Shaun Bartone has been teaching in colleges and universities since 1998. With two masters degrees and a law degree under his belt, he’s now on his way towards completing a PhD. He also lives in public housing.
“I qualify for public housing, thank god,” he says. “I’m appreciative of that because it floats with my income, so if I’m not teaching it goes down.”
Bartone is a part time professor in sociology at Dalhousie. Part time faculty, who often work more than full time hours on a course-by-course basis, make up roughly a third of all teaching staff at Canadian universities.
Providing an exact number for part-time faculty is difficult. Not only do numbers change from term to term, but the survey measuring academic staff — which in any case only covered full-time faculty — was axed along with the long form census in 2010.
While exact numbers fluctuate, what remains certain, says Bartone, is that part time faculty “are the teaching staff.” Yet their wages are disproportionately low; compared to tenured faculty at local universities, whose wages are sometimes more than $100,000, part timers make “barely $5,000 per course,” he notes.
Students think they’re paying for teachers, he says, but “they’re paying to be managed by a business mentality; teaching has become second or third rate at this point.”
National Adjunct Walkout Day
On February 25, National Adjunct Walkout Day saw faculty and students across the US walking out of their classes in the US — where itinerant faculty make up 75 percent of instructors — to protest low wages, lack of job security, and general disrespect that’s experienced by contract faculty in what’s come to be called by some “the faculty caste system.”
In Canada, University of Toronto teaching assistants and York University teaching assistants and contract faculty are poised to strike in the upcoming week, and the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations conducted an awareness campaign to draw attention to the working conditions of contract faculty.
In Halifax, members of CUPE 3912, the union that represents part time faculty at Saint Mary’s, Dalhousie and MSVU, wore buttons to denote their part-time status.
“Often students don’t know who is full time and who is part time,” says Steve Cloutier, president of the union and part time faculty member at SMU. “So in many ways that was our goal of the day of action, to let the students know just how many part time faculty are teaching them.”
These teachers are part of growing cohort of itinerant, precarious workers, whose existence undermines the security and prosperity upon which universities depend.
Anecdotal evidence of this trend abounds. In Pittsburg, a contract faculty member at Duquesne University died in poverty after having worked for the university for 25 years. On the other end of the spectrum in Alberta, administrators’ salaries have ballooned even as government funding is cut and tuition fees increase.
Part Time Faculty Symptom of Systemic Issues
For Matthew Furlong, a tutor in the foundation year program at University of King’s College from 2010-2013, it’s impossible to disassociate what is happening to contract faculty from the overall transformation of the university. He says that while it’s appalling what happens on an individual basis, the trends that have brought the situation to this point are far more troubling.
“People talk about it as an economic problem,” he says. “I see it more as an existential problem because we have this apparatus called the university that imposes an unhealthy life on people by virtue of participating in it.”
When he was teaching, Furlong says he would often only be notified whether his contract was renewed immediately before he was due to start work. Nonetheless, he managed to avoid the worst effects of casualization when he was teaching because he was full-time at one school.
Now that that contract is finished, he says he’s no longer teaching, despite the fact that he has a PhD in philosophy and he calls philosophy his “mission.” The idea of constantly uprooting himself in a desperate hunt for work, he says, is untenable.
Yet for part time contract faculty – as well as workers in other fields, like oil and gas – the dominant assumption is that it’s normal for humans governed by rational self interest to seek work wherever it’s available.
What’s lost in this assumption, says Furlong, “are some of the basic psychic needs that people have. One of the basic needs is home, and I mean real dwelling which is a coherent social space. I look at the university and it should be a space to establish these shared realities and I [instead] see an institution that is just dedicated more and more to do things that destroy it.”
It’s a trend that paralyzes everyone, he says.
Full time faculty may want to help, but don’t want to sacrifice the benefits of a position they worked hard to get. At Dalhousie, SMU and MSVU, full time and part time faculty are not part of the same union, which means that “full time faculty don’t represent our interests,” says Steve Cloutier, a part time lecturer in the English Department at Saint Mary’s who is also president of CUPE 3912, the union that represents part time faculty.
Professors are also placed in the difficult position of having to decide whether or not to encourage bright, talented students who express interest in graduate school.
It’s doubly problematic, says Furlong, because it’s not clear that students should be made aware of the precarious positions that they and their teachers are in. Warning students of the dynamics that may govern their future, he suggests, reinforces the idea that the social and economic outlook is not only deeply but also necessarily uncertain.
It’s another way in which universities act as sites for the generation and dissemination of social attitudes, says Furlong, adding that especially with so many people passing through these institutions, “[in] the university, we’re at ground zero for the fabrication of this society.” As ground zero, he says, one of the roles of the university “has become one of the main production sites for flexible labour.”
This dynamic also has implications for relationships between part time faculty.
It can be a difficult environment in which to have a union, says Cloutier. Because members are each other’s main competition for work, he says, they “feel that they can’t help each other because it has an impact on their career opportunities.”
While members with less seniority struggle to get courses to teach, he notes, those who’ve taken those courses struggle with feeling like they’re part of the problem. “I’ve had this conversation with people where they say ‘I feel guilty for taking all this work because I know others need it.’’’
For Shaun Bartone, the solution is obvious: “equal pay for equal work.”
In the absence of that, there are things that could be done to improve the situation of part time faculty within the current university structure, says Steve Cloutier, citing benefits and job security as two additions that would improve working conditions even more than increased wages.
“I’ve been teaching at SMU for 15 years and I still don’t know from term to term whether I’ll be working or not. There’s loads of people who have been teaching there longer than I have and once they’re gone they have nothing — they don’t have pensions.”
Perceptions also need to change, he says, chief among them the idea that part time faculty are less accomplished teachers. In fact, he says, part time faculty carry out most of the teaching.
Framing the debate over contract faculty in terms of declining standards of education, he says, belittles the contributions of part time faculty and exacerbates the disrespect they experience at work.
The unacknowledged role that part time faculty play in teaching is reflected in their exclusion from the governance of the university. Part time faculty are not part represented in the senate. They are not consulted in decision making, Cloutier says, even when those decisions directly affect them, as when SMU was debating the future of its Introduction to Literature course.
That course, as well as other first year courses, are almost entirely taught by part time faculty, Cloutier notes, but “they didn’t consult us.”
As CUPE 3912 president, Cloutier has tried, especially at SMU, to make the university more aware of part time faculty. By educating the university, he says, they’re less likely to violate contracts and collective agreements, making the relationship less adversarial.
“If I can get the union in a situation where we prevent issues from happening that’s a better place.”
Yet Cloutier admits that at times, especially when considering whether he’ll have work himself in a few months time or not, it’s hard to see a way forward.
“Sometimes I just keep going because I’ve been doing it for 15 years. I don’t know anything else.”
Need for Radical Change
For Matthew Furlong, hope won’t come from maintaining existing university structures.
“In order to fix these problems we are going to have to imagine a university in the future that is different in just about every way from what we have now, which is extremely hard work but very exciting.”
Without addressing the question of how universities are governed – and who they’re governed for – these problems will persist, he says, because they’re increasingly written into the way that universities are run.
“We need to see the university for what it really is,” he says, which means recognizing how ideas about the university, including of it as an ivory tower, help produce and reproduce relations of power. “I say this with all joy in my heart, but the ivory tower has to be destroyed, and smashed into smithereens and swept into the ocean,” he says. ‘I think that we could just do better on every level.”