laurier has ensured that WLUFA has one out of the six seats at the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) national committee for contract faculty.

Between 2010-2012, contract faculty cost Laurier an average of $9 million per annum, accounting for just 3.4 per cent of 2012 revenue, or less than four cents of every dollar spent by the university. Senior administration could double contract faculty pay and it would still amount to less than seven cents of every dollar, while significantly improving the lives of contract faculty.

Total salary costs for all staff at Laurier, from the lowest paid to the president, dropped to just below 47 per cent (or 43.6 excluding contract faculty wages) of revenue in 2012, down from 51 per cent in 2008.

So what was the 19.2 per cent increase in tuition fees for in 2008-2012? The senior administration still insisted on making cuts. Students paid more for larger class sizes and fewer course choices and program options.

We know that Ontario has the largest class sizes and the lowest per-student funding in Canada. Our students also pay the highest tuition fees.

If, as the Laurier example suggests, we’re not spending it on new full-time faculty or better salaries for contract faculty, where does the money go?

We should also ask if the treatment of contract faculty reflects the values of and the claims made for the value of higher education by the university. Does it reflect the university’s commitment to its central mission of education?

Indeed, what message does the treatment of contract faculty by universities send to students, parents and the public about the credentials they bestow?

If universities are promoting themselves on the future potential earnings of graduates with a bachelor’s degree, why do the same universities pay only subsistence wages for those with two and three degrees?

The threat to higher education and 
tenure-track faculty

The conditions under which educators work and students learn must be a central concern for anyone who claims to care about higher education. The working conditions of contract faculty are in fact a barrier to the quality of the student learning experience. Talented teachers are forced to cope with low pay, working across multiple campuses and institutions (a consequence of poverty-level wages), a lack of real academic freedom, no job security, no office space, no benefits, and no pension plan.

But it’s not just contract faculty who are feeling the strain of precarious employment. With fewer permanent faculty, those who remain face growing workload pressures. According to a 2012 OCUFA survey of faculty, 73 per cent said workloads had increased over the previous five years 
(10 per cent disagreed), another 42 per cent believe that the quality of undergraduate education had declined (28 per cent disagreed), and 63 per cent said class sizes increased in the same period (versus 17 per cent who disagreed).

Permanent vs. contract faculty?

I want to outline a few points of conflict that arise between permanent and contract faculty. Some permanent faculty 
are involved in the hiring process of contract faculty or have supervisory functions. Contract faculty, unlike permanent faculty, are likely to be subject to greater scrutiny because their (re)employment repeatedly depends upon satisfying not just students but also department chairs and hiring committees.

Since permanent faculty have first choice in the courses they teach, contract faculty are much more likely to be teaching large first- and second-year courses, including required foundational courses. They also frequently prepare new courses, and do so at unpopular day-time slots (that pose difficulties for contract faculty with child- and/or elder-care responsibilities). Contrary to the popular 
perception that permanent faculty don’t like to teach, it’s more likely that they choose to teach smaller classes as well as upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses where there can be a closer alignment between research interests and course material.

Collective agreements often stipulate that permanent faculty have right of first refusal for teaching courses on overload (i.e. above their regular workloads). When permanent faculty choose to teach additional courses, the number of courses available for contract faculty to teach is reduced. This has a direct impact on the ability of thousands of contract faculty to pay for basic living needs like rent, utility bills and even food.

This is why some degree of job security is so critical for contract faculty—it ensures they have access to a reasonable income, while building solidarity among all faculty members.

Pimlott2Why permanent faculty should fight for contract colleagues

Despite potential points of conflict between permanent and contract faculty, it makes more sense for us to work together. There is strength in numbers. Many faculty associations represent both full- and part-time members. We all have an interest in providing a high quality educational experience. So let’s focus on what unites rather than divides.

Since contract professors are such a small expense 
for universities, and since some are even now becoming 
successful in obtaining national research grants, some administrators might be tempted to stop hiring full-time faculty altogether.

It’s therefore important to make contract faculty much more expensive for senior administrations to hire, especially if we want our faculty expertise and knowledge not to be devalued. If we push for compensation for contract faculty that is proportionate to permanent faculty and commensurate with their education, expertise and experience, administrators might be more inclined to hire more full-time faculty, lifting many out of the precarious ranks.

Where precarious work persists, contract faculty should be paid what full-time faculty are paid for the same work. Their pay should also recognize career development or progress-through-the-ranks, as they gain experience in teaching courses for each year of full-time course load 
or equivalent.

Like permanent faculty, contract faculty should benefit from time and resources allotted for professional development, especially given their responsibility for an ever greater role in undergraduate education.

Greater job security for contract faculty also increases the voice and power of faculty in the university. Fewer permanent faculty to defend academic freedom and participate in collegial governance will ultimately result in the loss of our autonomy.

Full-time faculty might also want to wonder how long our pension plans will survive without enough permanent faculty paying into the plans and defending them from management that leaves them with large deficits (through, for example, contribution holidays). Extending pensions and benefits to contract faculty can help improve the security of our pensions, while ensuring some form of retirement income for contract faculty.

Faculty associations and contract faculty

Faculty associations are the primary means by which we protect our profession, the quality of higher education, and the university as a community of teachers and scholars. Faculty associations and their national and provincial confederations, such as CAUT (1951) and OCUFA (1964), were formed as a way of dealing with centralizing, top-down administrations and governments to improve compensation and retain control over working conditions, professional autonomy, and academic freedom. Protecting these rights became more important as collegial governance declined. As Neil Tudiver writes in Universities for Sale (1999):

“Until the late 1950s professors endured conservative governance, low compensation, weak protection of academic freedom, and poor working conditions. They enjoyed freedom of speech in teaching but were constrained in voicing views on controversial issues or challenging the status quo. They were poorly represented on university governing bodies and had no organizations of their own with standing to challenge managerial authority”.

This speaks to the situation of contract faculty today.

About half of Ontario universities have faculty associations that include contract faculty, either in the same bargaining unit (e.g. Windsor) or in separate bargaining units (e.g. Laurier). Yet, many leading contract faculty activists feel that associations will only bargain for what permanent faculty will allow. As such, contract faculty members often feel as though they are always considered and treated as second-class citizens. As precarious workers, contract faculty are already vulnerable to possible repercussions for their activism from both permanent faculty in supervisory positions and from administrators. This is why it is critical that faculty associations take the lead in modeling ways and means for supporting (not leading) contract faculty in fighting to improve their pay and working conditions.

In 1999, the leadership of the California Faculty Association (CFA) representing faculty in the California State University (CSU) system transformed the way the CFA operated and worked to support contract faculty. It put substantial resources under the control of lecturers and enhanced the formal organizational position of contract faculty. This combination has seen substantial gains in working conditions and compensation. In June this year, the CSU got 700 new tenure-track positions. Success is possible.

Faculty associations, whether or not they include contract faculty in their ranks, also need to work with other unions that represent contract faculty, especially the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). CUPE’s Ontario University Workers Coordinating Committee (OUWCC), which is attempting to coordinate bargaining for contract faculty and support staff across the university sector, includes eight locals representing contract faculty (out of 15 nationwide).

Given the Ontario government’s attempt to direct universities through the new Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) negotiation process, and the introduction of American-style program prioritization plans by university administrators, the OUWCC’s idea of sectoral bargaining might not be a bad idea. Indeed, it might be in contract faculty’s best interests to become organized at a provincial level. It will be important for existing and provincial and national faculty organizations—such as OCUFA and CAUT—to help facilitate greater organization and coordination within the contract faculty ranks, and with full-time faculty. There are some promising signs that this is beginning to occur.

We should also be looking at the model provided by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education in the United States, which has launched a broader movement of the public, academic staff, and students working to improve higher education. The working conditions of contract and permanent faculty affect the learning conditions of students. As public servants, we have a duty and responsibility to the public to maintain the highest standards of higher education and to ensure that governments, boards, and administrations are held accountable for sustaining the core mission of the public university.

All academic jobs should be good jobs. Every university experience should be a quality one. Only by working together can contract and full-time faculty achieve these goals. AM

Herbert Pimlott believes tenured faculty have a duty as both scholars and public servants to exercise their academic freedom to sustain the quality, integrity and future of higher education and to do so in the public interest. He is an associate professor of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and can be contacted at