Professor, second class 

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First in a series

By Megan Zahneis, News Editor 

John-Charles Duffy can’t get off his hamster wheel.

Last fall, after four years of teaching in Miami’s Department of Comparative Religion, Duffy was promoted from visiting assistant professor (VAP) to instructor. That’s a step up in salary and job security. But it’s still not the tenure-track position he’s hoped for since earning his Ph.D. in 2011.

To have a chance at tenure — that is, career-long job security — at Miami or another institution, he’ll have to make original contributions to knowledge in his field. But to do that, he needs time for research, and only professors on the track toward tenure have that luxury.

Duffy’s grateful just to have a job in his field. It’s more than many Ph.D.s have. But he’s paid to teach full-time, not to do research — thus the inescapable hamster wheel.

“The danger is that, once you’re a VAP or a lecturer,” he said, “you’ll get caught in this cycle where all your time is spent teaching, teaching, teaching, teaching, and you’re not able to get your research done, which means, in the end, you can never get off the wheel.”

Duffy is part of a growing class of university faculty at Miami and across the country: the contingents — so called because they work on year-to-year contracts, unlike tenured professors, who earn lifetime job security after a probationary period of several years on the “tenure track.”

Contingent faculty are bearing an increasing share of Miami’s teaching load. The proportion of courses taught by full-time non-tenure-track faculty rose from 23 percent in fall 2004 to 39 percent in fall 2015.

And that doesn’t count the many courses taught by “adjunct” faculty, other part-timers and graduate students, who make roughly $2,000-$4,000 per course, sometimes while working other jobs.

Yet, despite their growing responsibility for educating Miami’s students, many contingents contend they are treated  as second-class academic citizens, with less security, lower pay, less authority and less academic freedom than their tenure-track peers.

Duffy’s story is a cautionary tale not only for contingent faculty like himself, but for Miami as a whole, as the university’s growing reliance on contingents calls into question its claim to provide a “public Ivy”-caliber education.

Professors… and not

At Miami and many other colleges and universities, contingent faculty are the imperfect solution to chronic budget problems that worsened with the onset of the Great Recession. They are essentially stopgaps for departments that would like to hire tenure-track faculty but can’t. They’ve become the underlings of higher education — overworked, underpaid and usually powerless within their departments.

“It’s creating a two‑class faculty structure,” said James Brock, a tenured professor of economics. “Everybody else is the bottom class. The problem with that is that everybody else is who’s doing all the teaching.  So it is, in effect, downgrading the importance and value of teaching by saying the real faculty stars don’t do so much teaching. The grunts do the teaching. And that puts teaching in a very negative light. I think it can’t help but do that. It unavoidably tags teaching as lower-class activity.”

One contingent’s story

John-Charles Duffy’s job search started before he had even finished his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of North Carolina. In 2011, after countless hours spent applying for entry-level positions in academia, he was hired to teach three courses per term as a VAP in Miami’s Department of Comparative Religion. That meant very long days — one former Miami VAP estimates he worked 80 hours per week — but at least he’d have a job.

His clock was ticking. He would have five years to either win a tenured job at Miami or find one elsewhere.

“You’ve got the foot in the door,” Duffy explained, “and now you want to make sure you keep that foot in the door and maybe try to get your leg through.”

He busied himself by rewriting curricula for his courses — eight in total — and serving on several faculty committees. During evenings and weekends, he scoured postings for tenured jobs. Even today, 203 documents — resumes, CVs, cover letters and research notes — sit in a folder on Duffy’s desktop computer in Upham Hall.

“When I was in the VAPship, there was an expiration date looming,” Duffy said. “It created a situation where, on the one hand, you’re trying to get to know the institution you’re working at — you’re doing your teaching, trying to do some research on the side, doing what you can by way of mentoring students. But you’re also spending a lot of time, especially in the autumn, applying to jobs.”

He was finally promoted to lecturer at Miami last fall — a salary increase from $41,820 in 2014 to $43,910 in 2015-16 — but he still lacks full tenure and still holds a “four-four” teaching load. That’s four courses per semester, compared to a “three-two” expectation for those with tenure and a “two-two” for tenure-track faculty.

“I am here at Miami in a non-tenured position, which is to say I’m in a less desirable position,” Duffy said. “But the reason I remain in this position is because I don’t have yet the publishing record or the reputation in my field that would make me competitive enough, in our present[ly] very competitive market, for tenured faculty positions somewhere else. Which means, in effect, I’m staying at Miami because I’m not good enough to go somewhere else.”

And because tenure-track positions are hard to come by at Miami, especially in a small department like Comparative Religion, Duffy is still forced to cast a wider net.

Undermining the teacher-scholar model

Some contingents say their situation undermines the teacher-scholar model that is supposed to form the foundation of American higher education.

That model posits that by staying up to speed in their academic fields, conducting research and being published, teachers not only expand knowledge, but become better teachers.

But Duffy and his colleagues can’t be teacher-scholars without putting in a a lot of extra hours. Since contingents are paid to devote all their time to teaching, they can do research only in off hours.

“It’s just teaching — that’s all you’re expected to do,” Duffy said. “Ideally, that’s what I’m spending my 40 hours a week on. But the unspoken reality is [that] if I want to get another job somewhere else, then I’ve got to write. I’ve got to be publishing. I’ve got to be researching.”

The teacher-scholar model, according to James Brock, is supposed to be Miami’s bread and butter.

At Miami, Brock said, “we weren’t going to segregate into people who did research and people who taught. We thought the ideal faculty person did both.  And this is an abandonment, this is an erosion, of that ideal.  And I think that’s unfortunate because I think that was one thing that made Miami stand out as different, and as appealing, to undergraduates.”

Career paths for contingents, according to Duffy and others, quickly turn into endless rat races that wind up undermining good teaching.

“It’s just the game,” Duffy said with a sigh. “It’s just the way the game has to be played. That’s the point where you become aware that you’re being exploited.  And it kind of sucks. You just try to tell yourself, ‘Well, it will pay off eventually.’

“But, at the same time, there’s always, in the back of my mind, that thought of, ‘Am I actually digging myself in deeper because the more I do things for free, the more the institution will just expect me to do them for free? Does this become harder for me later to try to negotiate for some sort of pay for the things I’m doing now?’”

Duffy says there’s a word for what VAPs across the nation are facing: exploitation.

“Not sweatshop-level exploitation by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “But it means I am in a position where the university has been able to pressure me to do work that I’m not, in fact, paid for.”

Interviews with more than a dozen contingent faculty at Miami revealed that many consider themselves lucky to have sympathetic colleagues and superiors who include them in departmental business. In fact, they say, that’s more than many friends at other institutions can say.

And yet, Duffy said, if something better comes along, he’ll take it.

“I love working with my colleagues, but if I can get more publishing done, if I can make myself competitive enough to get a tenure track job somewhere else, I’ll do it,” he said.

Professor, second class

Despite their outsized teaching load, many contingents feel like second-class citizens. Indeed, a number of instructors who spoke for this story requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from superiors.

“It seemed like the department saw my role as just covering classes, and that I wasn’t really considered a full colleague,” said a VAP in English. “I was allowed to go to department meetings, but I couldn’t vote.”

Another visitor in English, Lilian Mina, added that some tenure-track faculty respect non-tenured colleagues more than others.

“[There are some] faculty who really appreciate what I’m doing and are ready to listen to what I’m doing and give feedback, give encouragement, give opportunities,” Mina explained. “Others are just like, ‘You’re just a failure, you don’t have the right to say anything about anything, just do your work and get out of here.’”

To hear one visiting professor in the College of Creative Arts tell it, some tenure-track faculty aren’t even aware of the differences in classification.

“I’m not stomping on the table saying, ‘Hey, what about me?’ But I think not enough people know what other people do — not just in our department. We’ve had some recent discussions in our department about this and some didn’t know what a VAP was at all.”

Coupled with a lack of transparency, this culture creates a sense of powerlessness among Miami’s contingent faculty.

“I have no idea what happens at the administrative level,” one instructor admitted. “Never in a million years would I speak out against the administration. What I say would have no impact on what they decide to do.”

An army of transients

According to Duffy, contingent faculty the nation over live in a state of insecurity and instability. Though he’s not actively seeking work elsewhere and feels committed to Miami, he can’t shake the nerves that come with a contract that must be renewed yearly.

“There’s always that nervousness every spring,” Duffy admitted. “What’s going to happen?  Will there be some sudden announcement of a budget cut that will mean that the university does not make available to my department the money they would need to have me next year?  One never knows for certain.”

Though Duffy’s title as a lecturer comes with some semblance of stability, others are not so lucky.

“I am dispensable, and I know that,” one instructor put it bluntly. “I don’t have any value. Telling myself if I work super, super hard — I don’t believe that they won’t get rid of me. [The administration] can flip a switch and I’m gone, or we’re all gone. My life is really in their hands. It’s very, very scary on a psychological level.”

Gael Montgomery, a VAP in Italian, said such uncertainty comes with consequences.

“It’s absurd to say that giving people unreasonably low wages and a complete lack of job security is going to enable them to do anything other than develop a host of psychosomatic conditions,” she said. “That’s simply absurd.”

Some VAPs were only made aware of their contract renewal for the 2016-17 academic year in February. For many, the meager salary prompts a sort of midlife crisis.

“A lot of my colleagues are struggling to pay their bills,” a VAP in languages said. “And we’re academics.  We went through Ph.Ds. A friend of mine said the other day that with the number of students he had in his class and what he was being paid for it, that was not that much more than someone who works full time at McDonald’s.

“I think it would be a different situation if I didn’t have to teach a winter course and a summer course just to make ends meet.  And, to be quite honest, that is very much the situation. And it’s not like I’m a big spender. I don’t drive a Ferrari, I don’t have a big house. In fact, I can’t even afford to buy a house at age 37.”

And, the contingent said, even if he had the money for a down payment, becoming a homeowner wouldn’t make much sense, considering he could find himself out of a job in any given year.

How students suffer

Duffy says that the quality of undergraduate education is compromised. How could it not be, he reasons, when the people responsible for teaching the majority of Miami’s courses are spread so thin?

“You have a professor who is already constantly looking for his next job and he’s not really able to commit to the student body,” Duffy said.

“What would happen if we’re out on our ass in three years, or two years, or next year?” the VAP in Creative Arts asked. “That doesn’t promote good teaching, right?  They’re going to think, ‘Screw it, I’m going home.  I’m not going to be here extra time.  I’m leaving when the bell sounds.’”

Deborah Lyons, associate professor of classics and secretary of Miami’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) advocacy chapter, said the impermanence of faculty members’ appointments makes forging bonds and mentorships with students especially difficult.

“The students can’t really know who to expect to find in a classroom from one year, or even one semester, to the next,” Lyons said. “It’s hard to develop strong connections with faculty if they’re coming and going.  It’s hard for departments to plan.  It breaks down the sense of a community if people are constantly leaving and if people are constantly arriving.  Obviously, it’s good to have some new blood, but the degree of transience in the academic population has really risen, and it’s not a positive thing for the institution.”

The other side of the equation

Department chairs and administrators say they’re keenly aware of these problems, but they can’t do much about them.

“It’s hard when you see someone and you think, ‘Wow, this is really, really a good person, and in the best of all possible worlds, this person should have a tenure-track job,’” said Margaret Ziolkowski, chair of Miami’s Department of German, Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures (GRAMELAC). “And … in some areas, it’s not simply [that] there are not the jobs here, but there aren’t really enough jobs anywhere.”

Ziolkowski acknowledged that it’s hard for contingent faculty to perform at their best.

“It’s going to be true of any job: if you don’t have job security and you’re not being paid that well, then you have to be an unusually kindhearted person to say, ‘Well, I’m going to put 100 percent effort into this,’” she said.

Anthropology chair Mark Peterson tries to ensure that his charges are well-equipped to move on to tenured positions.

“I want to make sure [contingents] are not treated as second-class citizens,” Peterson said. “We invite them to faculty meetings.  We invite them to conversations about pedagogy and departmental processes. We encourage them to use our resources as part of the process of finding a tenure-track home somewhere else or a lecturer home somewhere else.”

As for wages, College of Arts and Science dean Christopher Makaroff said his hands were tied.

“We would certainly like to [raise salaries], but there’s only a certain amount of money,” Makaroff said. “If we raise the [average] salary, that means we can hire fewer visiting assistant professors.  So that means that everyone that we hire would then need to teach more.

“I think the university should have that conversation: is everyone willing to teach more?  Then we can raise the salary, because we would just hire fewer visiting assistant professors.”

A mission compromised?

To many contingent faculty members, the trend toward dependence on temporary teachers undermines Miami’s core mission: to provide a first-class undergraduate education in the “public Ivy” mold on which the university prides itself.

“Miami and many other universities around the country are filling their faculty with people who are not as good as they could be,” Duffy noted. “Miami claims to do lots of things in terms of quality undergraduate education, but one thing it cannot claim to be doing is trying to recruit the best faculty. They’re cheating students out of the best quality instruction they could be getting.

“If Miami wanted to, it being Miami, administration could say, ‘We’re going to buck the national trend,’” Duffy said. “‘We are going to invest in our faculty. We’re going to make those tenure-track positions available.  We’re going to commit our financial resources in that direction.’”

Some at Miami claim it does better at this game than other institutions. But Gael Montgomery has little patience for that argument.

“Frankly, I don’t care whether or not Miami isn’t as bad as some places,” she said. “If Miami wants to be an excellent educational institution, those terms shouldn’t even be considered. The terms should be whether Miami is as good as it possibly can be, not whether it’s better than some and worse than others.  And, frankly, to say that you don’t treat your employees as badly as some other places isn’t even damning with faint praise. It’s damning with criticism, basically.”

James Brock shares that sentiment.

“We’re nowhere different than where we began,” he said, “except [that] we’ve tarnished a lot of our treasured ideals, I think.”

Classification of contingent faculty:

Part-time faculty: Often called “adjuncts,” who typically teach a class or two per semester with low pay and no guarantee of later contracts.

Instructors: Full-timers contracted year by year with a five-year limit.

VAP: Visiting assistant professors are also full-time. More likely than instructors to hold a Ph.D., they make slightly more money, but also work a five-year limit.

LCPL: Lecturers, clinical and professionally licensed faculty are hired annually.

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