The financial crisis of 2008 drastically changed the landscape of higher education and the career outlook for academic professionals. In place of tenure-track jobs that provided long-term stability for universities and professors alike, colleges across the US have relied increasingly on contingent labor. This is to their benefit because it allows them to save considerable amounts of money in base salaries and benefits, and also gives them flexibility by shortening their commitment to individual faculty members and programs. For the people holding these positions, however, the situation is dire. Over 70% of instructional staff appointments in higher education today–many of them filled by experts with doctorates in their field and publications in peer-reviewed journals–hold short-term contracts lasting a few months or years at most. Adjuncts often do not learn whether they will be able to teach–and thus whether they will be paid–until a few days before a semester starts. Those who hold “visiting” positions are normally let go at the end of their term regardless of their performance and the school’s need–frequently giving way to another temporary contract paid out at the base rate. Salaries for these professionals vary, but median pay for adjuncts is just $2,700 per course. This means that a professor hustling to cobble together a heavy teaching load of four courses per semester would make just $21,600 per year. Figures such as this help to explain how 14% of all faculty members in higher education live near or below the poverty line, while one in four part-time instructors receives some form of public assistance. Teaching loads for these professionals are heavier than tenure-line faculty, too, which means they have less time to conduct the research that is essential for career advancement. Those who make the least are also denied basic benefits such as health insurance and are rarely given access to funds to attend conferences and other venues for professional development. In short, the mental image many people have of college professors–lifetime employment, generous salaries, and a light workload–is completely divorced from the reality a majority of professors face in 2017.
Christopher L. Caterine has witnessed these changes firsthand. Entering graduate school in 2007, he saw many of his classmates completing their doctorates but struggling to find meaningful, long-term employment in academia. This situation was made worse by the financial crisis in 2008, and things still had not improved by the time he finished his own dissertation in 2014: although he was able to secure a short-term contract with Tulane, the next two years were the worst two on record for tenure-track job listings in the Classics. He soon came to realize that his own career ambitions–which included pursuit of administrative jobs further up the academic food chain–could not be supported within the new academy.
Not content to sit by the sidelines, Chris volunteered to serve as Chair of a newly-formed advisory group on non-tenure-track faculty issues that the Society for Classical Studies created in the summer of 2015. After taking the reins, he created a plan for the group to research the problems afflicting contingent faculty in the Classics and to devise a series of steps the Society could take to address them. The specific policy recommendations he made were designed to improve the day-to-day situation for contingent faculty without incurring significant cost or overstepping the Society’s limited purview. Despite the careful balancing act this required, the board received his report enthusiastically and responded by elevating the group to a standing committee within the Society’s governing structure. Chris was subsequently appointed chair of that committee so he could execute the recommendations he had made and respond to new issues as they arise.
In late spring of 2017 Chris broadened this vision by organizing a round-table discussion with his counterparts in other disciplines. The goals of this new group are evolving, but its immediate aim is to see every academic professional society in the US include formal representation for contingent faculty by 2022.