Campus Equity Week Interview with Rosemary Feal

Rosemary G. Feal

This podcast is an interview with MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal regarding Campus Equity Week.



Podcast Transcript

MARY-BETH BROPHY, HOST: This podcast is presented by the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession. The Committee’s focus embraces a variety of issues relevant to English and foreign language instructors working off the tenure track in higher education.

Hi everyone, and thanks for joining us for this podcast. I’m Mary-Beth Brophy, and today I’ll be talking via Skype with Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, or MLA, about Campus Equity Week, which takes place from October 26 to 30, 2015.

The first Campus Equity Week was organized in 1999, and it exists to raise awareness about the working conditions of higher education adjunct, part-time, non-tenured, and graduate teaching faculty.

Rosemary, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

ROSEMARY FEAL, MLA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Thank you, Mary-Beth. I’m really glad to be here.

MARY-BETHL So, just to start with, when we differentiate between tenure-track and contingent faculty, what does that mean? What elements define a contingent faculty member?

ROSEMARY: You know, it’s actually easier to define what a tenure-line faculty member is and then say everyone else is hired contingently. So if someone is on a tenure-track line, that is they will have a probationary period and then be evaluated for tenure, and from there on have the protections and guarantees of tenure. That’s very clear.

But everybody else does not have a clear employment situation with job security, academic freedom, and the other elements that we associate with tenure. So contingent means, therefore, employed in a temporary or nonpermanent, non-job-secure way. It can be part-time or full-time. It can be multi-year. It can be as a graduate assistant, a lecturer, an adjunct. There’re many names, but it all boils down to the same thing: lack of job security and protections that tenured faculty enjoy.

MARY-BETH: And that actually brings me to my next question. You know, Campus Equity Week is about bringing attention to the challenges faced by contingent faculty. Can you talk a little bit about what the MLA does currently to advocate for its members who are off the tenure track?

ROSEMARY: The MLA advocates for contingent members in the Association, but in general in the field of English and languages other than English. And we have a multi-prong approach to our advocacy. The Committee on Contingent Labor organizes things such as the project that produced the evaluative questionnaire and recommendations for employment practices for non-tenure-track faculty members, which has transformed the way departments look at contingency.

We also organize by facilitating conversations and activism at the annual convention and through the Delegate Assembly. We have an Action for Allies site on MLA Commons, in which hundreds of members and non-members have participated in actions on behalf of the contingent faculty members on their campuses.

And then we set standards. So the Committee on Academic Freedom annually sets the recommended compensation per course that adjuncts should be paid. We set standards as far as classroom size and working conditions, and we promote these standards to departments.

We also directly support our contingent faculty members’ travel grants to the convention to meet with their colleagues and to attend all sessions, and professional development workshops, and so forth. And we also support our contingent faculty members by writing directly to their department chairs, urging that the departments give contingent faculty members professional development funds to travel to the convention and to pursue their professional development.

We also do research. The MLA has an Office of Research, and we gather data on the field, on the employment trends, on the use of contingent faculty, so that our advocacy efforts are based on facts on the ground and on data.

So that’s an overview of the general things that we do. If listeners are interested, they can go to the MLA website and look at the Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit at the Data Center that we have or go to MLA Commons and look at Action for Allies.

MARY-BETH: And I should also add that we do things like this podcast to get information out to our contingent faculty members.

ROSEMARY: Absolutely.

MARY-BETH: You know, one of the pushback arguments that we often hear is that the movement from tenure track to contingent faculty is really nothing more than an evolution of the job market — that it’s normal, and we’re simply moving away from tenure. How does having a majority of classes — because now more than 50% of faculty are contingent – taught by contingent faculty impact higher education? Who should care about this shift, and why should they care?

ROSEMARY: You know, actually, it’s over 70% of courses that are taught off the tenure track when you take into account that adjuncts often teach multiple sections of a course. So the problem is vast. And, yes, it’s happened gradually over decades, but everybody should be concerned about it.

The foundation of an education is the interaction between faculty members and students. If that weren’t the foundation, there’d be no need to have a campus atmosphere, a residential campus, and so on.

This pact, if you will, depends on the professor having job security, academic freedom, and, frankly, being around. From the student’s perspective, the pact has as one of its elements being able to be mentored by professors, getting letters of recommendation, sitting down and going over the results of an exam, and so on. These relationships form the heart of higher education.

Another factor: Faculty members — whether they’re contingent or tenure line – they want to be and they should be involved in structuring the curriculum, in defining academic standards for the campus, and so on. Those without job protection, those without job security are not given the ability to do these things, and these things are essential for a campus.

So you see the fabric of a campus deteriorate almost silently because wonderful faculty members are still showing up in class, but that underlying foundation, or fabric, is slowly deteriorating.

Parents should care. Families are going into debt so that their students can get a higher education. And what’s happening is: They get faculty members who don’t even themselves get a standard of living that students aspire to.

So one of the most pernicious factors in this problem of contingency is invisibility. And many organizations, the MLA included, have been extraordinarily committed to making these faculty members’ work visible, valued, and to getting the changes necessary so that the working conditions of these faculty members will be improved.

You often hear the saying, “The faculty’s working conditions are the students’ learning conditions.” So that is essential, and in some way everybody should care.

And the administrations of colleges and universities, who have, frankly, taken advantage of the surplus of adjunct labor, should also care because the higher education bubble is said to be nearing its bursting point. Soon, families will realize that — if over 70% of the courses are taught by poorly paid adjuncts — that the higher education system is broken and will not wish to engage in it in the current form.

Administrations may start to see — and, in fact, the Delphi Project has documented this – administrations will start to see that persistence and on-time graduation rates decline as the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts increase.

So in a way the problems of contingency go directly to the students’ learning conditions, and that is something we should all be concerned about.

MARY-BETH: I really liked your point about visibility and value in contingent faculty, and I’d like to take you a little further in that direction. You know, recent research suggests that more than three-quarters of early tenure-track positions in the humanities are filled by applicants who earned a PhD less than four years earlier. And the implication of this is that the longer a faculty member remains contingent, the harder it’ll be to transition to that tenure-track position. Do you find this to be true in English and the foreign languages?

ROSEMARY: In general, I think it is an accurate statement, and MLA’s research does back it up. If a PhD has not found a tenure-line position within the first four to five years after receiving the degree, the chances become smaller and smaller. And so what the MLA has been saying — painful as this advice is — is the following:

Do not mistake adjuncting for a career path. It is not. If the desired outcome is a tenure-line position, then those who get the PhD should give themselves a few years of adjuncting and then come to the realization that their chances are very small and find a sustainable career path.

This is a reason why the MLA has embarked on an ambitious project funded by the Mellon Foundation. It’s called Connected Academics, and you can read about it on MLA Commons under Connected Academics. And the project is meant to prepare those pursuing PhDs to imagine and explore a wide variety of career paths.

We know that a significant number of PhDs go on to have fulfilling careers beyond the classroom. Many of them have secure employment, better pay, good working conditions, and get to use the skills and the knowledge they’ve gained in their graduate studies. Many of those are employed at the MLA and other scholarly associations, but they’re employed everywhere: in museums, in companies, in the government, and so on.

So the MLA is attempting to put forth models and mentoring programs and so on, so that PhDs can see that wide range of possibilities and explore those possibilities. Nevertheless, the MLA will never give up asserting that all faculty positions on campus should be well compensated; should have job security; should have the appropriate working conditions, such as office space, benefits, things like the possibility for promotion, winning awards on campus, and so on.

We are committed to those basic faculty rights. And, at the same time, we’re committed to research and activism so that PhDs can see that their options are not simply tenure track or a life of poorly-paid adjuncting.

I also want to add one more thing. And that is: There are many, many, many kinds of contingent members, as we said at the beginning of the conversation. And there is a group of professionals who work as adjuncts and who are, in general, well paid, and who may have a full-time or part-time job elsewhere, and who find the teaching of an occasional or even a yearly course on a campus to be personally fulfilling. And that’s fine. There will always be adjuncts who elect that work, and who want that work, and who do not aspire to a tenure-track position. They too deserve appropriate working conditions.

But we must not confuse that adjunct whom I just described with the majority of adjuncts, who would choose a better paying, more secure position if one were offered.

MARY-BETH: I wanted to ask you for a moment to speak to our tenured and tenure-track faculty who might be listening. You know, it’s often difficult to engage with employment issues, especially when those issues impact someone else. What can tenured and tenure-track faculty do to support their contingent faculty – specifically during Campus Equity Week but also throughout the year?

ROSEMARY: The Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession has produced the wonderful Professional Employment Practices document, and in this document are concrete suggestions that any faculty member can follow. Many of them don’t require money or radical shifts in the administration of the department. They are as simple as: Do contingent faculty have a place on the website, along with the tenure-line faculty members, where their research, and teaching interests, and background are described?

Tenure-line faculty can host a meet-and-greet with their contingent faculty colleagues, get to know their names, and engage them in conversations. They can invite them to research talks and to other activities in the department. They can make their offices available for contingent faculty to use when the tenured faculty aren’t in them. They can engage in daily practices that recognize, and support, and honor the work that contingent faculty members are doing.

Now, those who hold administrative positions – directors of graduate study, department chairs, and so on – can really do a great deal more. They can pressure the administration to adhere to the MLA guideline about pay for adjunct faculty members, and that current standard is $7,350 per three-credit-hour semester course. They can pressure the administration to authorize multi-year contracts for adjuncts. They can engage in activism on campus during Campus Equity Week. They can be right out there, side-by-side with contingent faculty members, demanding better conditions for those faculty members.

So respect, solidarity, activism, awareness. These go a long way. I would recommend that every single tenure-line faculty member listening to this go to the MLA Academic Workforce Data Center, where you can see the percentage of adjuncts on your campus versus tenure-line faculty. My suspicion is that many faculty members on the tenure track don’t even know what percentage of their colleagues teach contingently. So the first step is get the knowledge, and the second step is use that knowledge for improving the relations between contingent and tenure line, and also for linking arm in arm for change.

MARY-BETH: Thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot of information about what the MLA is doing and what our listeners can do. I also wanted to give you a chance to voice some final thoughts about the issues we’ve been talking about. Does the MLA have any next steps in the works with regard to advocating for our contingent faculty with the university administration teams?

ROSEMARY: The next step is – in action we’re planning for Campus Equity Week in collaboration with the Committee on Contingent Labor and the Executive Council – which will be a letter to administrators on each campus requesting a response on what they will do to give job security to adjuncts. It stems from the Action for Allies project that is an ongoing project of the Association, and also from the letter that we sent to department chairs a few years ago when Catherine Porter was MLA president, discussing the issues of contingency and encouraging departments to open a conversation, set goals, and work through ways to get to those goals.

So now we’re going to be taking that a level up to the administrators and asking them during Campus Equity Week to come out and say: What are you going to do to improve the working conditions of the contingent members on your faculty? We don’t know whether they can do it that day, but we certainly know they can set goals and tell us how they’ll reach them.

You know, if it took us 50 years to devolve into the current academic workforce structure that we’ve been analyzing, it may take a long time to get to a new place. But you’re not going to get there unless you set the metrics, and measure them, and set the goal posts. So we’re asking administrators to commit to doing that and to fulfilling the promise to all faculty members that this is, in higher education, a place where people have rich lives based not only on the knowledge of the humanities but also based on a living wage and good working conditions.

MARY-BETH: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. You’ve given a lot of information, and I think our listeners will take a lot away from this podcast.

And thank you, listeners, for joining us for this discussion about Campus Equity Week 2015. If you’d like more information about Campus Equity Week, go to The MLA has also put together an Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit, which can be found by going to the MLA website at, clicking on the resources tab, and then choosing the advocacy link.

This podcast has been presented by the MLA Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession.

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