The Contingent Faculty Crisis is also a DEI Crisis for Students

One important step higher education institutions can take to support international students and domestic multilingual students is to grow the tenure-track faculty. International students and multilingual students (along with all students of color, first gen, and low-income students) are disproportionately affected when the college resorts to visiting and contingent faculty. I outline a few things I have noticed in my ten+ years in higher ed, and while some experiences stem from my current position, this post is in no way to be read as an indictment of my current institution, but rather the decades-long trend of gutting tenure track positions in favor of adjuncts, lecturers, contract and visiting positions.
Note: I had already drafted most of this post earlier this year, but a popular Tweet by Corey J. Miles at Morgan State earlier this week prompted me to post it now. I definitely recommend following him.
Graduate School Applications (and other high-stakes applications)
One of the ways that we measure success is how many students who apply to graduate school get placed. Letters of recommendation from tenure track faculty are crucial to those applications, and will become more so as programs (rightly) move away from requiring GRE scores. Students need up to four letters, which is difficult for them to secure in small departments. These letters should speak to the students’ academic strengths and likelihood of succeeding in graduate school. In small departments, students’ excellence is only seen by one or two professors, and visiting professors are less likely to be asked, since they have limited time to get to know the student, and if they are asked, their letters will be given less weight because academia deems the tenure track position as the most prestigious position.
Because my position is high-contact with students, and many of them take my course, I am routinely asked to write letters of recommendation for graduate school. I always decline because I know what graduate school admissions offices are looking for, and my recommendation of the student is not going to be valued highly, and will likely be seen as irrelevant. I am not faculty at all, let alone tenure track. I explain this to the students and encourage them to look elsewhere. This is distressing for students who are feeling marginalized on campus and haven’t made close enough connections to enough of the faculty to get the required number of letters. Sometimes I agree to serve as a letter writer or reference for less high-stakes applications like fellowships, scholarships, and internships (but only after urging the student to ask tenure track professors first).
Students also need advising about graduate school from multiple sources, because programs vary and because graduate school has changed so much in recent years. However, getting a breadth of advice is challenging when the departments are small. I pick up some of the work of advising on graduate school, but I always tell students that I am just one person and that they need to ask multiple people, but since they often feel marginalized, that advice is tough for them to follow.
Academic Advising
On campuses where tenure track faculty are also the academic advisors, more faculty means a lighter advising load for all, and better student-advisor relationships. We know that faculty-student connections are a huge part of well-being and satisfaction among historically marginalized students. It’s easy to imagine how increasing advising loads puts a strain on these relationships in academic advising.
Connections to Campus and Surrounding Communities
On my campus, like many others, we have community connection and mentorship programs like the International Friendship Family Program and Global Mentors, Friends, and Faculty program, which depend heavily on faculty participation, but few contingent and visiting faculty can invest in the community as much as they would like. Of course, some contingent and visiting faculty do invest deeply in the community in lots of different ways that are not easily measured, but many others simply cannot even if they wish to, because they they need to put their energy in other areas, including the job search (which for many starts immediately), publishing, conducting and presenting research, and cultivating professional relationships elsewhere that are likely to lead to stable, tenure track positions. For adjuncts, huge teaching loads (sometimes at multiple campuses) might make committing to these kinds of programs absolutely impossible.
Furthermore, fewer faculty means fewer allies at students’ cultural outreach and celebration events. For culture-oriented student organizations, faculty attendance at their major events is one of the ways they assess success of the event. The percentage of faculty who attend on my campus is low, but stable, and a growing faculty would mean growing faculty attendance at these events, which supports connections between the students and faculty overall.
Pedagogy and Professional Development 
Most campuses offer resources and opportunities for professional development around supporting international and multilingual students as part of inclusive teaching initiatives. However, contingent faculty may be less likely to invest in this or any other voluntary DEI professional development because of the issues I mentioned above–large teaching loads, the need to immediately begin another job search, do research, etc. On large campuses, contingent faculty are sometimes not even aware that these services exist. And the ones that do take advantage of these opportunities are taking their new skills/knowledge with them and using them elsewhere at their next institution.
Campus Climate
Students do not often talk to me about their professors who leave, but when they do, they express what they perceive as a lack of commitment from faculty, for which they feel resentful. I have had to explain to students that the professors must leave if their contract is up, and also that if they are in contingent positions, they may feel that they must leave to find more permanent employment. Part of the reason this pattern is allowed to continue is because the students don’t know what is happening, but they ultimately suffer.
Access to Chosen Majors
This is the most serious issue I have encountered. For marginalized students, a small faculty pool in their major department is potentially damaging for their future. Some faculty members are known for presenting challenges in their required courses that only the most resourceful and persistent students can overcome. Students with resources can afford to take the class multiple times, take the class somewhere online and transfer it, or commute to another campus to take the course and have it transferred. For other students, the only option is to transfer to another college or change their majors, which potentially changes the rest of their lives. This disproportionately affects students without cars and/or disposable income, which includes many of our international and multilingual students, first generation students, and students of color who come from low income families. A larger faculty pool might mean more chances that the most disadvantaged students could try to take the class with another professor.  Furthermore, students who experience micro-aggressions in one department may find it impossible to avoid future courses with the offending professor, and decide to change majors, or suffer through (or transfer to another college). Both of these situations make it even more difficult to get sufficient graduate school advice and recommendation letters, as mentioned above.
To be sure, no single issue outlined above is insurmountable, and our international students, multilingual students, and students of color are resourceful problem-solvers, used to being challenged. However, I believe that when multiple departments lose tenure track lines all over campus for years at a time, some students are especially disadvantaged. I believe it results in poorer outcomes for academic advising, community connections on and off campus, success in applying to graduate school and other high stakes applications, and even just the basic ability for students to major in what they choose. Growing (back) tenure track lines would go far in our efforts to make our campuses more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s