While there are many different elements that make up a successful university, the core interactions by which students learn is in the hands of the professorship.
Today, across the country, that professorship is under attack.
Schools have attempted to deal with budget cuts by replacing tenure-track professors, or professors that cannot be fired without proof of inadequacy in specific metrics, with contingent faculty. Contingent faculty are teachers that do not have long-term contracts and often have almost no job security, including adjuncts and lecturers. These hiring practices are part of an effort to reduce costs; contingent faculty members make significantly lower salaries than their tenured coworkers, and receive almost no benefits.
At UCLA, the teaching staff has a significant number of contingent faculty. Although many of these adjunct professors receive higher wages than their counterparts across the country, they grapple with the same kind of job insecurity. Because of that, the quality of teaching at UCLA also suffers.
This problem across the country has become so prevalent that adjuncts, a major category of contingent professors, are organizing a “National Adjunct Walkout Day” that will take place on Feb. 25. The discussion around the event proves how deep the problems lie, with many adjuncts worried about losing their jobs or facing fines if they participate.
Universities need to prioritize education above everything else by allowing a greater percentage of the faculty to follow tenure tracks while increasing salaries and benefits to remaining contingent faculty members.
The budgeting problems of many universities, including the University of California, are very real, but it is not acceptable to simply designate this issue as unsolvable. Students pay a great deal of money to come to universities in the UC system because of the quality of education and the prestige associated with working with academically accomplished experts. As universities erode the professorship while increasing tuition, students may stop seeing the costs as worthwhile.
If the cuts in faculty are allowed to continue and the benefits of a career in academia continue to decline, going to a UC a decade from now might not mean what it does now.
The reason contingent faculty members are an easy target for cost savings, is the disproportionately few number of positions available compared to the amount of applicants. As such, contingent faculty lack the ability to advocate for better salaries or workplace conditions. This leaves many of them unable to earn a decent living to pay off their college loans – with an average national annual salary of $20,000 to $25,000 – and trying to cope by taking on engagements at multiple institutions that don’t provide essential benefits like health insurance.
Offering more tenure-track positions is the right way to address the problem because it requires aspiring professors to participate in a multi-year process, during which their ability to participate in high-quality research and effectively convey knowledge to undergraduate and graduate students will be tested, ensuring a good quality of education.
The main issue that should concern students is the lack of quality teaching associated with contingent faculty members. These faculty members are often handling full-time workloads spread across multiple institutions.
Dave Teplow, a professor of neurology in the David Geffen School of Medicine and president of the UCLA chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a group that advocates for tenured and contingent faculty rights, said that many adjuncts are denied resources, like offices, that might help them communicate with students. It shouldn’t be a surprise then, that a recent study conducted by the USC Rossier School of Education found the reliance on contingent faculty to be associated with a decrease in students’ success – including lower graduation rates.
Tenure track often includes liveable wages, office spaces, access to laboratories for conducting research and membership in the Academic Senate, the body of professors that helps determine the curriculum, which enables professors to be more effective.
It should be clear that students will be greatly harmed if the continuing discussions surrounding the UC budget fail to allocate a part of the inevitable tuition hikes to ensuring the quality of the education, which is most closely linked to those teaching.
Though most people would agree that the current use of contingent faculty has few benefits, there are many who think more tenure-track positions are the wrong solution. There is a vocal group of people who think tenure is an outdated policy that makes it hard to fire bad teachers and hurts overall academic integrity.
For some, the better solution involves policies that would see universities signing longer, multi-year contracts with contingent faculty members to eliminate the uncertainty normally associated with non-tenure positions, while avoiding the aforementioned pitfalls of tenure.
Teplow said he thinks the multi-year contract idea is a bad solution because it won’t address the most pressing concerns related to teaching quality or long-term job security.
“A multi-year contract simply extends the trauma for (contingent faculty),” Teplow said.
There is nothing wrong with signing longer contracts for a bit of increased security, but it will not solve the greater problems that contingent faculty face.
The contingent faculty members that are able to excel should be given the opportunity to become full professors in universities where they can be a part of the community that helps shape the next generation’s future.