Elizabeth Hohl and Amy Essington
For the majority of faculty, the professionals who work off the tenure track or non-tenure track faculty (NTT), the arrival of COVID-19 exacerbated an already precarious situation and signaled an even more uncertain future. The crisis laid bare the structural fault lines and inequities of our system.
The pandemic sparked both a global health and an economic emergency. It brought instant and unprecedented unemployment as whole industries upended. For higher education, like every other segment of the economy, a series of challenges surfaced. Migrating to online classes in a matter of days proved to be just the first of many. News of major cuts along with widespread layoffs underscored the depth of an increasingly dire situation. The Chronicle of Higher Education promptly launched a report: ”We’re Tracking Employees Laid Off or Furloughed by Colleges”; the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 19,200 fewer workers in March than the year before.
In this critical moment, we urge Americanists to assess and address the impact of the crisis on NTT colleagues. It is time we take seriously the appeal by Herb Childress “to stop treating any of our members as expendable….” We can mobilize, contest inequities, and act in solidarity across tenure lines.
Despite their significant presence in higher education, NTT faculty and their working conditions often fall off the radar or remain incidental to mainstream discourse. When we refer to NTT faculty, we mean a complex category in which even the shorthand terms—part-time, adjunct, contingent and affiliate—have multiple variations. The American Association of University Professors reports over 70 percent of faculty work off the tenure track with approximately 12 percent on full-time contracts; the overwhelming majority are fixed term, at will employees, and part of the gig economy. The common denominator among non-tenure track faculty is teaching. A recent survey of OAH contingent members underscored that finding; 77 percent of respondents designated teaching as their main employment.
The precarity NTT faculty face includes not just insecurity in employment but often low wages, long hours, lack of benefits, a dearth of resources, and disrespect. Transitioning to a tenure track job is rarely an option. Across disciplines, according to Ashley Finley, women outnumber men as contingent faculty, frequently hitting a “glass wall” without the “opportunity to seek tenure, promotion and associated pay increases”; Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us that “black students and faculty have been protesting the gettoification of black scholars in adjunct roles” for decades.
For NTT faculty this past spring, the pandemic translated into uncompensated additional work with limited resources. Some had to cope with the virus; others dealt with the illness and death of loved ones. The rapid cancellation of summer and fall classes meant the loss of livelihood and for many, health care as well. The situation for NTT faculty in 2020 has become more fraught, underscoring the urgency in seeking solutions to longstanding structural inequities.
Moving forward, we know life and work will not be the same. However, we have an opportunity to embark upon a new direction. We can take actions that will improve not only the lives of non-tenure track faculty but secure the future of the profession.
It is vital that we focus on what we can do and we welcome further dialogue on the possibilities. Here are six options for action now.
1. Support organizations that represent NTT Faculty
Organizations that bring attention to the issues of NTT Faculty are already in place. The New Faculty Majority is “dedicated to improving the quality of higher education by advancing professional equity and securing academic freedom for all adjunct and contingent faculty.” The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) “is a network of North American activists working to improve higher education” by transforming the work environment of contingent academic laborers.
2. Support unionization
In June 2018, the Chronicle of Higher Education published “Do Unions Help Adjuncts?” The short answer is yes. Unionization resulted in increased wages, benefits, and job security. Faculty in unions have increased access to professional development, more resources to support teaching and advising, and greater academic freedom. Even with unionization, there are still ongoing issues such as true parity in salary and benefits, participation in shared governance, and continued overreliance on adjunct faculty without appropriate compensation. However, the benefits of organization are far greater.
3. Join Tenure for the Common Good
Characterized as “The New Tenured Radicals” by Emma Pettit, Tenure for the Common Good seeks equity for contingent faculty: stable employment, acceptable working conditions, access to health care, fair wages, and academic freedom. From positions of job security, they recognize and support longstanding NTT faculty activism on the premise that we are all diminished by the exploitation of contingent faculty. A relatively new undertaking, they have already organized sessions at the MLA conference, inaugurated a campaign for US News and World Report to incorporate data on NTT faculty in determining rankings and developed recommendations on the external review process. They launched initiatives around NTT faculty unemployment claims, a good labor practices designation or award and a COVID-19: Academic Solidarity Statement. The Statement, with over 2800 signatures and counting, urges colleges and universities to retain NTT faculty and graduate workers. TFCG aims to redefine tenure not only as a mark of accomplishment but also a “concept associated…with the common good.”
4. Encourage professional associations to become advocates
Professional organizations can and should play a role in advocating for NTT faculty. The OAH provides one model that other historical associations might consider. Nearly twenty years ago, they collaborated with the American Historical Association to produce a set of standards or best practices for the employment of contingent faculty. Next, they established the Committee on Part-time, Adjunct and Contingent Employment (CPACE), composed of tenured and non-tenure track representatives. Their mandate is “to monitor employment conditions and professional opportunities, recommend programs, services and best employment practices or guidelines, and advocate for non-tenure track members of the history profession.” CPACE successfully secured a dedicated NTT seat on the OAH Executive Board, recommended a statement on collective bargaining, and promoted adjustments in membership fees. For the annual meeting, they formulated programming, engaged in recruitment, and supported travel grants as well as reduced registration fees for conference attendance. They continue to raise awareness, develop concrete measures and entertain other possibilities such as a NTT Faculty Caucus. CPACE has become part of the OAH mission to “advance…the teaching and practice of American history.”
5. Support student loan forgiveness for NTT faculty
The New Faculty Majority, National Education Association, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), among others groups, identified student loan forgiveness as a critical issue. Often NTT faculty carry the economic burden of student loans that become increasingly difficult to repay given the underemployment and periodic unemployment they experience. For contingent faculty, meeting the full-time or thirty-hour workweek requirement has posed challenges in qualifying for the Public Student Loan Forgiveness Program. Sponsored by Democrats in the House of Representatives but opposed by Republicans, the HEROES Act extends the “pause” for federally held student loan payments until 2021. We need to actively monitor and register support for this and future legislation.
6. Include NTT faculty in campus governance
The inclusion of NTT faculty in the governance at the department, college, and university levels will bring to the table the voices of faculty who do most of the teaching on a majority of campuses. A 2012 AAUP report on “The Inclusion in Governance of Faculty Members Holding Contingent Appointments” concludes that the exclusion of NTT faculty is “the greatest danger to the integrity of the profession and the quality of higher education.” Faculty governance should be inclusive and NTT faculty must be part of academic decision- making process.
The pandemic laid bare systemic problems in higher education. The virus did not create these inequities, but administrative measures under the guise of managing the crisis will exploit them further unless we act purposefully. We have the ability to reshape the future. There are steps that everyone can take. Those in secure positions need to assume greater responsibility than they have before. In particular, tenured faculty should work to support their non-tenure track colleagues before the chasm of inequities created over the last few decades expands, threatening the whole system. Finally, we should embrace our roles as historians. We know many examples from the past of how everyday people changed society through collective action. Let’s put that knowledge to good use.
Amy Essington is a lecturer in the history departments at California State University, Fullerton and Cal Poly Pomona. She is the author of The Integration of the Pacific Coast League: Race and Baseball in the West. From 2016-2020, she served as co-chair of the Committee on Part-Time, Adjunct, and Contingent Employment for the OAH and is the current co-chair of the Committee on Contingent and Adjunct Faculty of the Western History Association.
Elizabeth Hohl is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Department of History at Fairfield University. Her research focuses on African American women’s activism. She serves on the Scholars’ Committee for the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
 Dan Bauman, “We’re Tracking Employees Laid Off or Furloughed by Colleges,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 2020.
 Colleen Flaherty, “Herb Childress Discusses His New Book,” Inside Higher Education, April 16, 2019.
 The OAH Committee on Contingent, Adjunct and Contingent Employment developed the survey of nearly 200 NTT faculty that was completed in March 2020; published results are pending.
 Ashley Finley, “Women as Contingent Faculty: The Glass Wall,” On Campus with Women, 37 (No. 3, 2009), Association of American Colleges and Universities; McMillan Cottom quoted in Liana Silva, “How Many Women are Adjuncts Out There?”
 Kristen Edwards and Kim Tolley, “Do Unions Help Adjuncts?” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2018.
 The best practices statement was revised in 2011 an updated in 2104: https://www.oah.org/insights/archive/standards-for-part-time-adjunct-and-contingent-faculty/.
 The OAH endorses “the equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.”