American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Contingent Faculty Face Added Insecurity during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Kimberly Hennessee, Assistant Teaching Professor, Ball State University

This spring semester began better for me than past semesters. As a contingent faculty member in my department for many years, I am familiar with spring semester’s looming fear: “Will my contract be renewed for next year?” The majority of contingent higher education faculty are on annually renewed contracts or paid on a per-course basis. We become accustomed to our job insecurity, or as accustomed as one can be when raising a family or paying off student loans (or both). During the past year, my university implemented changes that now allow full-time contingent faculty to be titled and receive merit-based promotions. In the fall I applied for promotion and subsequently received word that my promotion had been approved by the provost and was moving on for final approval in May from the president and Board of Directors. I thought I could finally breathe easy knowing my job was safe for a few years.

Subsequently, we began hearing more about the seriousness of COVID-19 and how it was quickly spreading. When the stay-at-home orders and university closures came, I did not even consider the impact of the pandemic on my job security. As an older person with asthma, I was pleased I could continue working in a safer environment. I did my best to get my classes organized for the online shift and helped my students acclimate to their educational changes. I faced the typical hard challenges of quickly moving courses to an online format that all teachers faced at the time. I reached out for online transition help from my department’s part-time contingent colleagues, because they only teach online courses. In many cases, contingent faculty were best prepared for the teaching transition.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the world is realizing that there will be an economic impact on every sector of business, including colleges and universities of all sizes. Universities across the country are already announcing budget cuts, furloughs, and employee losses. The president of the university in which I work has already talked about the many measures our school will take to stay afloat, including elimination of raises and travel funding, a hiring freeze, and layoffs. So, once again, I recognize the true precariousness of my contingent position. Contingent faculty are often the first to be let go in times of economic hardship, regardless of the talent and dedication we offer. And I am in a more secure position than part-time contingent faculty, many of whom are more scared than ever about holding their jobs. 

Until my promotion is approved, my contract will continue to be considered annually like those of many other contingent faculty across the nation. There is no extended process for letting us go comparable to that for removing tenured faculty. We simply don’t get renewed. Contingent and tenured/tenure-track faculty alike were asked to go through the hardships and extra work of moving our courses to an online format, finding new ways to dispense and assess learning objectives, and taking virtual training courses. I happily do all of this, so that my students get the best education possible during these uncertain times. However, it is important to recognize that contingent faculty with annual or per-course contracts, such as myself, have no guarantee of a teaching position for the next academic year. 

My intention here is not to downplay the hardships of people in other industries who are  unemployed and suffering financially. I cannot imagine the difficulty facing people who are losing their small businesses and health insurance or not getting an unemployment check in a timely manner. But here I want to highlight a particularly vulnerable population in higher education, contingent faculty. I understand that very difficult budgetary decisions are being made everywhere. I also know that contingent faculty, in jobs that we trained hard for, love dearly, and through which we contribute substantially to students’ learning, are more vulnerable than ever.