Casualization of Faculty and its Discontents

published 15 November 2016 updated 15 November 2016
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The United States prides itself on having more than half of the top 100 universities in the world. Ironically, developments in its academic world—particularly among elite universities—have been pushing institutions of higher education increasingly toward structures and practices that defy the values of equity and quality they profess to uphold. This is evident in the considerable stratification of the professoriate into permanent and contingent/casualized employment.

Innumerable accounts show that contingent faculty face considerable teaching responsibilities and, by default, increasing advice and mentoring loads. Notable among these accounts is a survey conducted by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, which seeks to counter “deteriorating working conditions and their effect on college and university students in the US.” Using a sample of more than 30,000 faculty members in 2,618 accredited colleges, this survey (CAW, 2012) confirmed several deplorable working conditions facing contingent faculty: Their compensation was smaller than that of professionals in other fields with similar credentials; many had no salary increases despite several years of work; they earned an average salary of $2,700 per course (2010 data); and close to half of these faculty taught three or more courses (in order to survive financially). The CAW survey found that 73% reported contingent teaching as their primary occupation and that more than 70% of the part-time faculty in the sample were between 35 and 65 years of age, putting into question the oft-stated assertion that such faculty comprises “either new, young faculty members taking a first step on a path to full-time employment work or older professionals working on a second, part-time career.” It found also that 76% of the respondents were seeking a full-time position. Moreover, the survey found that 22% of these contingent faculty teach in top-ranking research institutions, which indicates that temporary, ill-paid faculty is not a problem confined to less prestigious institutions.

While unionization comes to mind as an effective means to protect the working conditions of faculty, Robbie and Robinson (2008) found similar levels of casualized faculty when comparing unionized institutions with those that were not. One reason identified by the authors was that part-time and non-tenured faculty, precisely because they are not regularly attached to an institution, are a much less cohesive and organized group than tenured/tenure-track faculty and thus less able to protect their interests.

Union participation of contingent faculty is tenuous. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) represents both tenured professors (100,000) as well as contingent faculty (90,000), making it complicated to negotiate diverging interests simultaneously. An increasing number of contingent faculty are becoming members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a group that represents all kinds of services workers, which is not ideal for developing the type of expertise needed to represent the rather unique situation of higher education professionals.

Working in an institution that ought to be promoting the values of equity, why have tenured professors been so slow to react to these impinging developments? Why have professors, who operate in a critical environment par excellence, not demonstrated more agentic behavior in defense of their marginalized colleagues?

Several reasons can be identified. One reason might be that this tenured/tenure-track faculty of today is concentrating on goals that provide individual rewards and gratification, a prime source being research. The constant search for additional revenues, especially overhead-generating contracts, has created a negative climate, full of individualism and competitive practices. Sallee and Tierney (2011) remark that the growing university partnership with business and industry has resulted in inquiry that no longer “thrives on openness, communitarian values, and the search of knowledge for the public good.” For his part, Dehli (2010) affirms that neoliberal ideology is shaping a new professorial identity: calculative, entrepreneurial, and focused on outward performance.

Collectively and individually, contingent faculty members find themselves in a situation of disadvantage, with limited power to change the nature of events. Competition among research universities and the search for ways to reduce operational costs is fueling the expansion of contingent—read expendable—faculty and accord little space to issues of fairness in the treatment of faculty.


CAW. 2012 (June). A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members: A Summary of Findings on Part-Time Faculty Respondents on the Condition of the Academic Workforce Survey of Contingent Faculty Members and Instructors. Washington, D.C.: The Coalition on the Academic Workforce.

Dehli, K. Toward a New Survivalism? Neo-liberal Government of Graduate Education in Ontario. In J. Blackmore, M. Brennan, and L. Zipin (eds.), Re-Positioning University Governance and Academic Work. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, pp. 85-99.

Robbie, D. and Robinson. I. 2008 Reorganizing Higher Education in the US and Canada: The Erosion of Tenure and the Unionization of Contingent Faculty. Labor Studies Journal, 32(2): 117-140.

Sallee, M. & Tierney, W. 2011. The Transformation of Professors of Education. Journal of the Professoriate, 4(1): 1-38.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.