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'Fair Employment Week' highlights higher education's dirty little secret

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Image: Flickr/Gisella Klein

It was called a "dirty little secret" in a CBC radio special airing last month. But there is no secret, for those of us working in Canadian higher education, about increased reliance on contract academic staff -- faculty members employed on a more-or-less imper­manent and precarious contractual basis, without benefit of tenure. Nor is there any secret about the sorts of injustices these academics too often face in their working lives.

Adjuncts (especially in the U.S.), fractionals(in the U.K.), sessionals, contingent faculty, limited-term appointments, "visiting" lecturers -- the list of job titles goes on and on. And terminological complexity is matched by the great diversity of contract academics' experiences. For some, college and university work is a permanent, full-time commitment (many so-called "part-timers" work significantly more than regular full-time hours and sometimes on multiple campuses), while for others it may be a supplementary, temporary, or casual occupation. Many only accept contract positions because tenure-track positions are not available; they struggle to keep up research profiles and remain competitive in the aca­demic job market as much as they can from one year to the next, even when such extra efforts go unacknow­ledged and unsupported by their employers.

Some are lucky, and eventually find reward­ing employment in academia or elsewhere. Some experience deep satisfaction as well-respected, full participants in their academic communities, contract status notwithstanding. But widespread bitterness, resentment and despair -- even serious adverse health consequences -- are the all too natural, and understandable, result when thousands of highly-trained and dedicated scholars find themselves doing a professor's work, and often on short notice, with a fraction of a professor's security, pay and benefits, with little or no support, and with no prospect of change in sight.

A two-tiered system, with some employees compensated significantly more than others and experiencing fundamentally different working conditions despite similar training and job requirements, is always problematic. It is particularly anathema to a healthy, unionized workplace. Yet temporary and otherwise precarious contract labour has become the "new normal" in academia as in other sectors. Why? Apart from the obvious boon of a cheap, "just-in-time" workforce for corporate bottom lines and neoliberal political agendas, many administrators find an added benefit in the maintenance of two (or more) professorial classes: it's called "divide and conquer."

There is always the potential for jealousies and antagonisms to arise between contract academics and their comparatively privileg­ed regular (that is, tenure-track or tenured) colleagues, and conflicts make us easier to manage and exploit. We must refuse those selfish politics of division, as the steady growth of acade­mic precarity will leave no one unscathed in the long run.

The challenges and frustrations of the contract academic's life are everyone's problem. They affect our students when they cannot rely on access to or build relationships with harried and transient faculty. And despite the best intentions of individual contract scholars, expansion of an untenured faculty complement risks the degradation of fundamental university ideals. Academic freedom, for example, is a notoriously hollow concept for those whose renewal of course assignments (and hence livelihood) may be terminated at any time with no explanation.

Collegial governance likewise suffers when fewer and fewer members of the professoriate are permitted to fully share in curricular and other key decision-making exercises. Systematic unfair treatment of colleagues is actually an affront to the very notion of collegiality; unquestioned and unchecked, it is the sort of practice that threatens to turn proudly democratic universities into sterile credential mills and info-boutiques.

Fair Employment Week, celebrated every October, reminds us that all academic work must be fairly supported, validated and remunerated. We all worked to obtain the same high degrees, and research and teaching credentials. We all necessarily perform aspects of the same duties -- teaching, whether in packed auditoriums or one-on-one as laboratory mentors; and researching, even if some employers think this can be reduced to a few new readings and syllabus updates carried out while on employment insurance or doing odd jobs, waiting for the next contract to arrive. The courses we teach entail the same academic credits, and look the same on students' transcripts. We all inspire and change lives. We all deserve decent working conditions to achieve the high standards society expects of us.

Currently, too few contract academic staff enjoy such working conditions. The diversity and complexity of contract academic constituencies and their varied needs, conflicting as they sometimes may with the short-term interests of other campus communities, mean that problems and potential remedies will look different in every college or university setting. Working for positive change can be difficult, frustrating, and at times truly daunting. Yet that work is essential, and the only way to accomplish it effectively is together. This Fair Employment Week, and every week, we need to stand united with a firm commitment to take the exploitation of our contract colleagues seriously, to find effective remedies, and to fight for the future integrity of our shared workplace. 

This year's Fair Employment Week is running from October 27-31. Please visit www.fairemploymentweek.ca to join the campaign and take action.

Robin Vose is the president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).


Image: Flickr/Gisella Klein


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