David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

How Adjuncts Want to Be Hired

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Image: Applicants for employment in the Lockheed plant, Rondal Partridge, Photographer (NARA)

How should adjuncts be hired? What are the best practices? And is the method by which they are hired any indication of how they will be treated on the job?

Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth think so. In their new book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, Bérubé and Ruth call for (among other things) professionalizing contingent hiring. They note that patronage systems govern the hiring of adjuncts for part-time teaching positions in particular. Their book argues that those ad hoc and casual hiring systems contribute to the mistreatment of the candidates who eventually get those jobs. Because they have not been through a “real” hiring process, they are viewed – by administrators and colleagues – as not “real” members of the academic workforce.

If we are going to treat all teaching positions as real jobs requiring fair pay and benefits, the authors suggest, then the process by which people enter those jobs should be formal and fair.

It’s true that many adjuncts are hired in just the way that Bérubé and Ruth describe. I recently took a one-third administrative position, and so the department needed someone to fill a few medieval history classes. I emailed a brilliant independent scholar who lived in the area and asked her if she was interested. I know and respect her work, have always found her presentations compelling, and thought she’d be a good fit. My chair trusted my recommendation, met her, forwarded her CV to the Dean, and they had a brief conversation.And she is an exceptional fit. But it was a very ad hoc process.

That experience, and reading this new book got me thinking: How would adjuncts prefer to be hired? I posed that very question to several adjuncts and adjunct-activists. I also asked them how they had actually been hired, and whether they felt there was a causal link between discrimination and hiring-practices. Here are some of their responses:

  • “Lucy,” an adjunct at a large urban community-college system who requested anonymity, said she just wants honesty in the hiring process. “I responded to a job posting at my local community college for English adjuncts,” she wrote in an email to me. “I posted on a Tuesday. I was called for an interview with the coordinator on a Thursday. Same week. School started the following Monday. The interview wasn't so much an interview as a conversation. I think the coordinator had already decided to hire me by the time I arrived for the meeting. I was immediately scheduled to teach two classes. And that began my so-called career there.” She thinks the adjunct hiring process should be more formalized. “I think it should be clear, also, that it is a dead position,” she added. “When I was hired, I was repeatedly given the impression that good work as an adjunct would inevitably lead to a full-time position and I waited around for five years for that to happen. I think it needs to be said upfront that it will never happen. I think the relationship between the hiring process and the way adjuncts are treated is that the hiring process is an afterthought, and adjuncts are essentially an afterthought. In my experience, everyone who is hired as an adjunct is really interviewed by a committee of one.”
  • James Heaney, a lecturer in philosophy and comparative religion at Cleveland State University, called for more transparency in the contingent hiring process when it comes to spelling out salary, budgeting, and credentials for the positions. He wrote: “I would like to see adjunct hiring based on prior budgeting, with adjuncts listed as teaching personnel for scheduled, posted positions, and with an industry-standard (not meant ironically) departmental review of credentials, and so on. At CSU, … since adjuncts, although referred to as ‘part time,’ are essentially treated as ‘casual’ employees under federal guidelines, their salaries are not included in any budgets except as part of a total lump sum for occasional help. The process for determining pay is utterly nontransparent and may differ markedly from department to department.”
  • A formal hiring process, of course, is no guarantee of good treatment. “@GracieG,” who calls herself an “unarmed education mercenary,” said, “While one school was fairly straight up with me, my other one was not and they made us submit all our documents over again every single year. We had no guarantee that we would be back full-, part-, or any- time there. … The more informal of the two places was far more up front with me about what was going on. The place that used a more formal approach also was able, by the secrecy around this process, to rank candidates in mysteriously unpredictable ways that directly affected the amounts of work folks ended up with.”
  • Lee Kottner, an adjunct faculty member in New York and recording secretary for AFT Local 1839, said she had acquired most of her teaching jobs by responding to listserv postings, sending in her CV and cover letter, and going through an interview. That seems to be “pretty much” the standard operating procedure, she said in an email: “Most departments seem to have a pool of adjuncts from which they draw as needed, after that initial interview and CV submission. We're the temp pool, just like low-level office workers.” The more important question, she suggested, was not how adjuncts were hired but why they weren’t promoted. “It might be more useful for you to question the people who have the real power in our relationship, and that's obviously administrators. Here's some queries you could put to them with regard to adjunct hiring: (1) Why are there so few adjunct-to-tenured contract agreements? (2) Why are so few adjuncts hired full time to do the jobs they're already doing, when those jobs are posted? (3) Why does administration have a preference for brand new Ph.D.s over experienced adjunct professors? (4) Why is there so little support for adjuncts to do research when that's the major factor locking us out of full-time positions?”
  • Brianne Bolin, an adjunct professor and managing director of PrecariCorps also felt that hiring wasn’t the main issue. She wrote: “Essentially, I’m more interested in the egregious working conditions and the lack of professional contracts for adjuncts than I am in the hiring process. … I see no reason why we should not be compensated at the rate equal to what full-time, tenure-track professors would make for the hours they spend on instruction (both in the classroom and out). … So no, I don’t necessarily believe that there’s a relationship between adjunct hiring practices and our mistreatment. There is a direct relationship between the stipulations of our contracts and our mistreatment, however. … A better way would give adjuncts equal voice, equal pay, and equal work, regardless of the hiring practices.”
  • When I asked Joseph Fruscione, a former adjunct and currently communications director of PrecariCorps, whether he thought there was a relationship between the informal hiring of adjuncts and their mistreatment, he wrote: “I do because there is. Since most adjuncts are hired on a course-by-course basis -- with almost no job stability, protections, or shared governance -- they're essentially cheap, renewable labor. I've talked with some who don't even have formal contracts. Without a formal agreement spelling out pay, grievance processes, promotion potential, and other issues, adjuncts are just sort of ‘there,’ until they're not needed anymore. Or until they make 'trouble' and are nonrenewed, as if advocating for themselves and their students constitutes troublemaking.”

Taken as a whole, these and many other comments I received do generally suggest that it’s more important for hiring procedures to be transparent -- rather than formal. We need clear systems in place for how things work, we need to communicate those systems well, and we need to offer adjuncts a role in the life of the department to the extent that they want to take part. And if they don’t, we should accept that, too.

Most of all, I’d like to urge top administrators and my fellow tenured faculty to make sure that -- in thinking about adjunct hiring and retention -- we ask contingent faculty what they want. A recent survey of adjuncts listed disrespect as the main cause of workplace dissatisfaction. We, the tenured faculty, can counter that impression by hiring them formally, treating them like the professionals they are, seeking their views, and listening to what they have to say.

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