Abusing contingency for the sake of logistics

For years now, I’ve been arguing that a first principle in the campaign for contingent faculty equity/equality is:

Don’t abuse the contingent status (i.e., the ability to hire/fire at will) of your contingent faculty as a tool for solving other  people’s problems.

A post to the Writing Program Administrators listserv (WPA-l) this morning provides a textbook example of what I mean.

The Denver Post reports that the thirteen community colleges in Colorado will “phase out” the use of out-of-state instructors to teach on-line courses. According to the article, the community colleges have been hiring people who live anywhere to teach on-line for several years, but have just now decided that this practice creates too many logistical problems to be tenable:

Some of the requirements are small — such as sending employees in New York an information sheet on wage theft protection every year — while others are more complex — like adjusting workers’ compensation or time off to comply with laws of the employee’s home state.

I won’t contend that the legalities aren’t complex. It’s hard to imagine they’re something a smartphone-powered database couldn’t handle, but still.

The problem, which I hope is obvious–but I guess if it were I wouldn’t feel compelled to write this–is that an estimated 250 faculty who have done nothing to warrant losing their jobs are going to lose their jobs because of other people’s bad hiring decisions. And the hiring decisions, if they were made in good faith to begin with, probably weren’t even bad. That is to say, if the hiring institutions really hired those faculty because they were the best applicants, then “phasing them out” (read: firing them) in order to alleviate a burden on Human Resources is patently unjust. An institution that cares about quality instruction needs to keep quality faculty. If the hiring institutions decided to hire people-from-anywhere because the poor academic job market would generate an applicant pool willing to work for low pay (instead of not working for no pay), then this decision is even more pathological: “We hired you for a bad reason, and despite the fact that you were good enough at the job for us to keep you, you’re going to pay the price for our bad decision.”

Either way, whether the initial hiring decisions were made in good faith (based on quality) or bad faith (in order to maximize flexibility/exploitability), the outcome is the same–people who did nothing wrong are going to lose jobs, and the people whose bad decisions led to those job losses are going to suffer no consequences whatsoever.

Neat, huh?

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9 Responses to Abusing contingency for the sake of logistics

  1. bowneps says:

    This is all true, and it is wrong, but isn’t it exactly why colleges hire contingent faculty in the first place? Isn’t it practically the definition of contingent?

    • sethkahn says:

      I think it is, but I’ve never heard a manager/administrator say it quite so bluntly: “I hire people contingently so I can fire them.” The same argument is embedded in the management-speak god-term “flexibility,” of course. What else do they want to be flexible except the workloads and working conditions of other people?

      So yes, the move to contingency (not just in higher ed but across all sectors of the economy) is about being able to do precisely this, and at least one necessary (not sufficient, sadly) step towards putting an end to it is making management cop to the fact that they’re doing it.

  2. Nicely framed, Seth.

    I could see Colorado deciding not to hire any more out of state teachers going forward, but one would think that for the teachers already hired, they must have figured out the requirements of those instructors’ native states and must have been sending the required paperwork. So they’ve had the wherewithal to get to this point, but just want don’t want to do it any more.

    And it’s not like it’s easy for teachers either, who have to file state tax returns not only in their native states, but also Colorado (and maybe other states they teach in).

    • sethkahn says:

      Thanks, Nick, and that’s exactly right–they already do this and just don’t want to anymore. At my most cynical, I can imagine somebody actually getting a raise or bonus for having such a good cost-saving idea!

  3. Barb says:

    Seth, I argue that I have seen administrators make the “I hire them to be able to fire them”–except that it’s called flexibility in labor practices or allowing the institution to be responsive to class demands or some other double-speak.

    • sethkahn says:

      Absolutely, Barb. Maybe I’m just rehearsing for the Propaganda class I’m getting ready to teach, but identifying and slowing down for those moments of double-speak is the first step towards uprooting them.

  4. Kagey says:

    As a former contingent instructor at one of these community colleges, I know several people who will be “phased out” by this policy. In at least one case, the instructor had taught both in person and online for the college before moving out of state to follow a spouse’s job offer. I can imagine many such situations – moving closer to aging parents, would be another case. These aren’t unknown instructors, hired blindly. They are people who had developed a relationship with the college, and then for personal reasons, needed to spend time away, sometimes temporarily, sometimes long term. If we had a just system in place, some of these folks would qualify for family leave. But perhaps that’s a different facet of the problem.

    • sethkahn says:

      I had a sentence to that effect in the piece originally but cut it for length. You’re making me realize I shouldn’t have, so thank you for pointing this out.

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