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Not Expendable

New AAUP statement urges institutions to treat their adjuncts as essential team members during the pandemic -- and after.

August 12, 2020
 
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Non-tenure-track professors make up 70 percent of the teaching force, but they often fall through the cracks between institutional policies and protections, including those related to COVID-19. Similarly, tenure-track and tenured faculty layoffs -- including those attributed to the pandemic -- tend to make big news, while nonrenewals for contingent faculty members often go unnoticed.

Ahead of the new semester, the American Association of University Professors' Committee on Contingency issued a statement about how "removing contingent faculty with expertise and experience undermines student learning conditions in the short term and the institution of higher education in the long term."

The document includes recommendations for institutions, including that adjuncts, staff and graduate employees should have paid sick leave during the pandemic and -- when necessary -- unchallenged access to unemployment benefits.

Excellent online education would improve student satisfaction and retention this fall, but that requires paid training for all faculty members, including adjuncts, the AAUP committee also urges. And just as many colleges and universities have given tenure-track professors the option to suspend their tenure clocks for a year due to the pandemic, they should extend the rehiring or promotion process for a year for any contingent faculty member who wants that.

"The future of the profession is at stake," says the committee's statement. "The austerity measures trustees and presidents are now implementing must not become the new normal. And the current situation will not be sustainable in the next academic year if changes are not made."

That's an argument made by adjunct advocates at several institutions this year already, including the City University of New York. The system's faculty union is currently fighting 2,800 part-time faculty and staff contract non-renewals in court. While the system blames the effective layoffs on a COVID-19-related budget shortfall, the union says that the university is not following federal guidelines on how to spend emergency funds if its shedding so many professors. Hundreds of CUNY adjuncts also have lost their health insurance.

Notably, the AAUP document includes graduate students in its recommendations, and these students are in many cases being asked to teach under the same uncertainty as faculty members this fall.

Graduate student unions on several campuses have sparred with their administrations thus far about COVID-19-related protections. Among them is the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, which has asked the university to consider a COVID-19-specific set of terms, on top of the first union contract that was ratified in May. The new proposal, which the union says Georgetown rejected, includes paid leave for hourly assistants and covers all assistants for the duration of their illness or the remainder of their appointments, whichever comes first. The contract limits paid medical leave to six weeks.

Jewel Tomasula, president of American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union and a Ph.D. candidate in biology at Georgetown, said that the contract language on medical leave was negotiated in early April, when the bargaining committee, "along with most of the world, had no clear sense of how severe COVID-19 could be." So it's "disappointing that the administration characterizes our concerns as unnecessary."

Georgetown, meanwhile, said in statement that the collective bargaining agreement covers "many important priorities identified in the new proposals from GAGE. During recent sessions, GAGE-AFT members and university representatives discussed all of the issues brought forward by the student workers in an effort to come to resolution. These topics included student employment from abroad, service flexibility, public health protections, medical leave and ongoing consultations regarding COVID-19 planning."

The university is "committed to working with union representatives to establish new policies on any matters not covered by the collective bargaining agreement and has already initiated this important work."

Addressing another concern related to pandemic-era teaching, the AAUP committee also urges administrators not to “take advantage of good faith cooperation by faculty during the emergency transition to remote instruction to seize their intellectual property simply because it is now posted to a third-party learning management system." Contingent professors "should not be forced to facilitate their replacement simply because they are dedicated to providing for the educational needs of their students."

Relatedly, with more and more course content going online, institutions must defend their professors against outside actors who use that content for political gain or other negative reasons, according to the AAUP.

As for shared governance, the committee said now is the time to expand it and include more faculty voices, not further eroded it "in the name of efficiency."

Caprice Lawless, an adjunct instructor of English at Front Range Community College in Colorado and chair of the AAUP committee that drafted the report, said every principle is necessary, "as our colleagues are terrified of being forced to work or die, or maybe work and die."

In addition to COVID-19-era protections -- such as personal protective equipment for all instructors and clear social distancing policies -- Lawless said adjuncts and students need their institutions to step up in& the long-term, even if they feel they can't advocate for themselves without risking their jobs.

"Shared governance has been so shredded for years, there are so many faculty in precarious positions," she said. "You can't really run a great institution that way."

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