Fall 2018

Contingent Labor

Common Good, Not Common Despair

It is easy to fall into despair about the state of academic labor today. Tenure-track jobs are pitifully few, the competition for them is overwhelming, and adjunct faculty members are grossly underpaid and exploited. Those of us who got tenure-track jobs in the last thirty years are hardly shielded from this reality. Most of us have had experience as adjuncts, many of us have students enduring this situation, and all of us know that our colleagues are at least as qualified as we are, although paid a pittance of what we get.

All too often, calls for tenured faculty members to act with or on behalf of our adjunct colleagues are met with various forms of fatalism: “We wish we could help, but this is just the way it is now”; “We don’t really have any more power than they do”; “We can’t win arguments with administration about working conditions until we have more data about [teaching quality, or retention, or assessment, or . . .].” These reactions are examples of what Rachel Riedner and Kevin Mahoney call the rhetoric of despair: A situation generates moral outrage, people begin reacting to it, a call for slowing down to “be reasonable” disrupts momentum, counterarguments that justify further inaction are made and eventually convince people that nothing can change. Most significant, this pattern allows people simultaneously to declare their powerlessness and to maintain the sense of moral outrage they felt all along (75–79).1

Frustrated with repeated iterations of this cycle, some of us imagined a new way.

As more and more tenure lines are replaced with faculty members who are afforded no academic freedom, no benefits, and no long-term contracts, the university becomes more like Wal-Mart, cutting costs with no regard for quality.

In September 2017, Carolyn Betensky organized a group of tenured faculty members on Facebook into a new organization called Tenure for the Common Good (www.tenureforthecommongood.org). Carolyn’s idea was that we as tenured faculty members could use our secure status to advocate for our contingent colleagues. We were inspired by seeing contingent faculty members working together in advocacy groups and unions, locally and nationally, to create more equitable working conditions. Some of us had been active as tenured allies in the adjunct movement, but none of us had ever come across any organizations that rallied tenured faculty members, as tenured faculty members, to take action to address the contingency crisis. If adjunct faculty members could bravely come together at great personal risk to demand fair treatment, what was preventing us from using our academic freedom and institutional power to follow suit? We rejected the idea that there was nothing we could do about these exploitative labor conditions.

Despite the hesitation of tenured faculty members to act on the problems of contingency, many—maybe even most of us—who are tenured find the exploitation of our peers excruciating in itself, as well as a trend that will ultimately destroy higher education as we know it. As more and more tenure lines are replaced with faculty members who are afforded no academic freedom, no benefits, and no long-term contracts, the university becomes more like Walmart, cutting costs with no regard for quality. Advisers don’t want to encourage undergraduates to pursue graduate degrees and faculty careers when those careers are now so scarce. Graduate students with completed degrees cannot find jobs that pay even for their basic needs. Fewer and fewer tenure-track faculty members do more and more advising, mentoring, and curriculum development, as the percentage of teaching done by exploited contingent faculty members rises and rises. How can the university system sustain itself on this gig-economy model? Higher education depends on its experts (faculty members) to fulfill its primary functions—teaching and research—neither of which we can do well under precarious conditions. Contingent faculty members cannot engage in long-term research projects if they have no long-term support or security. Contingent faculty members cannot experiment with pedagogy if a less-than-successful teaching strategy means getting offered no course sections the next year. And university teaching is no longer a profession if it is delivered as piecework by workers with no professional support from the institution their students attend.

As the participants in the Facebook discussion group for Tenure for the Common Good started to contemplate roles we could play alongside our contingent colleagues, Talia Schaffer shared an intriguing idea:

I have an idea for fighting adjunctification I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere,2 and it occurred to me this group might be the right place to try it out. We need to get US News and World Report to consider the percentage of adjuncts in their annual ranking of colleges. The more adjuncts a college employs, the lower that score is, the worse they’ll fare in the rankings. THAT, I think, would make administrations sit up and pay attention. We know that colleges will do anything to keep their rank up. Make adjunctification hurt that rank, which will deter students from applying there. And it *is* something that should be considered in college rankings; students *should* be wary of a college where their teachers will be demoralized, exploited, exhausted people who are given no time or space or support for teaching (and who manage to perform miracles without it, but one shouldn’t rely on their continuing ability to do so!) Adjunct percentage is a far more important measure of a college’s quality than, say, student SAT scores.

The rest of us liked this idea. We thought that institutions would be more likely to pay contingent faculty members a living wage, increase opportunities for advancement, and offer security if their rankings depend on their willingness to do so. Further research revealed that 20% of an institution’s ranking came from “faculty resources,” of which only 5% reflected the proportion of faculty members at an institution who were employed as adjuncts and 35% reflected salaries of tenured and tenure-track faculty members (Morse and Brooks). We found that bizarre. An institution’s reliance on exploited faculty had far more impact than the 5% allocation suggested, and these severely flawed faculty salary assessments omitted the lion’s share of the faculty! Tenure for the Common Good members thought that it would be an elegant fix if we could convince U.S. News and World Report to reverse the allocation percentages: 35% of an institution’s faculty resources category would reflect labor conditions for non-tenure-track faculty members, and 5% would be devoted to the salaries paid to tenure-stream faculty members.

The group drafted a letter to U.S. News and World Report:


Dear US News and World Report rankers,

We write as a group of tenured and contingent faculty who would like to propose that you consider adjusting the “faculty resources” section of the America’s Best Colleges rankings in order to more accurately reflect current academic realities. Currently you allocate only 5% of this category to part-time vs full-time faculty, while you give 35% to faculty salaries. However, those faculty salary numbers do not affect the majority of college instructors, who are contingent faculty: underpaid temporary workers (see https://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts; and http://www.newfacultymajority.info/facts-about-adjuncts/). Contingent faculty conditions powerfully affect the educational atmosphere of a university, while the financial satisfaction of a dwindling cadre of tenure-track faculty is of negligible importance—and we say this even though there are many among us who represent that dwindling cadre. We want to suggest that you switch these two numbers, assigning contingent faculty a full 35% and downgrading the faculty salary issue to 5%.


  • contingent faculty are underpaid, exploited, and exhausted. Sometimes they are homeless or working several jobs and they generally do not have health care. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/28/adjunct-professors-homeless-sex-work-academia-poverty?CMP=share_btn_fb)
  • contingent faculty must teach double or triple the number of courses as tenure-track faculty, usually at multiple schools.
  • contingent faculty rarely have an office of their own and are not paid to hold office hours, read drafts of student papers, or advise students.
  • contingent faculty are hired for a course or a semester, often without oversight, mentorship, or access to basic resources (like access to a copy machine) to do their jobs.
  • contingent faculty generally are not allowed to choose which courses they want to teach, and often don’t have any ability to determine the course content.
  • contingent faculty are hired and fired irregularly, which makes it impossible for them to mentor students for the duration of the student’s college life, write recommendations, or take a stable role in the student’s life.
  • contingent faculty are not generally granted citizenship in their departments, which makes them unable to serve on committees or shape policies.
  • contingent faculty are powerless to affect the terms of their employment, which means they can be given enormous classes with far more students than any one person can handle.

As Dan Edmonds points out, “If you are paying for a college education today, you are paying comparatively more money than previous generations have paid—nearly $70,000 in annual tuition, room and board, and fees at America’s most expensive schools—to be educated by a more poorly-resourced, poorly paid, and potentially poorly-motivated group of educators.” In short, “you want to ensure that the college to which you’ll pay tens of thousands of dollars a year treats its faculty well enough to provide the best possible education for students.” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/noodleeducation/2015/05/28/more-than-half-of-college-faculty-are-adjuncts-should-you-care/#66c894a01600)

If 50–75% of the faculty are working under these conditions, it changes the entire environment of the university in ways that the nation’s premier ranking system really needs to register. A university that mistreats its employees this way is not giving its students a good education—no matter how much it may pay its few remaining tenure-track faculty members.

Please consider switching the percentages for faculty salaries and part-timers to reflect the reality of today’s campuses.


As we were revising the text, we started to wonder whether it was worth opening it for signatures in the form of a petition or a sign-on letter. We thought the request might have more of an impact coming from fifty or maybe even—our wildest dream—a hundred signatories than from those who had composed the letter, and members of the Facebook group agreed. Thus, we released the letter in mid-October as a Google document and spread the word through social media. What actually happened astounded us. The letter went viral. Within two days we had over three hundred signatures; at one point, one of us, Seth Kahn, realized that so many people were trying to sign the letter at once that the Google document was crashing, so we had to move the signatures into another document to keep it functional. The University of Pennsylvania student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, ran a story about it when a reporter searched the document and noticed that four University of Pennsylvania faculty members had signed it (Trustman). Within two weeks, we accumulated over twelve hundred signatures, and although we stopped collecting names at that point, for months afterward people kept trying to sign on.

What surprised us most among the signatures was the variety of disciplines represented. As expected, the large majority were from faculty members in English, writing studies, rhetoric and composition, and comparative literature. We also had signatures from faculty members in social sciences (anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, psychology); lab sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, ecology, epidemiology, oceanography); education; and across the humanities (history, philosophy, religion or theology, modern languages, ancient languages, area studies, women’s and gender studies). Signatories also ranged in rank from adjunct and lecturer to all ranks of tenured or tenure-track professors. Endowed department chairs and two deans had signed on as well.

Clearly there was a tremendous appetite to be part of this initiative. Our petition gave tenure-track faculty members an alternative to accepting defeat. It offered them a venue to begin making a substantive difference, right alongside non-tenure-track faculty members.

At the beginning of November, we sent the petition to Robert Morse, the chief data strategist at U.S. News and World Report who heads the team that compiles the list of annual college rankings. Morse thanked us for our letter and assured us that he and his team would study it. In June 2018, Betensky, Schaffer, Kahn, and Maria Maisto of the New Faculty Majority traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with the U.S. News and World Report rankers. We met with Morse and eight other data analysts to discuss our proposal and to hear directly from them about the rationale behind the current allocations in their rankings for faculty resources.

Although these discussions are still ongoing, we were heartened by the team’s openness to our position and their willingness to learn about the situation of contingent faculty members. U.S. News and World Report is eager to improve the accuracy of its data collection, and we had a fruitful conversation in which we helped them see some problematic assumptions on which the rankings rely. They are considering our suggestions to refine their definitions for part-time and full-time faculty to reflect the real conditions in higher education today; reconfigure the questions they ask of colleges and universities to get institutions to report information about part-time, full-time, contingent, and tenure-track instructors more accurately; and add a specific request for colleges and universities to report full-time non-tenure-track instructor salaries in addition to the tenured and tenure-track faculty salaries they currently ask for. We also explained how much the relation between tenure-stream salary and the notion of faculty prestige had changed since the U.S. News and World Report faculty resources rankings had been developed: with tenure-track jobs so scarce these days, only the tiniest minority of super-lucky candidates have the luxury of holding out for the most highly paid positions. Indeed, faculty salary is unrelated to teaching quality except inasmuch as making a living wage helps faculty members do better work.

U.S. News and World Report has started to consider how to represent the numbers of contingent faculty members more accurately, although it might do this in multiple ways, not necessarily by switching the 5% and 35%, as we had asked. We were pleased by Morse’s team’s keen interest in achieving greater transparency, accuracy, and accountability in the data provided to them by colleges and universities. We were also pleased that the U.S. News and World Report team was willing to learn about the new conditions in academia. As Morse admitted, the rankings were developed when a very different system was the norm. They recognize that their metrics need to be updated. We are going to continue helping them.

Universities will keep hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track faculty members as long as it seems to save them money.

We should note that, like most faculty members, we find the project of rating our institutions problematic, especially on such necessarily reductive measures as even the fairest system depends on. But we also recognize the institutional power that such rating systems have and see them as an important venue for asserting labor equity and equality as worthy criteria. Or, put another way, a necessary part of the solution to contingency is to amplify our message about how damaging it is for student learning conditions and faculty working conditions. It’s better having that conversation through U.S. News and World Report than not having it at all. U.S. News may not share our political or social goals, but their interest in getting their research right overlaps substantially with our interest in accurately representing the realities of the academic workforce.

It is crucial not to give in to despair. We must all keep publicizing the crisis of the casualization of academic labor, speaking out in any way we can imagine. Universities will keep hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track faculty members as long as it seems to save them money. That is why Tenure for the Common Good is working to make the casualization of academic labor economically adverse by telling parents not to send their children to institutions that mistreat their faculty and by helping develop accurate rankings that will hurt the status of institutions that engage in this sort of hiring.3 We are committed to developing creative, strategic ideas in partnership with our contingent colleagues and hope you will join us if you are a tenure-track ally. We are eager to develop new campaigns, and we look forward to new ideas.



1. In “What Works and What Counts: Valuing the Affective in Non-Tenure-Track Advocacy,” Sue Doe, Maria Maisto, and Janelle Adsit also address the role of despair, exploring how people in contingent faculty movements have had to figure out how to honor and incorporate emotion most effectively into the struggle for solidarity and change.

2. We learned subsequently that we were not the first to consider this angle. Rebecca Schuman had described a similar idea in 2014 in Slate: “[t]o be truly ahead of the game, the ‘percentage of faculty who are full-time’ should be front and center on the rankings list, before even student-to-faculty ratio. Instead, it’s tucked away inside the paid version of U.S. News’ ranking website, so most ‘education consumers’ will never see it—even though it should be the first thing you ask when you and your kid are touring a campus. Whether or not some sports nut who graduated in 1952 gives bank to the football team should matter much, much less than whether or not your professor has slept in a heated house, and thus prepared your lesson effectively.” Researchers with the American Association of University Professors had been working with U.S. News and World Report data analysts to develop more accurate figures for reporting the number of adjunct faculty members employed at institutions of higher learning. Seth Kahn also informed us that a working group at the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) conference held in New York City in 2014 had proposed the formation of an alternative ratings system to be called the Democracy Index. This index would rate institutions on their inclusive treatment of contingent faculty among other criteria.

3. In our campaign to make universities more answerable to the common good, we see Tenure for the Common Good as working in continuity not only with our contingent colleagues in such organizations as the New Faculty Majority but also with such efforts as James F. Keenan’s University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics and Jerry Gaff and Neil Hamilton’s The Future of the Professoriate: Academic Freedom, Peer Review, and Shared Governance.


Works Cited

Doe, Sue, et al. “What Works and What Counts: Valuing the Affective in Non-Tenure-Track Advocacy.” Contingency, Exploitation, and Solidarity: Labor and Action in English Composition, edited by Seth Kahn et al., WAC Clearinghouse / UP of Colorado, 2017, pp. 213–34.

Gaff, Jerry G., and Neil W. Hamilton. The Future of the Professoriate: Academic Freedom, Peer Review, and Shared Governance. Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2009.

Keenan, James F. University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics. Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.

Morse, Robert, and Eric Brooks. “Best Colleges Ranking Criteria and Weights.” U.S. News and World Report, 11 Sept. 2017, www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/ranking-criteria-and-weights.

Riedner, Rachel, and Kevin Mahoney. Democracies to Come. Lexington / Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Schaffer, Talia. “Idea for Action.” Facebook, 28 Sept. 2017, 10:45 a.m., www.facebook.com/groups/163317600885815/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2018.

Schuman, Rebecca. “Hit ’Em Where It Hurts: The Solution to the Higher-Ed Adjunct Crisis Lies in the U.S. News Rankings.” Slate, 30 Jan. 2014, www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/01/adjuncts_in_american_universities_u_s_news_should_penalize_colleges_for.html.

Trustman, Harry. “These Penn Professors Want to Lower the Rankings of Schools that Underpay Adjunct Faculty.” Daily Pennsylvanian, U of Pennsylvania, 28 Oct. 2017, www.thedp.com/article/2017/10/penn-professors-sign-petition-to-change-usnwr.


Carolyn Betensky is professor of English at the University of Rhode Island. She is author of Feeling for the Poor: Bourgeois Compassion, Social Action, and the Victorian Novel (U of Virginia P, 2010) as well as translator, with Jonathan Loesberg, of Eugène Sue’s 1843 epic The Mysteries of Paris (Penguin Books, 2015). She is a cofounder of Tenure for the Common Good.

Seth Kahn is professor of English at West Chester University, where he teaches courses in writing and rhetoric. Recent publications include the coedited collection Contingency, Exploitation, and Solidarity (WAC Clearinghouse / UP of Colorado, 2017); “Anybody Can Teach Writing,” in the collection Bad Ideas about Writing (Open Access Textbooks / West Virginia U, 2017); and “From Solidarity Invoked to Solidarity Built,” in Works and Days (2017). He also serves as his union’s statewide mobilization chair and on the board of the New Faculty Majority Foundation.

Maria Maisto cofounded and is president of the New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity (NFM) and serves on the board of the NFM Foundation. Her work with NFM has included research and writing on contingent academic employment for numerous mainstream and academic publications, extensive media outreach, coalition building, and policy work at the state and national levels. She is the executive director of the Committee for Montgomery, a broad coalition of education, labor, business, and civic groups that advocate on behalf of the citizens of Montgomery County, Maryland, and serves on the board of the Center for the Study of Academic Labor at Colorado State University and on the National Advisory Panel for the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification, based at Brown University.

Talia Schaffer is a professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of Romance’s Rival (Oxford UP, 2016); Novel Craft (Oxford UP, 2011); and The Forgotten Female Aesthetes (U of Virginia P, 2001). She is currently writing about ethics of care and Victorian fiction as a Rockefeller Fellow at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

One comment on “Common Good, Not Common Despair”

  • Martin Gliserman says:

    What a great idea! I just learned about this from a contingent faculty colleague. Keep up the good work. If I can be of any help going forward, please contact me. Thank you, Martin G.

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