Campus Sexual Violence And The Adjunctification Of Higher Ed

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Alexis Henshaw is a visiting assistant professor in political science at Miami University. She is the author of Why Women Rebel: Understanding Women’s Participation in Armed Rebel Groups and conducts research on gender and armed conflict.

Adjuncts as Allies?

In the United States, a major push to deal with sexual assault on college campuses has coincided with another significant change in the higher education landscape: the adjunctification of college instruction. In 2011, a study by the American Association of University Professors estimated that 70 percent of all faculty members were contingent faculty, with over half of all instructors being part-time adjuncts.

In this environment, it is increasingly important that institutions bring non-tenure-track faculty into the fold when developing responses to sexual assault. Yet that calls into question our assumptions about the role of contingent faculty members, who are often seen as a transient presence in campus life.

I have spent 11 years teaching in contingent positions: as a graduate student, an adjunct and, most recently, a full-time visiting professor. I have also experienced sexual violence. And as someone specializing in the study of gender issues in international politics, I teach and research in areas related to gender-based violence more broadly. As such, I have noticed the conflict between an academe that is increasingly populated by term faculty and one that pledges to do better by the victims of sexual violence.

The paradox of contingency is that those of us who work in these positions often find ourselves drawn into campus life beyond the classroom, even as we are simultaneously kept at arm’s length. Contracts that emphasize that we are instructors only — without research and service obligations — belie the intertwined nature of these concepts, especially for those of us whose teaching connects with the complex social issues that our students face outside the classroom.

For me, the challenge of being contingent is not simply that I want to be an ally to students who have experienced sexual violence but also that students at times look to me to play that role. One factor that is often lost in debates about the adjunctification of higher education is that students do not distinguish between tenure-stream and non-tenure-track faculty in the same way that administrators do. This means that the go-to resource for the student who needs someone in whom to confide will probably be the person they trust — not necessarily the person with the most seniority or who has long-term job security.

For full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members especially, lines become blurred when students look to us for informal advisement. More than that, as the ranks of contingent faculty grow, some of us find ourselves counseling student groups, overseeing independent studies, even chaperoning student trips. Such responsibilities take contingent faculty above and beyond the “instructor-only” role. They also potentially place contingent faculty on the front lines, setting us up to be the authority figures that students will look to in a crisis situation.

Being an ally to students in such cases is an aspiration fraught with challenges for contingent faculty. Making non-tenure-track faculty aware of the resources on the campus for those affected by sexual violence — and keeping them updated on relevant changes to campus policies and personnel — should be essential, but this may not always happen.

To the credit of the institutions I have worked with, responses to sexual violence have always been a part of new faculty orientations that I have attended. However, that may not be the case at all colleges and universities, and especially not for adjuncts or part-time faculty members, who sometimes receive little or no formal orientation at all. Even when contingent faculty members are aware of resources for victims of sexual violence, they may not be given the full picture of campus climate. As of 2016, the U.S. Department of Education was investigating nearly 200 colleges and universities for their (mis)handling of sexual assault reports. Since higher education institutions have a vested interest in keeping such investigations low-key, faculty members who are part-time or temporary may lack valuable insight into systemic issues that contribute to the overall campus climate.

That has a potentially negative impact on students, for multiple reasons. First, surveys on campus sexual assault have generally highlighted an elevated incidence of sexual violence during the so-called red zone between the start of the fall semester and the Thanksgiving break. During this time, new women students in particular are considered vulnerable to sexual violence. At the same time, non-tenure-track faculty members increasingly teach the high-demand introductory courses that new students tend to take. If new students affected by sexual violence are not referred to proper care (including both short- and long-term care) and if they do not receive meaningful accommodations from their instructors, the result can be that victimized students feel overwhelmed, ultimately transferring or withdrawing altogether. In this sense, preparing faculty members to be allies takes on a sense of urgency.

Beyond the red zone, campus climate studies have also found that there are other high-risk periods for sexual assault that vary by institution. At some colleges, reports of sexual assault are higher during rush periods for Greek organizations or during winter terms when students take fewer classes and engage in more high-risk behaviors. These connections to student life are the type of issues that contingent faculty are likely to be unaware of, given their limited time on the campus. But having the full picture can help faculty members recognize when the student who is suddenly struggling in class could have something more urgent going on.

The debate over mandatory-reporter status is also particularly thorny for faculty members without the protection of tenure. In recent years, tenure-track and tenured faculty have also raised objections to the idea of making faculty members mandatory reporters — largely out of concerns for privacy, respect for the victim’s willingness to report and struggles over the ethical choices between keeping students’ trust versus carrying out an administrative mandate. While these are hard questions for all faculty members, the stakes may be particularly high for those of us without guarantees of long-term employment. What is a lecturer, visiting professor or adjunct to do when approached by a student who has experienced sexual violence but is not yet ready to report? Should they keep that student’s trust, knowing it may possibly cost them their job? It is a risk tenure-track faculty members may be more apt to take but one that could lead to termination for contingent faculty.

Adjunctification in higher education is a concern for many reasons, but the concerns associated with putting contingent faculty in the position to become mentors to students are seldom considered. That is a shame, since many of us stay in academe not just because we love publishing or standing in front of a classroom. We stay because we also want to be a positive force in the lives of our students. In my case, being an ally has meant attending a faculty reading group on sexual assault, attending events organized by student groups focused on sexual assault awareness and making many calls to administrators asking for guidance on how to deal with a student in crisis — even when I do not know the particular nature of the crisis involved. But I am aware that such efforts are above and beyond what is expected of most visiting faculty members. I also know that some contingent faculty members would struggle to take on this sort of unpaid labor at every institution where they teach.

These are the types of concerns that administrators should take seriously. A system that encourages us to demand the best of our students without also fully preparing us to be there for them in their worst moments is a flawed system. It fails to meet the needs of both faculty members and students, and in the long term, it endangers the goal of better serving students affected by sexual violence.