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Piecework Professors

At universities, it's goodbye tenure, hello 'road scholars.'

Bryan Zandberg 18 May 2006The Ubyssey

Bryan Zandberg is the assistant editor of The Tyee.

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If you're a student with a summer job, you could earn more money in the next few months than those teaching your classes. And if you've ever made more than $11 dollars an hour, that puts you in a potentially higher pay-scale than about one-quarter of faculty at UBC, where a growing coterie of professionals -- also known as "sessional instructors" or "contract staff" -- are earning one-third less than starting high school teachers.

It's a nation-wide problem that's been getting increasing attention lately, even though many students still seem completely in the dark about the pay and working conditions of a significant number of their teachers. Nevertheless, in an era of cutbacks, modern university administrations are banking on huge financial savings by replacing ever-increasing numbers of tenured faculty (or full-time profs) with temporary, contract positions.

The trend is a sort of echo of the casualisation -- some might argue McDonaldisation -- playing out in many sectors of society. But when you throw higher tuition and skyrocketing university enrolment into the mix, a pattern emerges where some say both students and faculty are left holding the short end of the stick.

'Gypsy faculty'

"Gypsy faculty" and "road scholars" are two recently coined, tongue-in-cheek terms that approximate the sketchy business of trying to work for a university nowadays. If anyone could fit the "gypsy" bill, it's Erica Paterson. Closing the door to her spartan office with a hot cup of coffee in hand, she looks a little like Janis Joplin and has a hint of the songstress' gravelly voice to boot.

Once her children were grown and had moved out, Paterson finished her PhD in theatre studies and then spent a number of years living in Latin America, where she helped found a university on a small island off the coast of Honduras.

Now, she's in her second term as a sessional instructor for the Department of English at UBC. Unlike many contract staff, Paterson isn't gunning for a full professorship.

"I'm a little unusual," she admits, explaining that while she loves to teach, she just isn't interested in keeping her nose to the academic grindstone. She wouldn't enjoy the constant pressure to publish, lecture, research and beetle about in a Kafka-esque bureaucracy.

"I like the freedom," she explains.

In this respect, Paterson reflects thousands of gypsy faculty across Canada.

'Bling-less gauntlet'

Freedom and flexibility aside, Paterson finds the plight of sessional instructors at UBC unacceptable.

First off, there's the pay. Paterson says she earns a $5,200 per course. And given that sessionals are permitted to teach a maximum of three courses per semester, that puts her maximum earnings at $31,200 per academic year before taxes. Sometimes sessionals teach summer courses as well, but Petre Ganzenmueller says, "Whenever the supply of courses dwindles, as it does during summer session, sessional faculty members are faced with a lack of courses to teach, or may be out of work altogether."

Secondly, the nature of contract teaching is ephemeral, which is to say there are no guarantees that contract staff will teach the same class from one semester to the next. As a result, they often have to run the same bling-less gauntlet to prepare and master courses every four months.

Here's where the plot thickens. Paterson goes on to explain that sessionals are normally hired on very short notice -- usually a week or two before students plunk themselves in their chairs and poise their pens. By that time, she's only had two weeks to prepare three university-level courses; as such, the quality of her teaching isn't at all what it could be if she were given the time to properly prepare, like tenured faculty are.

The hitch in this scenario is student evaluations: feedback from students is the only means departments have to evaluate the sessional faculty. That throws contract staff into a catch 22: they're given insufficient, unpaid time to prepare and then expected to perform by an audience with great expectations, an audience that doesn't know what's at stake. The upshot is less than inspiring for students or their teachers: the quality of the course is diminished, and the person teaching is put under extreme stress.

"If I could see anything change in terms of our situation, it would be that prep period," says Paterson. "We would be hired a month before classes start with a decent time to prepare."

Hurdling sessionals

Unlike Paterson, Petra Ganzenmueller does want a tenure-track position at UBC -- she wants to be a full professor. As Chair for the Sessional Faculty Committee, she's been unrelenting in her work to fight for a better deal for contract faculty at UBC.

Still, in the eight years she's toiled for the university as an instructor in the Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies department, Ganzenmueller has realised something that sessional instructors all across North America have been finding out in recent years: that the trend toward hiring contract staff is creating very real hurdles for them to ever get permanent, tenured positions.

It works like a revolving door. You graduate with a PhD heavily in debt and start looking for work at an academic institution. Unless you've already somehow managed to cobble together a lengthy list of publications and research projects, chances are you'll end up picking up work as a sessional instructor -- to keep current with what's happening in your field, you tell yourself.

But once you've taken on the three or possibly four courses you need to pay down your student loan and cover the rent, you realise it's impossible to find the time to do research and publishing.

"Initially, let's say for one or two years," illustrates Ganzenmueller, "being a contract academic provides you with some income and valuable teaching experience while you are searching for a tenure-track position."

"Depending on your discipline and specialisation, this position may not come up for some time. The longer it takes, however, the more difficult it gets. At that later stage in your career launch, a multitude of hindrances kick in: most importantly, your dissertation has a shelf life. This is now compounded by oppressive teaching loads taking away considerable time from research agendas."

She adds that "substandard incomes" sideline trips to conferences, which are an important forum for presenting papers and networking with other professionals.

So, far from promoting career advancement, Ganzenmueller says that sessional work effectively hinders it, creating a glass ceiling.

The university bottom line

Meanwhile, the university administration gets two and half professors for the price of one entry-level tenure-track professional.

UBC's VP Academic office counters that the University has ironed out this inequity by installing tenured positions for what they term teaching and research streams, both of which are full-time, tenured positions. But Ganzenmueller argues that "few to none of these positions ever become available."

"Why?" she asks, rhetorically. As employees with these positions "are paid significantly higher salaries than their non-tenured colleagues, a position with tenure and fair pay attached does not benefit the corporate bottom line."

In an article about sessional faculty she wrote for The Ottawa Citizen in November of 2005, journalist Maria Kubacki pointed out that: "full-time faculty salaries and benefits are the single biggest item in university budgets."

Tammy Brimner and Mark Oldham, both UBC Faculty Relations representatives working in the VP Academic's office, underscored the same fiscal reality in an interview with the Ubyssey in January. Asked why the University simply doesn't move away from contract teaching and research positions in order to offer instead more full professor spots, Brimner, a senior manager, gave the simple, self-evident reply:


She explains that the money used to pay professor's salaries comes from the government under a transfer scheme called GPO. These are limited resources, and with recent cuts to education -- per-student funding alone is $2 billion less than it was a decade ago -- administrations are scrambling to find ways they can cut corners and curtail spending. Faculty agreements, which provide for more pay each year for tenured staff, combined with shrinking government subsidies sets the stage for an unsavoury fiscal cocktail: "You have expanding pressures on a discreet pile of money," relates Brimner. "That makes it difficult."

Responding to the criticisms of Ganzenmueller and other contract staff sharing similar feelings of professional frustration, Brimner is less than sympathetic: "If an individual wishes to move into [a tenure track position], it's not for the University to create opportunities just because they are here."

"As an employer, we hired them to teach, and that's what we asked them to do. If they want to do something else, they need to take the steps necessary in order to meet the criteria for another position."

Brimner also pointed out that the responsibility doesn't rest solely on the shoulders of administrations; individual departments have an equal hand in the creation of sessional appointments. And while the collective agreement provides for a minimum salary, it's up to the departments to set the rates at or above the minimum.

Both science and commerce pay well above the minimum to retain and attract the best and the brightest, the rationale being, as Brimner explains, that chemists and physicists can make connections with industry and be lured away.

"We have to try and match those salaries in order to recruit and retain the people that we have," she said.

Academic 'freedom'

In the meantime, Brimner and Oldham say it's up to contract staff to negotiate a better contract at the bargaining table.

Turk says that the Canadian Association of University Teachers is watching hiring patterns closely at Canadian universities, where large numbers of professors of the baby boomer generation are expected to retire in the next decade. He says he's concerned that administrations will continue with their fiscal ruse of replacing tenured positions with contract staff.

Even Turk hasn't escaped the plight of being a sessional instructor. Talking by cellphone at an airport in Winnipeg, he tells the story of teaching a night course at the University of Toronto, where he couldn't get to his mail, had no email address and couldn't even do up the reading lists for his course because he was denied a library card for all of August, the rationale being that his contract technically didn't start until September.

These days he's more concerned about contract teaching's challenge to academic freedom and integrity. He insists academic freedom is protected by tenure.

Turk makes a compelling case. He explains that tenured faculty can openly "pooh pooh" and even condemn deans, university presidents and major corporate donors without fear of reprisals. If you're tenured, you cannot be fired without just cause.

Not so for contract staff: "If you're a sessional, nobody has to do anything to get rid of you," he says. "They just don't renew your contract."

Teaching and drugs

Turk makes a hypothetical example of a pharmaceutical company that is a major donor to a university's budget. A sessional who was openly critical about the adverse affects of one of the company's drugs would be sticking his or her neck out. According to Turk, the company wouldn't even need to threaten to withdraw funding; the administration would likely be more than happy to take it upon itself to censor the faculty member in order to keep the donation money a-flowin.'

Thus, Turk fears that the vulnerability of sessionals only invites abuses. But he adds that they could also lose their jobs just for challenging the prevailing ideology of any given department.

"You don't teach what you think is right, you teach what will allow you to keep your job."

As for the matter of administrations boasting about the newly created teaching and research streams -- which would be decently paid and tenured -- Turk thinks it's a terrible idea.

"We're bitterly opposed to the fragmentation of an academic's job. We think that what distinguishes a university, as opposed to a high school for example, is that the people...are supposed to be breaking new ground in their field."

Pairing students and profs

Turk recalls his undergrad years at Harvard, where there was a policy in place that paired the most senior professors with first and second-year students. As such, he was privy to the teachings of Nobel laureates James Watson and George Wald.

"My second year political science course was taught by Henry Kissinger," he boasts.

Turk said these high-profile pedagogues communicated nothing short of an ardent love for learning.

"The notion was that you want people who are doing significant work, and are excited about their work, teaching students," related Turk.

He sees the newly christened teaching and research streams as just another cost-cutting maneuver invented by administrations. "The victims are the faculty and the students."

Two-tier teaching

Ganzenmueller agrees, taking issue with the compartmentalisation of an academic's work based on her own first-hand experience.

"The idea of the 'teaching-only' position conveniently ignores the everyday realities of academic work. It allows UBC to make policy on the fiction that teaching, research and service are separable when, in fact, all of these activities are vital and integral parts of the academic profession and are all mutually dependent."

As for students, they get crammed into high-enrolment first and second-year Arts and Sciences courses with overworked, underpaid and burnt-out teachers. A far cry from Nobel laureates.

Turk says one of the main aims of CAUT has been organising contract staff into the faculty associations (or professors' unions) at their respective universities. But it isn't easy.

"It's impossible to generalise about contingent academic staff," wrote Vicky Smallman, the Organising and Collective Bargaining Officer for CAUT. "For every sessional instructor who wants a shot at tenure-track appointment, there's at least one who's happy teaching on contract, or who is afraid that a move to convert sessional positions to tenure-track means they would lose their job."

Ganzenmueller isn't afraid to speak out and ruffle feathers. She openly denounces UBC for paying "lip-service" to its own glossy Trek 2010 mission statement, which reads: "The University of British Columbia will provide its students, faculty, and staff with the best possible resources and conditions for learning and research, and create a working environment dedicated to excellence, equity, and mutual respect."

Ganzenmueller contends that, far from living up to its own standards, UBC has cultivated a "two-class system," where tenure-track faculty and sessional faculty work side by side under vastly different salary and working conditions.

"If it is okay for universities to exploit their faculty, despite the fact that they are widely perceived to lead the way in terms of ethical directives, then who is to say that anyone else can't too?"

Paterson agrees. "I mean, I thought we already did the equal work for equal pay battle," she says. "I remember doing that about thirty years ago."

Bryan Zandberg is the features editor at The Ubyssey.  [Tyee]

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