Talking to Contingent Faculty in a Moment of Crisis

I’ve read with interest the recent statements from the MLA regarding continuing support for both graduate students and non-tenure track faculty. They express beliefs that I’ve long held and, as I explain below, have tried to put into place below. At the same time, however, I’m having difficult reconciling them with the challenges my university is now facing, as well the actions that necessity might well force upon me as chair. Let me explain.

I’m currently the chair at a mid-size public comprehensive university (non-union) where we’ve made some progress—though certainly not enough—on issues regarding faculty and students. Our NTT faculty carry a heavy teaching load and remain underpaid, but they are on regular one-year (or more) rather than semester by semester contracts. These contracts are usually settled by June, if not earlier. We’ve also done better increasing our racial and class diversity of students.

The current coronavirus pandemic, however, is likely to have a deeply negative impact on my university. We’re fundamentally tuition-driven, and the recent move to all online teaching and closure of our housing and dining services—and the partial refunds to students that accompanied them—has already caused a significant drain on our campus budget. We’re now looking forward to an uncertain fall, with real worries about both lower first-year enrollments and the retention of current students. (This latter is where our improved diversity actually hurts us, as we’ve got more students from family backgrounds that are experiencing a significant amount of their own financial and emotional stress.) In the past few years our limited state funding has been stable, but we’re expecting potential decreases here as well, regardless of what’s in the federal bailout. The needs are just too great.

All of this—and much more—is keeping me awake at night. Though I expect our university will survive, I’m bracing myself for enrollment and budget cuts of 10%, 15%, or more. No specifics have been announced, but it seems naïve to imagine things will be even close to the same as last year, or if they’ll ever return to that. All of this is coming at the same time our college and its departments would normally be gearing up for contract renewals.

So that’s where my struggle comes in. I believe in the aims of the MLA statements, but I don’t know I can hope to accomplish them. We simply don’t expect to have the same revenue or enrollments as last year, which will inevitably mean personnel cuts across our university rather than extensions and continued support. (We don’t have a graduate program, but I’d expect similar dilemmas there if we did.) And while I recognize that some of this is the inevitable consequence of long-term structural changes in higher education that I and others have lobbied against, that doesn’t change the reality that will inform some painful things I will likely need to do in the next two months. Far from being neoliberals bent on overturning the university, the administrative leaders on my campus—some of whom I’ve known for years—look similarly haunted by such worries, even if they don’t show it publicly.

I know I’m profoundly privileged to be healthy and have a tenure-track job with insurance, much less be at a university that isn’t likely facing an existential fiscal crisis. So I’m not seeking sympathy—others deserve that far more than me. Perhaps I’m just writing to talk about here things I can’t (at least not yet) get into with many of my faculty, though I’m happy for any advice.–Facing Cuts

Dear Professor Cuts,

Your faculty are lucky to have you as a chair — your care and concern for your colleagues are admirable. Chairs nationwide are already anxious about what the 2020-21 academic year will look like for enrollments and budgets. As is often true for chairs, one of the causes of your anxiety here is isolation — the sense that you’re the only one in your department losing sleep about this. I’d recommend that you share your concerns with trusted colleagues, if only to talk about how to raise these issues with the department at large. Talk through a variety of scenarios from best to worst case and the responses you’d have to make to each.

In my experience, it makes sense to be transparent with your contingent faculty about what you would like to be the case, what you’re concerned will happen, and how you think it will affect the department. Try and gather as much information as you can from your dean or provost about the kinds of cuts that might be coming down the pike. Then meet with your NTT faculty to share what you know and listen to their concerns and fears. Depending on how budgets are done at your school, union regulations, or the nature of cuts you’re facing, you may have more or less control over how these cuts are implemented. What’s most important is that you let your contingent colleagues know that you support them and will advocate for them as much as you can. Ideally, you will have established clear channels of communication with your NTT faculty, and there’s a level of trust and confidence in your leadership. But even if that’s not the case, now is the time to make it clear both that you’re on their side and that you are subject to the financial needs of the institution.

Finally, please be kind to yourself. You are clearly a compassionate chair who cares about your faculty. At the same time, advocating and having empathy for those who will be most affected by this crisis does not mean you also can’t have, much less don’t deserve, some compassion for yourself as well. The next year is going to be hard for everyone, and your faculty will look to you as a steadying force. The steadier and calmer you feel within yourself, the more you’ll have to offer your colleagues.

—The Chair