Part-time and Part-Paid: Teaching without Benefits

This was originally published in Christian Courier under the title “Fairness in the Precarious World of Christian College Contracts” in March, 2018, available here. I interviewed people from seven different university institutions to offer this assessment of employment in higher education. As Labour Day approaches and we prepare for another academic year, most of the same issues persist.

Ephesians 6:9 (MSG)  “Masters, it’s the same with you. No abuse, please, and no threats. You and your servants are both under the same Master in heaven. He makes no distinction between you and them.”

“I made half of the public university wage for instructing a course. Even a teaching assistant at a public university makes more than an adjunct professor at a Christian university,” said one part-time professor at a Christian university, who was trying to raise a family on contract work. “It was frustrating. I was given only first-year courses, and no structural support or feedback on my teaching. The worst part of it was I did not feel respected.” 

This instructor was had won teaching awards and published widely, but they left the academy for more stable work in the private sector. 

“There is a lack of trust,” The Globe and Mail reports a York University CUPE spokeswoman saying during the 2017 strike on their campus. “We have not seen them take our issues seriously. These are not specific issues; these are sector-wide issues. Precarious work is a problem.”

“It was frustrating. I was given only first-year courses, and no structural support or feedback on my teaching. The worst part of it was I did not feel respected.”

Part-time instructor

The strike at York University in Toronto was aimed at developing some workplace security for its 3000 contract instructors, who teach almost 40 percent of the classes. They want people who have been teaching on contract for 10 years see their temporary positions convert to permanent, tenure-track jobs. On the other side of the negotiating table, the York president wants to keep the hiring options wide open to ensure the best instructors.

Steve Tigchelaar, electrical engineering instructor at Lampton College, Sarnia, said these sort of labour issues were the heart of the Ontario college teachers strike in November 2017. “The two major concerns of the strike were fairness and quality. The issue of fairness was the treatment of part time teachers who are paid a fraction of what full-time employees get paid. To save money, management has multiplied part-timer ranks (70 percent of all Ontario college teachers), but they often have tenuous connections to the college, and quality becomes an issue. For example, the consistency of pedagogy, grading, and instructor availability to students becomes wildly variable, and it becomes exhausting for the few full-time instructors to work with a revolving door of colleagues.”

Tigchelaar also explained that there are three levels of part-timers, grouped by the number of credit hours they teach. The good news is that those with more credit hours get paid a fairer wage, benefits, and the protection of the union. The bad news is that some department deans arrange the semester schedule so fewer part-timers fit into the better-paid category. Administration want more work in less time with less pay, and class sizes have doubled since 1989. The union calls it “the ongoing exploitation of contract faculty.”

If precarious work is a problem in the public system, it is more acute in independent Christian institutions of higher education, where budgets are tighter and no unions exist to represent the needs of employees. Employment issues for faculty can cause severe hurt, especially to those on the vulnerable ends of employment—the part-time contract instructors and the retiring professors. In some cases, the wounds go very deep, and feelings of betrayal linger.

I interviewed faculty and a few administrators from seven different Christian universities to get a sense for their treatment of employees and see if some institutions are offering creative alternatives to the precarious, sector-wide situation. 

Are Christian Universities Being Fair?

First, let’s acknowledge that administrators are in a difficult position. Demographics are changing, with generally a smaller pool of potential students today due to lower fertility rates and the ever-widening population of “religious nones.” A consumer mentality in churches means parents and students shop for university degrees rather than discipline their choices for Christian alternatives. Less enrolment means less tuition and less tuition means tighter budgets. Marketing cannot be the solution to every enrolment problem, and so administration needs to be economically efficient, competitive, and even thrifty.

Tight budgets put the squeeze on the most vulnerable and expendable: part-time employees.
Tight budgets put the squeeze on the most vulnerable and expendable: part-time employees. (photo: pixabay)

Rocky Mountain College, Calgary, and Bethel College, Saskatchewan, have both undergone radical restructuring due to decreases in enrolment. 

Dr. Justin Cooper, former President of Redeemer University and past executive director at Christian Higher Education Canada says that contract faculty have become the pattern in higher education in general. “Its a way of plugging up the holes,” he explained. “Often contracted instructors are practitioners in the field in question, and bring practical knowledge to the students. They get paid less, and usually teach evening courses, so you don’t see them often. They come and go during the semester, and from semester to semester.”

A significant dilemma, however, is that these institutions are not just public organizations providing an educational service. They are Christian communities, deeply connected to churches, and committed to pursuing the fruit of the Spirit as they follow the Master Employer, Christ himself. Economics should not make the hard decisions alone.

In May 2017, Christian Courier carried an article written by an anonymous woman (“What I Learned about Workplace Bullying from Working in a Christian Organization”) who was yelled at and bullied in her “dysfunctional” Christian organization for years, and after struggling with the system to get the protection she needed, experienced reprieve only when she left that job to work in a unionized setting. Ron Rupke argued in the same issue (“There is Hope for Christian Employers”) that Christian employers can be worse than secular employers. The sad truth was, in his experience as a Christian Labour Association representative, he witnessed workplace bully tactics and workplace injustice of various kinds in Christian workplaces. He explains that the boards that govern Christian institutions are made up of volunteers who may lack the time and experience necessary to manage organizational ruptures: “Too often we fail to clearly define what we expect of employees. We fail to establish clear lines of accountability. We take dedicated work for granted, often failing to recognize even exceptional contributions. When conflict occurs, employees usually have no recourse to an impartial grievance procedure.”

One of the stories I gleaned from an interview features a retiring full-time tenured professor, who served faithfully for decades and was ready to transition to lesser loads and an emeritus position. But after teaching 40 years he was offered a teaching contract worth $10,000 without benefits (eliminating only half the load of the previous year’s full-time contract). The faculty member found this “unacceptable” and “rather insulting” and declined the offer, questioning the justice of such a contract. Perhaps the part that stung the most was that the administrator did not seem to understand the hurt—and obvious exploitation—embedded in such an offer. We know how a lack of benefits may leave a family with debilitating health care costs at a vulnerable age—especially in the USA. It seemed cold and dishonourable.

Learning COVID protocols was much more difficult for part-time faculty, who aren't always in the loop of pivoting policies and technologies. Living from contract to contract, they are also less likely to speak up when mistreated. Their tenure only lasts a semester. (photo from pixabay)
Learning COVID protocols was much more difficult for part-time faculty, who aren’t always in the loop of pivoting policies and technologies. Living from contract to contract, they are also less likely to speak up when mistreated. Their tenure only lasts as long as the semester’s contract. (photo from pixabay)

This is an older story, but other retiring faculty have had promises made on the condition of their retirement, but then find later that such promises are revoked—either opportunities to teach a favourite class, keep office space, mentor younger faculty or contribute to on-going curriculum changes. What does it mean to honour the experience, wisdom, and legacy of an older professor who has given his or her best years to an institution? How can trust between administrators and faculty be maintained—even through difficult situations that require difficult decisions? What kind of communication and collaboration can ease these transitional moments?

Creative Responses to Financial Pressures

In every single case of exploitation, bullying, dishonouring, and broken promises, one obvious need is for a different attitude. Christian institutions should be a place where communications about labour issues are seasoned with the care of family, even if the legal liabilities appear impressively large. Courtesy is the least administrators can offer. In the case of my brother Derek Schuurman, a public apology was issued on Redeemer’s website (see “Board Apologizes to Dr. Derek Schuurman” Nov. 30, 2017). Its not just that Christian faculty and staff are shaken by decisions and structures. Its also about how administration handles the situation. It takes some thoughtfulness, as to be cold and formal about these difficult situations can be as bad as over-expressing one’s remorse. Its delicate.

Its interesting to note, Christian labour unions have not been welcomed at Christian universities. Administrators resist them, fearing a loss of flexibility and bad press with their constituency. Some attempts have been made, but votes from employees to invite the union ended up falling short.

“Our leadership has placed a high value on tenured faculty,” says Sam Reimer, sociology professor at Crandall University, New Brunswick. “These professors bring a stable presence, serve on committees, and mentor the students. We also need better screening of our part-time instructors. We’ve had some bad experiences, and these teachers need to be groomed. Not just for teaching, but for carrying the Christian vision and mission of the college.” 

“We offer senior faculty one, two or three-year phased retirement policies,” says Joel Thiessen, professor of sociology at Ambrose University, in Calgary, Alberta. Responsibilities in teaching and administration gradually reduce along with wages. “This helps faculty transition and it helps administration with succession planning.” Ambrose has also developed a middle-layer position of ‘lecturer’—who teach a full-course load, are paid better than sessionals, but are not tenure-track … some of them eventually become full time tenure-track faculty. “Having fewer sessional teachers creates more consistency for students and faculty,” added Thiessen. “Our goal is to create a sense of community with all instructors, including them in social events, and inviting them to faculty meetings and training events.”

Dr. Justin Cooper explained how some administrators are responding creatively to the unstable work situation. Some innovative ideas include that if a contract professor teaches two courses a semester, their renumeration per course increases. Their benefits are also pro-rated: if someone works 50 percent full-time, they can receive a 50 percent benefits package. On the other end of the work spectrum, if someone retires but wants to continue to teach one course, they don’t get the straight contract wage, but a fair percentage of their former salary. This encourages senior faculty to incrementally retire in a voluntary way (some even began to retire before age 65), rather than be pressured by administration to retire (as senior faculty are the most costly employees in terms of salary). Severance packages have also become more generous than in the past.

“We’ve had some bad experiences, and these teachers need to be groomed. Not just for teaching, but for carrying the Christian vision and mission of the college.”

Sam Reimer, Crandall University

Collaboration and inclusion are key to showing respect for instructors, who are essentially colleagues to full-timers and administration. Elwil Beukes, emeritus professor of economics at King’s University, Edmonton, commends what is called “co-determination” in budget and salary matters. What that means is that faculty, being provided in a useful way with all relevant information, will constructively participate in budget deliberations. “This does not undermine or even eliminate the responsibilities of administrator’s office,” explains Dr. Beukes. “They are expected to bring into effect the strategic decisions that flow from co-determination, instead of merely informing faculty of their decisions and going ahead, whether faculty agrees/supports it or not.”

Thinking Christianly about Downsizing

Neil Lettinga is a former professor and campus minister, and he offered a story of creative administration in perilous times. He told me that when he taught at Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois roughly 35 years ago there was a precipitous dip in enrolment numbers. One cost-saving measure was reducing a faculty of 36 to 22 in a single year. The academic dean was new, but he took an unconventional approach. He gathered the faculty and laid all the cards on the table – including the realistic option that the college would simply be closed within a year or two. 

After some discussion he decided that each department would have three months to decide which two faculty would remain in each of 11 departments. Faculty would then be added back as enrolment increased and finances re-stabilized. This format worked very well, and except for a few hard cases, it actually built collegiality and confidence in the midst of the crisis. Seniority was almost never trumped Christian concern and community, and overall faculty morale the next year was as high as it had ever been.  

Similarly, Dr. Stephen Roy is the president of Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario. A one-third drop in enrolment precipitated a one-third reduction in staff and faculty two years ago. Everyone, the president included, received notice of termination and then a new organization structure opened new positions for which all could apply. Some left for other jobs. Others retired.

What is especially noteworthy is that when this transition was complete they had a special worship service of “recognition and installation.” Amid songs, prayers, and scripture, they recognized every employee that was leaving with special words and a gift. There was some laughter, some tears—mixed feelings in the context of an effort to honour and bless.

“We needed to uphold our legal obligations to everyone,” said President Roy, “but we are a Christian organization and so we also wanted to recognize what these people had done for the college. To honour them with honesty and grace and launch them onto their next chapter of life.”

“So many people in Christian higher education have suffered deeply the last several years. Many who remain still find themselves searching for a way to inhabit a vocation that no longer bears the hope that brought them to it.”

Rev. Dr. Bill VanGronigen, former chaplain at Trinity Christian College, Illinois

Bill VanGronigen is (now retired) chaplain and Dean of Spiritual Formation at Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Illinois. He has experienced the broad sweep of public and Christian higher education in his career in campus ministry, and the current picture leaves him dismayed. “So many people in Christian Higher Education have suffered deeply the last several years. Many who remain still find themselves searching for a way to inhabit a vocation that no longer bears the hope that brought them to it.”

When universities are growing and student populations are growing, labour issues seem rare, and stewardship is tested in long-term planning. But when demographics shift, the market of Christian universities gets squeezed, and the Christian character of our institutions is tested not only for its stewardship, but for its grace.

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