By Kath Coetzer’ 23 (she/her/hers), Staff Writer
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted higher education nationwide, illustrating structural inequalities within academia. In the face of financial pressures and uncertainty, institutions have begun to shed non-contractual commitments to contingent faculty. Consequently, contingent faculty members across the nation are entering a bleak job market, forcing them to question: What does a future in the field of higher education look like?
According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), contingent faculty consists of “both part-and full-time faculty who are appointed off the tenure track.” While contingent faculty includes a diverse range of positions, the AAUP stresses that “the common characteristic among them is that their institutions make little or no long-term commitment to them or to their academic work.”
A spreadsheet of classes offered this semester shows that of the 535 classes being taught, contingent faculty members teach 108.
Dr. Andrew Rippeon, Assistant Professor of the Practice in Writing, said that “visitors typically have a one or a two year contract.” Due to COVID-19, he noted that “in the next six to nine months, there is an employment crisis for people who are fulfilling the letter of their contracts.”
At Davidson, contingent faculty submitted a position paper addressed to Dean Jefferson on July 31st with recommendations for how the college might support this group. As their letter suggests, these faculty members feel heightened impacts of the pandemic, including the threat of expiring contracts, rescinded job offers, and limited institutional support.
While this position paper is not publicly available, one contingent faculty member submitted a copy to The Davidsonian for the purposes of this article.
The paper acknowledged that “while the structural hierarchies and inequities of contingent labor predate COVID-19, the pandemic has both exacerbated the issue and led to the erection of new and unequally distributed obstacles.” Furthermore, the paper emphasized that the outlined “accommodations [would] allow contingent faculty at Davidson to be the best faculty they can be while also benefiting the institution as a whole.”
The paper recommended that administrators consider granting contract extensions for contingent faculty in good standing, sponsoring green card applications for international Visiting Assistant Professors, and financing an application-based emergency research fund to “support contingent faculty whose research has been interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The paper further recommended shifting guidelines for institutional research support that prioritize tenured and tenure-track faculty in favor of faculty most in need of such support.
Jay Pfeifer, Director of Media Relations, emphasized in an e-mailed response that “the college honors its special obligation to protect [faculty’s] academic freedom and security by promoting them to tenure at rates that equal and frequently outpace our peers.” He added that “the college has gone to great lengths to make sure our faculty feel safe and supported during these uncertain times.”
According to Davidson’s website, Davidson College has 201 full-time faculty members with “83% tenured or on tenure track.” In contrast, at, Williams College, a peer institution, tenured faculty comprise 57% of the total faculty population, while Bowdoin College, another peer institution, also had 201 full time faculty members last semester. Washington and Lee University had 214 full-time faculty members in undergraduate programs.
Pfeifer also discussed efforts to provide extra assistance for professors adapting to new home situations.“In addition, Davidson has offered complimentary one-year subscriptions to Care.com to help faculty find family care; a pressing challenge for faculty with dependents,” he said.
According to one Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP), who requested anonymity out of concern for her job security, classes taught by contingent faculty are often concentrated in the lower-level 100- and 200-level courses. She emphasized that these lower-level courses often require more preparation and meet more frequently during the week.
This type of instruction “demands a lot of time planning and following up with students,” she said, “which takes away from our own personal time to work on publication, research, or anything else professionally, that we need in order to find a job beyond Davidson.”
Additionally, she emphasized that the training and preparation required for a transition to remote teaching required sacrificing important personal commitments and opportunities in order to provide quality education at Davidson. She said that it is “cold and hypocritical” that the college has offered little support to contingent faculty despite requiring such dedication and sacrifice.
“During the summer when we would have spent a lot of time on research and papers and maybe done some presentations at conferences,” she noted, “we couldn’t really because we were looking into teaching online and how we were going to teach in the fall, and that took away from our own personal commitments.”
Furthermore, she explained that while new jobs would normally be posted around this time, many schools have frozen their hiring process due to the pandemic. “It’s a very sterile environment as far as applying for any kind of job,” she said. “In my field, last I looked, there were five jobs nationwide that were open.”
Another VAP, who also requested anonymity out of job security concerns, expressed a similar sentiment. The job market was incredibly competitive prior to the pandemic, he noted. He said that last year he applied to roughly 30 jobs, received only four interviews, and received invitations to finalist interviews for two of the positions.
“I think, in general, there has been a lot of stress,” he said, “because I think our cohort of visiting faculty feel that, even before COVID, our presence in this profession is not necessarily a likelihood past our current contract.”
Dr. Rippeon emphasized that these issues are not specific to Davidson. He underscored the need for “a larger conversation about the role of contingent labor in the faculty as a whole inter-institutionally.”
“The notion is that visitors are visiting because they are either trying something else or because they’re not sure if they want to be part of the academic faculty or something like that,” Rippeon said. “The vast majority of visitors are simply in visiting positions because there are no other positions available at that time; it has nothing to do with a lack of commitment to an institution.”
Alumnus Lydia Soifer ’20’s experience illustrates many VAPs’ commitments to institutions like Davidson. When her initial advisor, Dr. Patricia Ann Peroni, passed away last December, former VAP Dr. Chris Thawley took on the role. According to Soifer, “There were some issues with advising because of rules about how many students VAPs are allowed to mentor.”
“He put a lot of time into working with me on my own research, on top of teaching the classes that he was teaching,” she said. “That’s something that he definitely didn’t have to do because he was also mentoring someone else.”
Similarly, Sarah Donovan ‘21 spent the summer working on remote research with Dr. Anika Bratt, a VAP of Environmental Studies. “I think the fact that Dr. Bratt’s position as a visiting professor has affected the amount of students she can mentor is unfortunate, because I know that there’s a ton of students who would love to work with her,” Donovan said.
“I’ve had a few visiting professors in the past, and they’ve definitely facilitated my learning interest in certain topics,” she added. “I think that Davidson needs to recognize the impact that the visiting professors have on the students and give them this recognition.”
“I think it would be very reasonable for an institution like Davidson to lead as a school that commits to taking care of its current contingent faculty, that would be a very noble thing to do,” said the second VAP who spoke with The Davidsonian. “In keeping with Davidson’s values as they apply to Davidson students, I would like to see Davidson give the same care and consideration to their employees, and in particular, their visiting faculty.”