Derailed: Pushing back against the adjunct system

Part V: Funding may favor ‘flagships’ at the expense of other campuses

By: - March 10, 2022 6:46 am

Around the U.S., tenure is under fire by anti-intellectual forces who consider higher education a politicized operation, oppose public education ideologically, want to squeeze the last dollar out of public institutions for private enrichment, or all of the above. The rise of exploited adjuncts threatens the tenure system itself. Professional organizations are sounding alarms.

“Tenure is a social contract between faculty and universities,” where in return for a “long-term, protected relationship, faculty forgo higher pay and better benefits in industry, dedicating themselves to their students, colleagues, and universities,” said John Colton, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech and chair of its American Association of University Professors chapter, after an October 2021 Georgia Board of Regents meeting where changes were proposed that would allow firing of tenured professors outside the deliberative process currently in place, and for reasons other than “for cause.”

National AAUP also issued a statement, calling Georgia’s proposal “tenure in name only.”

The Modern Language Association, an organization for English and foreign language scholars founded in 1883, has publicized concerns about adjuncts for decades. Its 1994 guidelines for employment of adjuncts remain aspirational in 2022. They include limits on the proportion of adjunct to tenured and tenure track faculty, and the number of graduate students “serving as apprentice teachers,” to maintain tenure track employment as the norm. They call for professional treatment of adjuncts, including:

  • clear hiring processes similar to those for tenure track faculty, 
  • facilities for adjuncts like offices, mailboxes, and clerical support, 
  • genuine onboarding that makes adjuncts part of the life of the university, 
  • equitable salaries and benefits, 
  • eligibility for professional development resources, and
  • participation in departmental and institutional policy and decision making.
(Provided by Martin Lopez via for the Daily Montanan.)

Under pressure from advocates, some campuses and university systems are pushing back against overuse and mistreatment of adjuncts with measures to protect the tenure system and provide labor protections for adjuncts — referred to as “contingent” faculty by advocates because of the tenuous nature of their contracts. Many taxpayer-funded institutions are realizing that their mission to serve and educate is inconsistent with over-reliance on exploited adjuncts, which damages both adjuncts and their students, perpetuating systemic and historical inequities that the universities are committed to fight.

Professors’ unions are beginning to flex the power of adjuncts, who are necessary for modern universities to function. The 6,500 member University of California American Federation of Teachers chapter had a major win in November 2021, after two-and-a-half years of negotiation to improve the status of adjuncts came within hours of a strike. 

“It’s the best contract in UC-AFT history and among the best nationwide for contingent faculty,” UC-AFT President Mia McIver told the Los Angeles Times. Contract provisions include:

  • An average 30 percent pay increase over the five-year contract.
  • Four weeks of 100 percent paid family leave for every member of the unit—including part-time lecturers, who were previously left out of this benefit.
  • Priority consideration to part-time lecturers for additional assignments before outside candidate recruitment.
  • Longer contracts for lecturers with good evaluations, so they will no longer have to reapply for their positions every year.
  • More access to senior status and its associated pay, benefits and job security: Instead of waiting six years before reaching this milestone, contracts for one, two and three years will move lecturers along more quickly, and inadequate evaluation systems will no longer hold back their progress.
  • More transparent workload requirements.

Montana adjuncts have union representation through the Montana Federation of Public Employees, but many have no way to connect with other adjuncts. Bess Lovec, the MSU-Billings dance instructor, was unaware throughout her time at the university of any opportunities to meet with other adjuncts or of union representation.

Derailed: Life off the tenure track

Editor’s note: The Daily Montanan is presenting a five-part series to examine the roles and inequities of non-tenure track faculty in the public Montana University System and beyond. Traditionally, non-tenure track or “contingent” faculty – those whose jobs are not protected by the tenure system that requires significant process for dismissal – have consisted of independent professionals and academics in a community filling in as needed. But as higher education struggles with budget constraints, these positions make up an increasing portion of the faculty even at flagship universities – and the hourly pay works out to less than food service employees’.

This series examines five aspects of the rise of contingent faculty, which some describe as a lesser caste in which those who prepared for secure academic careers scramble to eke out a living.

  • Part One: Caste system Outside the tenure system, university teaching has slipped into the modern gig economy, with terms often worse than delivery driving.
  • Part Two:  Lower caste Work conditions for contingent faculty can be exhausting, demoralizing, and in the worst case, fatal.
  • Part Three: Terms of Employment Earning as little as $3 an hour, contingent faculty have no job security and little hope of advancement. 
  • Part Four: Impact on Students Despite contingent faculty’s best efforts, their tenuous position within the university can reduce their value to students.
  • Part Five: Pushing back Professional associations, unions, and universities are taking steps to improve the status of adjuncts, to protect the core mission of higher education.

Perhaps mindful of the risk of adjuncts organizing more effectively, some Montana campuses are taking proactive steps to address their status. MSU-Billings’ Chancellor Stefani Hicswa and Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Sep Eskandari, both newcomers to the Montana system within the last year, emphasize their eagerness to support faculty, including adjuncts. Eskandari comes from Cal Poly Pomona, where he was associate provost, chaired the academic senate and the Biological Sciences department, and saw firsthand the impact of increased reliance on adjuncts in the country’s largest public university system.

“As soon as I got here, I asked for data from the last few years on hiring tenure track faculty,” Eskandari says. “As provost, I fully recognize the value of tenure lines. They’re important to so much that we do.” Under the new administration, MSU-Billings has 14 tenure line searches underway for appointment in fall 2022. 

However, Eskandari himself stepped out of the tenure system by taking the MSU-Billings job, which doesn’t offer the “return right” extended to many academic administrators so that they can step into a tenured teaching position if they decide to leave administration. The policy varies by campus in Montana. UM is able to offer tenure to administrators as a way to attract quality candidates, but the faculty collective bargaining agreement at MSU-Billings doesn’t allow faculty or administrators to come to campus “pre-tenured.”

Variations in faculty protections and status create hostility among the campuses. There’s bitterness about condescending attitudes among faculty at the flagships — Bozeman and Missoula — toward faculty at the smaller campuses.

“They’re hierarchical, vain, and snarky,” says the humanities adjunct, describing a cocktail party where a tenured Bozeman professor joked about getting a less credentialed Billings academic to teach a class for free, for the resume bump.

They’re hierarchical, vain, and snarky.

– Humanities Adjunt of Tenured Professors

The sense that Montana State University administration, headquartered in Bozeman, deliberately disadvantages MSU-Billings so that it can’t compete — including in tenure lines — comes up repeatedly in discussions with Billings leadership and faculty. MSU President Waded Cruzado is above the Chancellors of Great Falls College, MSU Northern, and MSU-Billings in the organizational chart, so if MSU-Billings proposes a program that would benefit its student population, Cruzado’s office can appropriate it for her home institution — or just say no. 

There’s talk in Billings of separating from the MSU system altogether.  

Joy C. Honea, Professor, Montana State University- Billings (Courtesy Joy Honea).

Other factors disadvantage Montana University System satellite institutions in competition for funding with the flagships, making it harder to maintain tenure lines.

“Look at the performance-based funding model,” says tenured MSU-Billings sociology professor Joy Honea. “It prioritizes the flagship model, not smaller campuses that serve non-traditional students, first generation students.” In the funding model, metrics shared across all campuses include retention and degrees awarded. But, Honea points out, this penalizes campuses that serve the most at-risk and underserved populations, students who may earn degrees one course at a time over many years, or only take the classes they really need to get a job. 

Serving those populations means less funding under the formula, which in turn means fewer tenured professors, less continuity, and more turnover of adjuncts who lack the institutional knowledge and resources to support marginalized students. A cycle of marginalization reinforces itself, contrary to the Montana University System’s mission “to serve students through the delivery of high quality, accessible postsecondary educational opportunities, while actively participating in the preservation and advancement of Montana’s economy and society” through an annual taxpayer investment of $203 million. 

Funding formulas and the university system’s hierarchy are arcane issues for most Montanans, who just want to see the state’s universities run well, but they all play into decisions made term by term about who gets hired and whether they’ll be a permanent part of the university, able to serve students and the universities’ broader educational mission to the best of their ability. The stakes are high. Every fall, 40,000 Montanans arrive ready for class, full of dreams — counting on their public university system to get it right. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Carrie La Seur
Carrie La Seur

Carrie La Seur is a Billings novelist and attorney, descended from 1860s Montana settlers and a long line of one room schoolhouse educators. She works pro bono with asylum seekers. She can be found on Twitter @claseur