Covid-19 Cuts Hit Contingent Faculty Hard. As the Pandemic Drags On, Some Question Their Future.

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Cheryl DeFlavis is one of hundreds of thousands of employees who’ve been pushed out of higher education since the pandemic began: “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more forgotten.”
Image: Eve Edelheit for The Chronicle

By Emma Pettit

Even knowing what she knew — that she’s an adjunct, that her family lives paycheck to paycheck, that a pandemic was unlikely to bring more economic stability into their lives — Cheryl DeFlavis didn’t think her financial situation would get this bad.

In March, it was far less clear what wreckage Covid-19 held in store. When Hillsborough Community College, in Florida, went remote, DeFlavis, a longtime adjunct instructor there, started working from home. She assumed normalcy would return.

But spring turned to summer, then to fall, and DeFlavis’s teaching career dissolved. She’s one of hundreds of thousands of employees who’ve been pushed out of higher education since the pandemic began. Comparing February to August, the sector’s work force has shrunk by at least 7 percent, a depletion that’s unprecedented, according to federal data, which The Chronicle analyzed.

It’s not yet possible to say how many of those employees are contingent faculty members, but it’s not a leap to assume that many of them are. Structurally, those workers are among the easiest for universities to cut, said Adrianna Kezar, a higher-education expert at the University of Southern California and co-author of The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University.

And those numbers don’t include contingent faculty members who’ve managed to secure some work — a course or two — but not anything comparable to what they had before. Right now, they’re stringing together gigs to get by.

Or they’re not getting by. Doris Stanley, age 41, is dipping into her state retirement fund decades before she wanted to. Before Covid-19, she regularly taught at multiple colleges in Florida, but her course load has since dropped from nine to one, she said. Her income all but vanished. She’s applied for food stamps and tapped friends and family for favors.

Now, with no guarantee of future adjunct work, she’s figuring out what to do next.

“I’m literally going to have to change my career path. I’m going to have to drop what I love,” Stanley said. “Because I absolutely love teaching at the college level, and I love teaching sociology. But I can’t. Like, it’s not there for me anymore. It’s gone.”

An Imploding Labor Market

Amid the scramble of the spring, many non-tenure-track faculty members devoted extra hours trying to preserve as much as possible of their students’ learning experiences as they moved online. Alex W. Corey was no different.

Corey, whose pronouns are they/them, was then a full-time lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University whose three-year contract was about to end. They remember sometimes staying up until just before dawn to evaluate student work.

Meanwhile, the academic-labor market was imploding. Job prospect after job prospect evaporated, including a couple that Corey felt suited for.

Corey said they expected that Harvard would “do right” by contingent faculty members by offering contract extensions, similar to the way the university had offered tenure-clock extensions to faculty members on that track. When the coronavirus pandemic first began to throttle academe, many, many colleges offered such extensions.

That’s because tenure-track faculty are thought of by university leaders as the long-term employees, Kezar said. They also have more power to assert themselves and get some of their rights protected, she said.

Corey and other contingent faculty members urged Harvard in a petition to extend their contracts. The group wanted to ensure that non-tenure-track faculty who were “timing out” would not be without pay or health insurance, The Harvard Crimson reported. (At Harvard, certain non-tenure-track positions are subject to an “eight-year rule,” meaning their teaching appointments cannot exceed eight years.)

According to Corey, the group didn’t hear back, except through what was reported in the press. That stung. “I poured all this energy into a university that said that community is valued, and I’m clearly not being included in the community that needs to be protected or taken care of, even though I’m doing a lot of work for it,” they said.

In an email, Rachael Dane, director of media relations for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which is in charge of reviewing open positions, said the FAS is “deeply grateful” to lecturers and preceptors for “all they are doing, particularly during this unprecedented and challenging time.”

Position needs within a department can change in any academic year, she added. This semester, in certain cases in which departments had trouble filling an open position, the FAS extended the contracts of a lecturer or preceptor for one year, Dane said. She did not specify how many.

This summer, Corey was offered a 0.25 full-time equivalent position in the same concentration, for one quarter of the full-time lecturer salary. At that point, they were desperate, Corey said. Their partner had also lost work. Together, they have two children under the age of four. So Corey took the job and cobbled together two other part-time jobs — one at the Harvard Extension School and another at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Now, Corey works full-time hours trying to balance the three gigs. They research, teach, advise, and work on their book, sometimes with an infant on their back. They spend a half-hour to an hour each day searching for jobs in a sector that’s cratering. So far, none have panned out. And though this semester their income has remained roughly the same as it was last year, next semester will bring a significant drop, if nothing comes through.

Even staring down a future defined by a cycle of part-time work, Corey says their family is lucky. They live with Corey’s parents in a three-story New England home. The basics — food and shelter — are covered.

Living More Sparsely

That’s not the case for DeFlavis. Her and her husband’s main concern is how to afford rent for their two-bedroom apartment, which houses them and their three young children.

DeFlavis taught courses at Hillsborough Community College for eight years. In March and in June, she told her department chair that she’d be unable to teach in person this fall. Her husband is immunocompromised and had to quit his job as a food and beverage manager when the pandemic began.

But as the semester drew nearer, it became clear, according to DeFlavis, that the department had no online courses to offer her. (Her department chair did not respond to a request for comment.) By that point, money was tight.

For years, their family had lived check to check, DeFlavis said, but in a way they were comfortable with. Money was gone as soon as they got it, but they could sometimes pay a little extra on a credit-card bill or a car payment.

This was different. DeFlavis remembers realizing that she’d wouldn’t be teaching classes and feeling her stomach sink. Should they move? Sell their cars? Put everything in storage and live in their cars?

They decided shelter was the key to staying safe. Whatever else they’d do, they’d make a priority of paying rent.

So they began living even more sparsely. They cut out most subscriptions. They asked their networks to donate through fundraisers. They no longer have gas money, which isn’t a problem because they don’t go anywhere. They eat only home-cooked meals and get food from their kids’ school. The kids don’t go hungry, but occasionally, DeFlavis and her husband eat what she calls “abbreviated” versions of the kids’ meals.

DeFlavis is still applying for work. She thought that by September something would surface. But, well into October, nothing has. Now she’s waiting to hear if she’ll be offered courses next semester. Her husband, who had been making some money at the beginning of the pandemic as a driver on DoorDash, a food-delivery app, can’t even do that anymore. He stopped because it felt too risky, especially now that the state has reopened even further and bars and restaurants are allowed to operate at full capacity.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more forgotten,” DeFlavis said.

For DeFlavis and thousands of other contingent faculty members, the last eight months have been ones of scarcity, powerlessness, and loss.

Employment conditions aren’t likely to improve anytime soon. So far, most of those layoffs “have been viewed as temporary in nature,” Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, wrote in The Chronicle. But there is some indication that, without a federal bailout package, work-force cuts will become permanent.

“The truth is that the future was already looking grim for colleges because of a pending enrollment cliff,” Kelchen wrote, “and the pandemic has just made things worse.”

Kezar, the USC higher-education expert, wants college leaders to question the hiring trends that their campuses have engaged in for the last three decades, like building up the management class while turning more and more teaching positions into short-term gigs. She wants them to deeply consider, What kind of work force do we need for a quality teaching and learning environment? before making cuts.

She doubts that’s where these conversations will start. But she hopes the pandemic will shed light on this paradox: How can colleges continue with the same approach to work and still think of themselves as ethical?

“I just don’t see how we can,” she said.

Emma Pettit is a staff reporter at The Chronicle who covers all things faculty. She writes mostly about professors and the strange, funny, sometimes harmful and sometimes hopeful ways they work and live. Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaJanePettit, or email her at emma.pettit@chronicle.com.

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