The following post was written by Anonymous.
I recently took an administrative position in a campus unit that had been formed by the consolidation of several preexisting units. It fell to me a few weeks ago to effectively fire a contingent faculty member who came from one of those previous units. I didn’t want this task, and it turned out to be harder than I anticipated. But I hope that what I learned will help me be a better administrator going forward, and potentially help others. For the sake of anonymity, I will call this faculty member “Jim.” I had never met Jim in person before he came to my office to discuss the reorganization of activities and priorities in my new unit, a conversation that ended with me telling him there was no place for him. Jim was a research assistant professor, and had been employed by my university for about five years. He started out teaching one course each year, and then supplemented that by securing external grant funding that pays part of his salary. He also works for other universities on a consulting basis.
To contextualize this story, my university is a place of great privilege and my own position is among the more privileged in the university. I have tenure, a leadership position, discretionary budgets, and respect in and out of the university. Departments and programs in my university treat our contingent faculty well. I have often thought with pride that, while we shouldn’t be hiring people into such insecure positions, we do better by them than many other universities. Our “visiting” faculty receive benefits and earn a living wage, and our adjuncts earn $10,000 to $15,000 per course. Jim was able to apply for external grants as a Principal Investigator in the same way tenure-track faculty do. So, feel free to say that everything I describe here is a “first world” problem among the universe of adjunct experiences, or that I am naively living in a bubble. I’m well aware that I should have known better.
When Jim came to my office, I knew the conversation would be unpleasant. No one had discussed with him what the restructuring might mean for his position, and Jim had been complaining to staff about some recent changes that had affected him. I also realize now that I went in with the wrong assumptions about contingent faculty that many people have. I assumed that Jim had chosen this mix of activities at my university because he really wanted to live in this city or work here, or that he probably had a spouse who needed to stay in the area. This looks completely idiotic and embarrassing, as well as conceited about my university, when I put it in words. Like I said, you can call me naïve or anything else, but I imagine I’m not the only one who had assumed the precarity of adjunct work was someone else’s problem.
I spent about half an hour talking with Jim, describing the new organization of the unit and discussing how he came to this university and his research. While discussing the combination he had pursued of teaching and external grants, and gently asking him about the potential of one of his other contract positions becoming permanent, I was framing the conversation in terms of what he wanted to do over the next few years. This is a familiar conversation that I have with all my graduate students. When he said “I just want a full-time job,” and his eyes filled with tears, I was shocked to realize all my preconceptions had been wrong. My first instinct at that moment was to give him the full-time job, but that doesn’t fit with the reality of my position. I was trapped in a situation in which I had to tell someone that they were no longer welcome, that it was effectively not my problem if he was unemployed when his current grant funding ends. All I could offer him was a letter saying that he had to leave because of restructuring and not because of any evaluation of the quality of his work. A poor substitute for real support.
My second thought during and after talking with Jim was anger at the faculty member who had hired Jim. He did no one a favor by hiring Jim into a position that was renewable indefinitely and allowing Jim to apply for grants that committed the university to activities over more years than Jim’s initial appointment. While that did give Jim a (part-time) job for several years, it also gave an implicit promise that Jim was part of our community and would be able to continue in his position indefinitely. As a result, telling Jim that he no longer fits with the mission of the new unit felt cruel, and I believe it was a surprise to him.
I take two personal lessons from this experience, and I hope that others can learn from my experience. First, I need more humility; we here at my fancy university are not as exempt as I thought from the inhumane treatment of our contingent faculty. Second, I will never hire any PhD-level scholar/teacher/researcher without a clear term and regular ongoing communication about opportunities (or lack thereof) for retention and advancement.
For those of you similarly moving into positions in which you could hire contingent faculty, including both temporary instructors and research faculty, I would suggest the following:
- Don’t convince yourself to hire someone with a vague and open-ended informal understanding. If you give vague explicit or implied promises but aren’t willing and able to hire them with a multi-year contract, you are setting them and yourself up for trouble. Eventually letting them go will be hard for you, and their employment at your university won’t necessarily have set them up for success.
- Be completely clear about what you can offer and what they should expect, no matter how uncomfortable it is to say to someone that they will never get a permanent position at your school.
- Pay attention to contingent faculty under your purview, and ask them how you can help with their careers.
- Don’t wait until you are letting someone go and there’s no time left to help, but also don’t assume you know what career they want or what will help them toward that career. Contingent faculty may unfortunately be second-class citizens in our universities, but they aren’t students or children looking for our guidance.