Publication Date

February 1, 2014

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities, News

Charge for Committee on Contingent Faculty

A recent report by the American Association of University Professors indicates that seven out of ten faculty members at institutions of higher learning are off the tenure track. Historians are part of this trend, and the numbers of those in our discipline who work on a contingent, part-­time, adjunct, or contract basis are growing. These faculty members generally endure second­class status in their institution—a status characterized by persistent job insecurity, poor pay (as little as $2,000–$3,000 per course), a lack of benefits such as health insurance, and working conditions that make it difficult to perform their roles as teachers and scholars (e.g., lack of research and travel funds and office space).

Why This Committee

The restructuring of the academic workforce affects nearly all disciplines. The American Historical Association, therefore, has joined with other scholarly societies in the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) to document these changes and generate ideas about how to improve the conditions of our many colleagues working in conditions drastically inferior to those of tenure-­track faculty. Through the CAW and other alliances, the AHA advocates for adequate compensation (including benefits), greater job security, research funding, and other measures to improve the working conditions of nontenured faculty. The working conditions faced by contingent faculty, however, can resonate outward, which is why the new ad hoc Committee on Contingent Faculty will examine also how depriving a faculty member of adequate resources affects their students as well—­how structural issues can influence how students learn history.

We will continue to support recommendations for changing the overall situation, keeping in mind, however, that in many cases the locus of decision making for such changes lies beyond the level of the department or even the dean. Indeed, an argument can be made (and often is made) that such issues cannot be resolved without broad systemic change, including a new or more robust commitment to higher education on the part of taxpayers. Nevertheless, our colleagues, as well as history undergraduates, cannot wait an indefinite amount of time for the resolution of budgetary issues. Hence the Committee on Contingent Faculty will take a special interest in how employers can improve working and learning conditions right away.

The ad hoc Committee on Contingent Faculty will focus on data about historians in particular, and will focus its recommendations on ensuring the highest quality of working conditions and history education, regardless of the type of institution that provides it.

—James Grossman

The purpose of this committee is not to conduct a detailed investigation of these working conditions, which have been well documented. We ask the committee instead to:

A. Disaggregate and study carefully the existing data about the population of contingent faculty. It is impossible to develop practical policy recommendations when we know so little about the influence of crucial variables in shaping this population.A useful analysis of the data will require, for example, distinguishing between different:

  • types of institutions that hire contingent faculty;
  • levels of history education among those so employed;
  • comprehensive situations of part-­time faculty (e.g., does it matter whether an adjunct has full­time employment elsewhere? If so, what proportion of adjuncts are so situated?)
  • employment structures—­i.e., part-­time vs. full-time nontenure­track faculty.

B.Draw on the committee’s expertise as history educators to focus on the impact that working conditions have on educational quality as well as the quality of life of nontenure-­track faculty. What aspects of contingent employment affect the quality of education that students receive? For example, does it matter in this context whether part-time faculty have office space? Access to research funds or other professional development opportunities? How do employment structures themselves affect the quality of history education? In other words, in what ways do the working conditions of these faculty—including their job insecurity, their marginalization within the department, and their own sense of demoralization—affect their students as well? Assuming that many contingent faculty are excellent teachers devoted to their students, we can nevertheless consider the pedagogical implications of large numbers of contingent laborers in the academy.

C. Offer specific recommendations that will:

  • continue to explore the impact of increased reliance on contingent faculty upon learning outcomes and the higher-­education mission more broadly;
  • address issues of compensation, benefits, access to research and travel funds, and job security of contingent faculty;
  • consider appropriate roles of contingent faculty in institutional decision making;
  • identify specific measures that institutions can implement in the short term that would require minimal financial resources but would enhance both the professional lives of contingent faculty and the learning environments of their students. These measures might include, for example:

1. annual or multiyear contracts that over time reward seniority with some measure of job security;

2. clear expectations in terms of teaching and service;

3. an annual review or evaluation that, if positive, can lead to reappointment and a multiyear contract;

4. a voice in departmental and institutional decision making;

5. full access to adequate office space and digital and other research resources at the hiring institution.

In addition to the above tasks, the committee might want to consider the following issues:

1. The proliferation of for-profit universities is generating an employment landscape that might differ from the working conditions of contingent faculty at more traditional types of post-­secondary institutions. How should the AHA regard that landscape? Is it a separate category of analysis and recommendations?

2. Assuming that the AHA cannot on its own pursue policies that significantly diminish the number of contingent faculty, what national strategies would enhance the quality of life for those individuals who take these jobs? What can the AHA do? What can the AHA recommend to the larger group of scholarly societies in the humanities and humanistic social sciences that constitute the American Council of Learned Societies?

3. What can tenured and tenure-­track faculty do to enhance the professional lives of their contingent colleagues?

Members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Contingent Faculty

  • Lynn Weiner, Roosevelt University, co-­chair
  • Philip Suchma, St. John’s University, co-­chair
  • Sharlene Sayegh, California State University, Long Beach
  • Charles Zappia, San Diego Mesa College
  • Monique Laney, American University

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.