Solidarity with contingent faculty entails more than signing statements


At the end of April, several prominent scholars began boycotting universities that were failing to support contingent faculty during the coronavirus pandemic.

Early signatories of Covid-19: A Statement of Academic Solidarity included Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Naomi Klein and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. Within days, thousands of additional staff members of all ranks joined the cause. A few dozen institutions had already been nominated for blacklisting, including most of the Ivy League and a few top public research universities. The rate of altruistic sentiment, it seems, spreads faster than you can say “social distancing”.

The statement catalogued the tragic consequences that furloughs and lay-offs would have on contingent faculty, from losing healthcare to the increasing likelihood of long-term unemployment. It also called for some very specific actions: extending the tenure clocks for those lucky enough to have one, renewing fixed-term contracts for those who did not, and assuring employee status of graduate students.

This document and similar declarations would appear to offer hope that decades of righteous indignation have finally coalesced into a formidable movement. Nonetheless, it is too little, too late. The pandemic and subsequent economic fallout – the depths of which remain to be seen – have only brought the ongoing contingent faculty crisis to its inevitable conclusion. Betting on a public statement to lead to meaningful action, while commendable, is unlikely to mitigate a long history of increasing professional inequality.

At least some of the signatories seem aware of this bind. As universities take the axe to their budgets, the first cuts will inevitably affect discretionary spending such as conferences, lectures and commencement speeches, which are precisely the kinds of events the signatories threaten to boycott.

The symbolism, however, cuts both ways. Rather than solidarity, it lays bare the feudalistic mentality of even the most radical leftist scholars, who speak for the beleaguered masses from the cover of their academic nobility. What does solidarity mean when a dwindling number of tenured elites advocate for the legions of contingent faculty who have, for decades, made their work possible? You know who I mean: the precariously employed scholars who teach undergraduate courses with little expectation that such work might lead to tenure, promotion or even contract renewal.

As such, the statement’s ostensibly progressive message belies its conservative and even cynical recommendations. Although exhorting protections for the academic underclass, the proposed measures would only maintain the unethical system of contingent faculty exploitation.

Given the far-left politics of many of the signatories, this position is surprising. In mid-March, just as the coronavirus hit the US, Naomi Klein published a video on The Intercept in which she decries “coronavirus capitalism”. Drawing on her notion of the “shock doctrine”, Klein argues that the current federal administration’s response to the pandemic resorts to a familiar right-wing playbook that favours the wealthy and powerful in times of crisis and uncertainty. Rather than drawing on “ideas that are lying around”, Klein argues that crises and shocks have the capacity to “catalyse a kind of evolutionary leap” in which “the previously unthinkable suddenly becomes reality”.

But the faculty statement to which Klein subscribed also draws on “ideas that have been lying around”. Certainly, the statement is correct that “the gulf between secure and precarious academics will deepen” and that “countless promising academic careers will prematurely end” if no action is taken. Yet all these measures perpetuate the myth of academic meritocracy and the atavistic desire that tenure, the job market and universities as we know them will survive in a post-Covid world.

Perhaps a more radical proposal would be to reconsider what contingency means. We have recently come to grips with the fact that low-status employees, such as grocery, sanitation and warehouse workers, are more important than most high-status jobs right now. Contingent faculty are effectively the equivalent of such positions in the academy. Rather than applauding the extension of tenure clocks and short-term contracts, why not take this opportunity to radically transform an antiquated tenure and promotion system?

Demanding an alternative system may not even be as radical as it seems: some commentators have already proposed the re-evaluation of tenure criteria. Others have even challenged tenured professors who are sympathetic to the plight of their contingent colleagues but are reluctant to take action to “renounce their own tenure” and step into the fray as at-will employees themselves.

None of these ideas would be easy to implement, and they would generate new challenges of their own. But then again, that is precisely the point. Whether volunteering steep pay cuts or being willing to dismantle the system that has rewarded you, radical change will come with consequences that even the most progressive among us would be unlikely to accept. In the meantime, the Covid-19 pandemic runs its devastating course.

The unthinkable has already become reality. The only question that remains is how our collective response will evolve to confront it.

Author Bio: Scott Thomas Gibson is director of the School of Languages, Letters and Literature at the University of San Francisco, Quito.