Diversity and Democracy

Parts of a Whole: Contingency, Democracy, and Higher Education's Mission

The debates that have raged within and about higher education over vocational versus liberal education, tenure, the “corporatization” of higher education, governmental oversight and accreditation, and funding models and sources have obscured, deferred, or overridden the need for action on the fundamental ethical and practical concerns that attend the professional and personal needs of faculty on contingent appointments. Yet, ironically, attending to those concerns—ensuring a living wage, access to health care, professional development, and the protections of academic freedom—would exercise the very values of academic democracy that these debates are really all about.

—Maria Maisto and Steve Street (2011)

A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future by the National Task Force for Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement is, among other things, a direct and welcome challenge to the contemporary American tendency to assume that the primary goal of education—particularly higher education—is economic. As AAC&U’s President Carol Geary Schneider pointed out when unveiling the report in January 2012, this country cannot afford to be vocal on the subject of college and career and silent on the subject of citizenship. In the spirit of challenging such silences, champions of civic engagement must confront a central contradiction inherent in how civic engagement is being integrated into the curriculum: the fact that the majority of the faculty who are charged with infusing American higher education with the ethos of democracy are themselves denied the ability to be fully engaged and active participants in the campus community and in the civic engagement curriculum.

Individual Harms, Systemic Effects

More than 70 percent of higher education’s instructional staff are now contingent faculty, comprising part-time faculty, graduate student employees, and full-time non-tenure-track instructors (Curtis 2014, 1). At community colleges, that 70 percent statistic represents part-time faculty alone (Rhoades 2012, 4). Thanks to the efforts of activists, organizations like New Faculty Majority, and initiatives like the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, the problematic working conditions of these contingent faculty members are widely known. As the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, the Delphi Project, and others have reported, these conditions can include annualized salaries of less than $25,000 per year and little to no access to benefits; insecurity around assignments, academic freedom, and due process protections; and little to no involvement in curriculum decisions or governance (see, for example, Coalition on the Academic Workforce 2012).

Activists and unions point out that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, and that contingency therefore harms faculty and students, teaching and learning. This claim makes the most sense in light of the economic and political precarity facing so-called “freeway flying” or “involuntary” faculty members—those who commute between multiple contingent appointments at different institutions and lack time and resources to engage directly with their institutions and students. Explaining how so-called “voluntary” contingent faculty employment harms education, however, is more challenging. Many well-meaning observers have pointed out the difference between “practitioner” adjuncts—those who teach as a corollary to their primary careers—and “professional” adjuncts who would often prefer full-time academic employment. These observers suggest that no harm can result from certain individuals choosing to accept (or compensate for) inferior working conditions.

The invocation of this distinction to justify contingent working conditions, however, illustrates the problem confronting those who have committed to restoring higher education’s civic mission. Whether or not contingent working conditions cause direct harm to any individual faculty member, the structures of contingent academic employment harm the entire academic enterprise. Indeed, the practice of contingent academic employment directly undermines the very mission of civic engagement that higher education aims to embrace.

Barriers to Civic Teaching and Learning

Whether they are “practitioners” or “aspiring academics,” contingent faculty too often lack the resources they need to practice civic engagement pedagogies. They lack the time, institutional support, and job security they need to invest in long-term civic projects; build interdisciplinary, integrative curricular practices; and make the long-term commitments to students, institutions, and communities that a civic engagement curriculum requires. They lack the guarantee of academic freedom they need to be free from fear of political retaliation and to challenge students appropriately.

Additionally, institutional leaders regularly overlook an increasingly common phenomenon: the fact that many so-called practitioner adjuncts—the very individuals whose community ties can enrich the civic engagement curriculum—are discouraged from joining the faculty at all by the conditions of contingent employment. Many of these professionals reject the notion that affiliation with a higher education institution, no matter how prestigious, is sufficient compensation for their time or appropriate recognition of their expertise. Recognizing that the dangers of precarious employment are seeping steadily into all industries and professions, they are signaling their solidarity with their colleagues who are experiencing contingency within and outside of higher education by refusing to accept such appointments themselves.

What Can Campuses Do?

The truth of the harm contingent employment causes to the entire academic enterprise is still very difficult for academic citizens to confront, even though it speaks to a core principle of the civic engagement curriculum: that authentic learning cannot take place in an environment that does not foster inclusion, justice, and collaboratively oriented action. The obvious question, then—if we are serious about civic learning—is how to create an environment that does foster these elements.

In the same way that the most effective solutions to seemingly intractable problems are often hidden in full view, the solution to the problem of how contingency undermines both civic engagement and the general education curriculum (where many contingent faculty members teach) lies … in the civic engagement curriculum. A Crucible Moment calls on higher education to construct “environments where education for democracy and civic responsibility is pervasive, not partial; central, not peripheral” (National Task Force for Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012, 2). Higher education cannot accomplish this goal with a faculty that is, by its very definition, peripheral rather than central to its life and work.

To integrate contingent faculty members more fully into our institutions so they can help carry out the civic mission, institutional leaders must apply the lessons of civic engagement to their own thinking and actions, attending to the language and assumptions that preserve harmful practices as a first step to devising healthy ones. For example, higher education leaders must reject the impulse to defend contingent academic employment practices by invoking the different motivations of faculty members. By treating the “involuntary” adjunct’s situation as an anomaly that can be ignored, this approach signals a tacit privileging of the already-privileged (those adjuncts who don’t “need” the money) instead of a commitment to finding and supporting the best educators regardless of their personal economic circumstances.

Such thinking is arguably antithetical to the civic engagement ethos, which requires keeping the big picture in mind while at the same time being attentive to the real-world effects of policy on faculty, students, and communities. It is, after all, the aggregate damage at the micro level that creates macro-level problems, including the marginalization of higher education’s democratic mission. The troubling tendency in education policy conversations to speak of bringing practices “to scale” is an invitation to dehumanize faculty, students, and communities; a commitment to civic engagement can be a powerful antidote to this tendency.

Modeling the Practices

In sum, higher education must practice what it preaches. It must treat the goals of academic quality, economic and political justice, and democratic engagement as parts of a whole. It must create conditions in which the community being studied and engaged is not outside the campus gates but within them, and it must promote collaborative and honest dialogue that models the practices it recommends to students and communities.


Coalition on the Academic Workforce. 2012. A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members.

Curtis, John. 2014. The Employment Status of Instructional Staff Members in Higher Education, Fall 2011. Washington, DC: Association of American University Professors. http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/AAUP-InstrStaff2011-April2014.pdf.

Maisto, Maria, and Steve Street. 2011. “Confronting Contingency: Faculty Equity and the Goals of Academic Democracy.” Liberal Education 97 (1): 6–13.

National Task Force for Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Rhoades, Gary. 2012. Closing the Door, Increasing the Gap: Who’s Not Going to (Community) College? Center for the Future of Higher Education. http://futureofhighered.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/ClosingTheDoorFINAL_ALL32812.pdf.

Schneider, Carol Geary. 2012. “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission.” January 10 presentation at the White House, Washington, DC.

Maria Maisto is president of New Faculty Majority.

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