Contingent faculty as a bivalent collective.

By: Deidre Rose, Ph.D.

The Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, also known as Bill 148, has recently been enacted in Ontario. The new legislation calls for significant increases to minimum wage rates in the province and significantly expands the notion of “equal pay for equal work.” Under the Act, “Part-time, casual, temporary and seasonal employees would be entitled to the same rate of pay as regular employees when they perform substantially the same work, in the same establishment, under the same conditions, and require the same skill, effort, and responsibility. (CUPE 2017)” Organizations like the Ontario College and University Faculty Association (OCUFA), the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU), and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) have been strong supporters of this legislation. In earlier debates, labour representatives expressed their concern that non-regular or contingent academic faculty would be excluded. These concerns have proven to be correct, at least for the short term. Since most non-tenured faculty in Ontario are unionized, the exemption relating to existing Collective Agreements will apply until January 2020. While contingent academic workers will no doubt welcome the arrival of something approaching pay equity, it would be a mistake to think that affirmative redistribution in the form of  “equal pay” would alleviate the marginalization experienced by these workers. The legislation does pay lip service to the recognition of non-regular workers by attempting to decouple remuneration from prestige, but legislation alone will not remedy the stigma because contingent faculty constitute what Nancy Fraser (1995, 2005) has called a “bivalent mode of collectivity,” and, as such any remedy would require both redistribution and recognition. The neoliberal university has long relied on the low paid work of this category of academics, and the internalization of neo-liberal ideology has resulted in their stigmatization. Equal pay will not remedy this situation.

The tendencies associated with the growing corporatization of the university have led to an increasing valuation of research over teaching. Research is seen as “more product-oriented” and, concomitantly, the researcher “more company oriented” (Buchbinder & Newson, 1999:371). At the same time, teaching has been increasingly devalued. In short, “Professor/researchers became entrepreneurs in this market-oriented model, and research activities became the priority, while teaching activities became viewed as a less productive or less efficient use of time, unless they involved graduate teaching” (Buchbinder & Newson, 1999:371, cited in Langan and Morton 2009: 396). “Sessional,”” non-regular,” “adjunct,” or “Other,” faculty constitute a reserve of low-paid and marginalized academic workers.  Remedies that address the sometimes gross pay differentials between tenured and non-tenured faculty will not remedy the marginal status of these workers. Indeed it will likely result in their being replaced with “teaching only” tenure-stream positions (as is already happening at some institutions). These positions will probably go to recent graduates who will have better job security and benefits than the contingent faculty they replace but will ultimately occupy a marginal and second-class status within the university.

For the most part, non-tenured faculty, as a group, are confined to teaching and often prevented from even applying for many of the larger, more prestigious research grants. They are paid significantly less than their tenured counterparts for their teaching, and teaching is considered less important than research. Contingent faculty are usually required to re-apply for their jobs every four months and spend a considerable amount of time on this along. For these reasons, we tend to have less robust publication records, a fact that is used against them.   When full-time, tenure track positions do become available, they rarely go to members of this group. While there may be many reasons given to rationalize this on an individual basis, the fact of the matter is that the real underlying cause is a cultural misrecognition or stigma that is associated with contract teaching.

Hired on a contract basis that may be as short as one semester or as long as three years, contingent faculty are often prevented from participating in departmental meetings, denied institutional support for grant applications, and generally excluded from any activity apart from teaching assigned courses. Indeed, while graduate students are often invited to participate in the hiring process for new faculty, contingent academic workers are not. Furthermore, when full-time hires are offered in the new teaching intensive full-time positions, long-term contract faculty are seldom, if ever, hired. Indeed the issue of conversion (from contract to tenure-track status)  is one of the sticking points in the York University strike that is underway in Toronto, Canada, as I am writing. Institutional and societal stereotypes that posit these workers as “failed academics” or “tenure risk” effectively categorize a diverse group of scholars as unworthy or incapable, and the career trajectories of sessional faculty are limited very early in their career. Most often, people who teach a large number of courses do so out of economic necessity or out of a mistaken idea that teaching experience and teaching excellence are a path to full-time employment. In fact, as mentioned above, contract faculty are rarely considered for full-time positions because it is said, they/we lack a robust publication record. The problem is, this does not explain hiring graduates with no publications and no teaching experience or failing to hire people who have significant teaching experience and also have a relatively robust publication record. Nor does it explain not hiring adjuncts for teaching-intensive positions. As Langan and Morton put it:

Departments that have no problem hiring adjuncts to teach courses semester after semester many times hesitate, they say, even to consider these instructors when full-time, tenure track positions open up. Younger candidates, with new Ph.D.’s and less teaching experience, seem to beat them out, many report, even for jobs that are teaching-oriented (Langan and Morton, 2009: 402).

The institutional norms and practices that leave nearly one half of the academic workforce in marginal and poorly paid positions create a situation where the economic marginalization and misrecognition “… intertwine to reinforce one another dialectically,” as institutional norms usually preclude the participation of adjunct faculty from participating in departmental life or serving on committees. Redressing the issues facing non-tenured faculty, or the “Other” faculty as the title of a report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario report aptly proclaims, requires both redistribution and recognition.

Affirmative redistribution, which would mean in this case in a more equitable rate of pay for non-tenure track faculty, would not remedy the social injustice and, in fact, only serves to draw attention to the non-regular faculty without addressing the issue of two-tier hiring practices. A redistributive remedy including increasing the rates of pay, ensure decent working conditions, and perhaps improve job security for non-regular faculty would no doubt be welcome. However, in the long run, these measures would not disrupt the two-tier system and devaluation of teaching within the corporate university. Furthermore, pay equity will very possibly lead to the disposal of long-term adjunct faculty in the short or long run.

While redistribution would no doubt be welcomed by precarious faculty, a long-term social justice framework would require that the university community place value on the teaching,  research, service, and other unpaid work carried out by non-regular faculty. In short, that the administration and our tenured colleagues “accord positive recognition to a devalued group specificity” (Fraser 1995).

Note: An earlier version of this article can be found here:


Buchbinder & Newson 1999. The University Means Business: Universities, Corporations, and Academic Work. Garamond Press.

Janice Newson and Howard Buchbinder, Garamond Press, 1988.

Cairns, James 2017. The Myth of the Age of Entitlement: Millennials, Austerity, and Hope. University of Toronto Press.

CUPE 2017

Donoghue, Frank 2008. The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. New York. Fordham University Press.

Field, C. C., Jones, G. A., Karram Stephenson, G., & Khoyetsyan, A. (2014). The “Other” University Teachers: Non-Full-Time Instructors at Ontario Universities. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Flaherty, Colleen Book argues adjunct conditions must be viewed as civil rights issue.

Fraser, Nancy 1995. From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age. New Left Review 212:68-93.

Langan, Deborah and Mavis Morton 2009. Through the eyes of farmers’ daughters: Academics working on marginal land. Women’s Studies International Forum 32 (2009) 395–405.

Mysyk, Avis 2001. The Sessional Lecturer as Migrant Labourer. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, v31 n3 p73-91.

Rose, Deidre 2018. The Neoliberal U and Me.

About this blog.

For a while now, I have been sharing information from other sources about the trials and tribulations of part-time or contract academic faculty. Our conditions vary from country to country and even within any given country, but despite differences we also share much with one another. There are a number of good books out on the topic, and I am working on one of my own. Here, I hope to invite comments and conversations with other people in this situation (I have been a sessional lecturer for 22 years) but also with people who care about the quality of postsecondary education and care about social justice more generally. Right now this is a free site, so the occasional ad might appear, hope this is not a problem.