How Academia’s Over Reliance on Contingent Faculty Hurts Workers and Students’ Quality of Education

Adjunct and contingent faculty make up the majority of instructional staff at colleges and universities today. Faith Ericson explains what that means for these highly qualified and underpaid workers and the role of liberal arts education outside of major city centers.

Adjunct and contingent faculty make up the overwhelming majority of instructors at universities and colleges in the United States. Now making up the majority of instructional staff, the ratio between adjunct and tenured professors was essentially reversed in the mid-century. Many of these highly qualified workers are feeling the effects of the gig-ification of professorship—both in their working conditions and the ability to effectively serve the needs of students. 

Faith Ericson, a contingent faculty for a university and community college in St. Cloud, Minn., has been in such a position for the past 16 years. Ericson, a member of two contingent faculty unions and mom of a four-year-old son, has her hands full. Despite her decade and a half and counting of commitment to these academic institutions, there is no path to tenure, or job security, for someone in her position. Contingent faculty like Faith work on year-to-year or even semester-to-semester contracts.

Ericson’s situation is not uncommon for contingent faculty, where many do not receive summer benefits and cannot rely on stable work semester by semester. Many instructors are not told their assignment until the day classes begin. She describes the complex puzzle of piecing together work, navigating various academic bureaucracies, and attending to students’ academic and personal needs without adequate support. Ericson describes it as a sort of twisted “game show,” where contingent faculty never seem to secure the stability and benefits of tenure positions. 

Faith Ericson, a contingent faculty for the past 16 years, poses on the St. Cloud State University campus in front of the Mississippi River in St. Cloud, Minn.

Isabela Escalona

Faith Ericson, a contingent faculty for the past 16 years, poses on the St. Cloud State University campus in front of the Mississippi River in St. Cloud, Minn.

St. Cloud, Minn., where Ericson has lived for 26 years, is a working-class community, a bit over an hour north of the Twin Cities. St. Cloud is a heavy agricultural sector with a population just shy of 70,000. In recent years, the mid-sized city has grown, with many new immigrants and refugees moving in, including Somali and East African communities as well as Latin American  immigrant communities. 

Ericson explains the unique makeup of the student body she teaches in St. Cloud; many students are working part-time and full-time along with their studies, are primary caretakers of family members, breadwinners, and have higher education backgrounds from their home countries and other non-traditional situations. 

As an English professor, Ericson reflects on the role of liberal arts education in the lives of students, beyond simply showing students how to be workers. She argues all students should have the ability to take courses where they can contemplate humanity and explore their curiosities in a quiet setting where work, home obligations, and other everyday stressors can fall away. 

Ericson spoke with Workday Magazine about living and working in St. Cloud, the state of academia and contingent faculty, her vision to improve the conditions of faculty, as well as the quality of education for students. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Workday Magazine: Where do you work? 

Faith Ericson: I work at St. Cloud Technical & Community College and St. Cloud State University. I’m an English instructor at both. Technically I’m an adjunct instructor at St. Cloud State and temporary part-time at St. Cloud Technical & Community College. This will be my 16th year. 

Workday Magazine: Are you a member of a union? Do you have any leadership positions within your union? 

Ericson: I’m a member of two unions, the Inter Faculty Organization (IFO) and Minnesota State College Faculty (MSCF). I was on the Contingent Appointments Committee for St. Cloud State and I am on the IFO board, representing adjuncts. For MSCF, I’m the chair of the Temporary Faculty Committee. At MSCF, I was on the executive committee for the last two years, the bargaining committee last year, and I’ll be on the bargaining committee next year too. 

Workday Magazine: Where do you live and how long have you lived there?

Ericson: St. Cloud, Minn. for 24 years.

Workday Magazine: Did you grow up there?

Ericson: I grew up in Hoyt Lakes, Minn., on the Iron Range.

Workday Magazine: How do you enjoy teaching? 

Ericson: I love teaching, it’s very difficult. It’s a hard job. I love the difference that I can make. I love connecting with students. I love when you see that learning happens. I also love when you can just make a difference in education overall.

Workday Magazine: What are the difficulties of the job? 

Ericson: It’s a time suck. I have a four-year-old son and I missed a lot of his life due to teaching, grading, and all the unpaid labor. The union work that I’ve done, that I’ve wanted to do, but it’s a lot trying to lift up contingent faculty and the unpaid work for the college committee. Also the student demands, which are reasonable, but I’m not equipped for, in regard to student mental health, and student technology on top of everything else—it’s a demanding job. 

I think good teachers are often empathetic and sensitive to students. Oftentimes, when they are overworked and tired and meeting the demands of students, emotionally and mentally it can be really extra draining and it can feel very personal and so that’s really hard.

Workday Magazine: What do you think of the state of higher education, specifically as a long-term contingent faculty? 

Ericson: I think that an overreliance on contingent faculty without offering stability is really not meeting the needs of educators, especially when it comes to the burnout, physically and mentally, which hurts their ability to meet the needs of students when you’re not wholly present. When you’re worn down, you’re not going to be fully there for your students. When you’re not sure if you’re going to have work, if you’re going to be covered for insurance, what your paycheck is gonna look like—you’re definitely not able to put your best effort forward for students. That’s definitely not meeting the needs of educators, especially when we have so many adjunct faculty. 

Nationwide, it’s majority adjunct faculty. So that’s where I personally would see the biggest, the biggest missed opportunity for meeting the needs of educators is in the way they treat their contingent faculty.

Some faculty don’t even have a safe space to meet students. For instance, I teach a Gender and Lit class where sometimes we have to talk about sexual assault and students sometimes want to talk to me about their personal experiences. Although I am very lucky that after many years of teaching I have a shared office, some students aren’t going to feel safe to talk to me in that space. Not having an office may seem like a minor thing, but when we think of it in terms of meeting student needs, it becomes a huge issue. When you think about it, in terms of students and their mental health, there’s an extra burden of having to take care of students’ mental health, which I already don’t feel equipped for on campus. 

Also, running around from campus to campus might seem like a minor inconvenience, but we don’t get paid for our car wear and tear or gas. Which again, might seem like a minor inconvenience for faculty. Working on several campuses, I also have to start to understand the university policies on three different campuses, then it becomes three times as overwhelming. That’s really not sustainable for me much less for the students who I’m tasked to have to take care of.

Workday Magazine: How are your appointments in these positions? How is that structured?

Ericson: Every semester you get an appointment. You don’t get a contract until pretty much the day before or even the week before the semester starts. You don’t have any guarantee and it’s really reliant on enrollment. If enrollment fails, or if a full-time faculty doesn’t get their class filled, which happens a lot, the contingent faculty’s class may be transferred over to the full-time faculty. 

It’s really unfortunate because a contingent faculty’s name is on the course and a student signs up for it, but they are then signed up for the full-time faculty’s course because the full-time faculty needs to get their course filled. I say this, mostly because no course belongs to contingent faculty. It’s really a stressful mind game. You don’t know what’s going to happen until the day the course starts.

Workday Magazine: Is there a pathway for a professor in your position to then be tenured?

Ericson: “It’s in the MSCF contract, but not in the IFO contract. There’s a rollover provision where if you teach a full-time load, which is 30 or 32 credits at the same college for six years in a row, then you roll over into a full-time position.” 

But what happens is they don’t want you to do that. So then, strategically, at the fifth year, they cut you down to like 28 credits, and then the clock starts over. So then you start at year one again. For me, I’ve been there 16 years. It’s a horrible game. It’s like a game show, where you get up to so many credits, and then they cut you down, and then you’re back to year one again. And it happens to a lot of people. There are a lot of people who can tell you that terrible story. We’re trying to fix that in the contract. 

There are a lot of people in my position. 15 percent of the MSCF faculty have been in our system for 20 years or longer and 40% have worked as contingent faculty for 10 years or longer. That’s a lot of people who have been around, playing on and off of the Ferris wheel for a long time. 

Workday Magazine: That’s so blatantly unfair. How are the unions that you’re a part of trying to better the system? What are the sorts of reforms that you all are fighting for?

Ericson: We’re trying to work towards improving insurance conditions for contingent faculty. And we did pass some resolutions at the delegate assembly to help improve conditions for contingent faculty. So that was good. The resolutions that we passed were trying to get more job security in bargaining and trying to get more money during bargaining. 

For MSCF, we have a bigger presence of contingent faculty on the bargaining team and we’re fighting for more job security in bargaining. We actually have equal pay for contingent faculty in MSCF. Which is pretty great, but not something that’s common everywhere. We’re also fighting for insurance at MSCF and right now we’re working on a legislative bill for insurance. 

I have had a bug for IFO and MSCF contingent faculty to work together more and I think that’s starting to happen. Hopefully that can extend across all of Minnesota and then beyond. I think contingent faculty can unite en masse in Minnesota—convincing legislators and university administration that we’re important and we’re going to make a difference. We’re not going away. You can’t just easily substitute us for other contingent faculty because we all want change and we’re all asking for the same thing. 

Workday Magazine: What do you think is the value of having a liberal arts education or full curriculum options at a university like St. Cloud, or in universities in smaller cities or cities that are outside the major metro areas?

Ericson: I think the right to explore an education that goes beyond teaching someone how to be a worker should not belong to those who only have a private education or somehow go to college in a major urban center. The ability to explore what it means to be a human and all its messy, infinite possibilities should belong to anyone who pursues a higher education and the ability to just navigate complexities of life come at you through these humanity courses in unexpected ways.

You’re sitting in a literature course and all of a sudden one day unexpectedly it hits you what you want to do with your life or how you want to approach this problem that you’ve been dealing with forever. Or a history course, where you finally understand why people in politics are acting in the way that they are. I just don’t think it should be the right in only certain colleges or only certain geographical areas to be able to study what makes a human a human.  

There’s so much coming at you in life, but in a classroom, it’s quiet. You’re thinking, you’re thinking of your life, and this book. There’s not a million sensory things coming at you at once. It’s an experience that you’re not going to be able to recreate very easily.

Workday Magazine: What is the student body like in St. Cloud? 

Ericson: It’s pretty diverse. You have students here who may have a Ph.D. from another country, but can’t get a job. For some reason, it doesn’t translate here. So they’re starting from scratch, you may have a student here who has never had schooling in another country but is 25 years old coming to college. You may have a first generation student who is the translator for their family and takes care of their entire family, but is also coming to school and trying to better their own life. You have Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) students whose entire life’s goal is just to get through. 

It’s just very diverse, which makes teaching really amazing because you are navigating the waters of all of these students and they all have something really beautiful and unique to offer in the classroom. St. Cloud is wonderfully diverse in that way. I’ve been here for a long time. I’m sure that there’s there’s groups that I’m missing that would add to the wonderful diversity but I think as far as the educational diversity there’s so much here as far as what they bring to the classroom. 

Workday Magazine: Do you feel a sense of community there?

Ericson: I’ve warmed up to St. Cloud. It is a medium-sized town. It’s got music, theater, art, good food, and a beautiful river. It does feel like it’s big enough where you could make a fool out of yourself and not necessarily see those people again, but also small enough where you could probably run into a friend now and then. There’s a community if you want to find a community. It’s near enough the cities where you could go and have some fun. 

I think it’s going through growing pains. It’s a city that expanded rapidly. I think that’s beautiful, but it’s also pretty hard. There are people who are defending what it used to be and then there’s a clash, which gets really ugly. There’s also lots of beauty—there’s music on the water, arts, and culture, and then there’s all the gruff stuff that comes with a medium town like McDonald’s and chains and how anything new dies. It’s just a medium-sized town with some beautiful things and some ugly things and a whole brand new community that came that was fleeing from a civil war. It feels like right in the middle of a culture clash. I grew up on the Iron Range, in a tiny, tiny little town. So all of this is a little crazy for me. So there’s a lot of beauty and there’s a lot of hatred. 

I walk along the Mississippi River every day and it’s beautiful. You could walk every day and see new plants and flowers and people and it’s really lovely. If you look for the ugly stuff, you can see the ugly stuff. You can look for the beautiful stuff, you can see the beautiful stuff. 

Workday Magazine: If adjunct faculty contingent faculty were able to get better wages and job stability and pathways to tenure, how would that improve your life? What would that look like for you and your peers?

Ericson: My gosh, it’s hard to imagine. I would be able to not have to pick up every spare opportunity to prove to the college that I’m worth something. I would have more time to spend on my family. I would not worry all the time, which I think I don’t even know what that would be like. I was just texting a colleague, and she wanted me to tell my boss that I didn’t agree with a decision that a committee made and I was like, “I don’t know if I can,” even though it’s the right thing to do. I wouldn’t have to worry about every single choice that I make for fear that I would make someone mad.

I wouldn’t have to worry, every time a student is upset at me, that it’s going to be the loss of my job. I wouldn’t have to constantly check the schedule to see if my name was still on the classes I was assigned to. I wouldn’t have to pick up extra classes just as a backup and then have to teach so many classes that I burn out. I can’t even imagine what that life would be like.

The fear of getting fired for getting a complaint is eventually going to have an impact on academic freedom. The way they treat contingent faculty could have an impact on tenure eventually. If they start to over-rely on contingent faculty, they’re going to start to under-rely on tenure, depending on the erosion of contracts. So that’s also something to fight. Tenure impacts academic freedom, which impacts just the integrity of education all around. I think that the structure of academic freedom and the integrity of education is also at stake. 

I am concerned that being honest about this may impact my livelihood, like so many in my position are, but I feel comfortable doing so now because I trust my current local dean and president. I also know being vocal and getting involved in the union are ways to make big change. 

This story is part of the Greater Minnesota Worker Listening Project series, a profile series on union and non-union workers in Greater Minnesota and other rural communities.

Isabela is the Senior Associate Editor for Workday Magazine.

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