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Volume 20 • Issue 2 (2017)

Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier

Keith Hoeller, Ed.
Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Nothing in modern education is more obvious than the vast expansion and transformation of colleges and universities since the end of World War II. Not only has the number and size of postsecondary institutions grown “exponentially” (as people enthusiastically, if somewhat sloppily, claim), but foundational changes have taken place in their social functions, financial supports, organizational structures and academic/vocational rationales, justifications and apologies. Internal research, employer/employee relations, and teaching and learning cultures have been altered—certainly profoundly, and perhaps immutably and irredeemably. Being a “professor” is not what it used to be, and not everyone is happy about it.

The changes are not fully understood, but they are evident in the often noisy celebration of endless innovation and systemic reorganization of teaching and learning—largely carried out before the eerie glow of computer screens and evaluated in the incessant application of assessment and accountability questionnaires, relentless surveillance and methodical measurements of “key performance indicators” that quantify institutional, faculty and student “success.”

Above the din is heard the triumphal cry: “You can’t stop progress!”; yet, even its most ardent advocates and “change champions” are hard pressed to speak coherently about what the criteria for determining what progress actually is. Throughout, there is a sense of desperate inevitability, as though some of our more complex and authentically conservative are now in the hands of mostly ecstatic, but often angry gods. Progress, it seems, will simply be!

Not only the substance, but also the tone of campus deliberations has changed. When I began undergraduate student studies in the early 1960s, administration/faculty relations were not, or did not visibly seem to be, inherently adversarial. Administrators were not self-consciously “bosses” and professors certainly did not regard themselves as “wage-slaves.” True, authority was commonly vested in a Board of Governors, Council of Regents or other honourifically entitled set of formal overseers. True, also, that senior administration (Chancellors, Presidents, Deans, etc.) exercised final control over hiring and firing, day-to-day functions such as paying wages and electricity bills and ensuring that ample supplies of chalk appeared in classrooms, and schmoozing with private benefactors and government regulators when necessary. Generally, however, the administrators and the academics tended their own gardens and showed respect for one another’s turf.

This is not the place to plumb the archives, assess the motives, parse the explanations and generate testable theories of institutional evolution. It suffices to note that the Platonic “groves of academe” have been turned into the educational equivalents of home improvement emporia wherein product design is kept current, inventory is catalogued, market needs are assessed, customers are solicited, sales are calculated, client satisfaction is measured and the desirability of the “brand” is constantly reviewed and renewed.

Just as in the farming, fishing, resource extraction, manufacturing, commerce, finance and data processing, postsecondary education is rapidly restructuring the nature and conditions of work. A singular aspect of this transformation (or, perhaps, deformation) is the systematic reconfiguration of faculty employment classifications and job descriptions—themselves a reflection of a new view of “human resources” and the asymmetrical power relations that accompany those changes.

In universities, we are moving from a traditional faculty-controlled process of recruiting apprentices, promoting junior scholars, and awarding tenure to a corporate model in which administrative officials are increasingly influential. In colleges, parallel if not more severely hierarchical methods of recruiting probationary faculty and awarding full-time status are being adopted. The result is an inherently unstable (or “flexible,” as some prefer) system in which tenure and seniority are under attack and as much as 70% to 80% of teaching is being performed by “precarious” faculty (who face faint hope of full-time employment, enjoy little job security and next to no employee benefits). This, of course, is consistent with a “business model” that would have been unthinkable in higher education within the living memory of veteran professors today.

Keith Hoeller has responded to the fluid, roiling dynamic with a solidifying anthology that helps us to code and qualify some broader dimensions of the transition from “elite” to “mass” to “universal” education and the attendant embrace of strategies of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter, 1942).

Equality for Contingent Faculty is engagingly organized. It begins with three “case studies of progressive change,” in which authors from California, Colorado and western Canada take up issues related to organizing against initiatives that degrading academic freedom and deskill faculty. The urgency of the issues and the energy of the resistant academy are tangible.

In the second part, a more settled approach emerges and the origins, extension and inherent conflicts of interest between full-time and contingent academic workers is explored. The need for rejuvenated faculty associations/unions and the necessity of democratizing higher education are key themes. Editor Hoeller’s own contribution on “The Academic Labor System of Faculty Apartheid” sets a forceful tone.

Finally, realistic hope is reinvigorated with two “blueprints for abolishing the two-tier system,” one drawn from the California community college system and one providing step-by-step guidance toward a one-tier arrangement based on events at Vancouver Community College in British Columbia.

The contributors are all veteran teachers, though with eclectic institutional affiliations. They range from Ohio State University to the online Athabasca University in Alberta, and from Hoeller’s own Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington (near Seattle) to a former associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University who spent a decade as a staff member of the American Association of University Professors and is now an independent scholar, and a former Canadian college ombudsperson, union grievance officer and teacher of Anthropology, Labour Studies and Dispute Resolution at First Nations colleges and traditional universities.

The essays, despite the varied backgrounds of the contributors are of remarkably even quality and maintain steady connections to the main theme. Together, they make what Joe Berry, author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower, calls “a major contribution to the effort to expose and combat one of higher education’s dirtiest little secrets: the fact that most postsecondary classes are now taught by contingent faculty without living wages, job security or academic freedom, or even health or retirement benefits.”

Regardless of size, jurisdiction or reputation, Equality for Contingent Faculty argues that institutional patterns of domination are similar. They are mechanisms to achieve corporate priorities of cost-cutting in the interest of mock efficiency and to impose further political control over a frequently docile and frankly pusillanimous academic work force.

What sets this book apart is that, unlike many critiques of postsecondary education, it is not a self-absorbed and maudlin lamentation. Instead, it provides wholly pragmatic advice about how to build an effective movement to slow, stall and ultimately reverse corporate trends.

Hoeller and his contributors are also forthright and fearless in assessing the role of full-time faculty and faculty unions in addressing the plight of adjunct, partial-load, part-time and sessional professors (call them what you will). Part of the problem derives from an illusion of professional superiority on the part of tenured, permanent, full-time faculty (call them what you will). Contributor Jack Longmate, a twenty-year veteran adjunct at Olympia College in Bremerton, Washington puts it well:

A two-tiered workplace of tenured and nontenured faculty, with differences in compensation, workload, and job security among other factors, would seem to cast doubt on the ‘community of interests’ of a single bargaining unit for both. A solution may involve a culture change, which may not be immediate.

That change, moreover, is required on both sides. Full-time teachers must understand that they are not categorically superior to contingent faculty and contingent faculty must learn that top-tier employees are not their “class enemy” whose privileges are to be resented. Both are victims of a conscious “divide-and-rule” tactic which consciously sows division among employees. Moreover, while some faculty unions aggressively support and promote the interests of second-tier staff, the book acknowledges that, in cases of conflict of interest between the tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, the already advantaged tend to dominate bargaining priorities and negotiations.

The process of overcoming the two-tier system will be no easy task. Governments, administrations and sometimes the mindsets of both levels of faculty pose serious obstacles to equity in management-faculty and in inter-faculty relations. Though the need for solidarity among teachers is (or should be) obvious, differences in jurisdictional and institutional histories, faculty classification systems, degrees and kinds of faculty organization (from personal employment contracts to full collective bargaining rights), faculty self-images and ideologies, the overarching corporate mentality and other contextual factors make a “one-size-fits-all” strategy almost unthinkable and certainly unworkable. Nonetheless, nothing less than a wholesale commitment to “overcoming the two-tier system” will be effective in achieving meaningful reform.

Keith Hoeller and his colleagues have rendered a valuable service not only by presenting important information about the nature of labour process problems in higher education, but also about actionable ideas and specific methods to achieve goals. If faculty break through walls of self-imposed deception and understand their actual place in the structure of the “education industry,” the case studies, analyses and specific tactics documented in Equality for Contingent Faculty may make their own version of “progress” (which is also conservation) no longer seem unattainable.


Schumpeter, J. (1942). Capitalism, socialism and democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Bros.

Howard A. Doughty teaches Values, Morals & Ethics, and Social Consciousness: Equity & Social Justice in the Faculty of Applied Arts & Health Sciences (King Campus). He can be reached at