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On Contingent Faculty

Jeffrey Shoulson

There is probably not a single Jewish Studies program in the country that does not rely significantly on the work of contingent faculty to staff some of its courses. At UConn, like many institutions with which I am familiar, our entire Hebrew curriculum (Modern and Biblical) is taught by non-ladder faculty. We also regularly offer upper division courses that are taught by part-time lecturers or faculty with terminal appointments. And in the current fiscal state of public higher education in the US, I suspect that reliance on contingent faculty will only increase in the coming years.

Given the financial constraints that have contributed to the increased reliance on contingent faculty, addressing the particular pressures and conditions faced by those faculty is all the more challenging. We are constrained by state budgets and institutional policies when it comes to salaries, though we have added our voice to the broader calls within the University for raising the pay rate to make it possible for a full-time lecturer to earn a living wage without having to supplement his/her income by taking on other teaching positions at area institutions. Fortunately, UConn is a union shop: in addition to tenure-track faculty, non-ladder faculty and graduate instructors also work under conditions that are governed by formally negotiated, collectively bargained contracts that insure base-line working conditions. Now that the NLRB has ruled in favor of graduate student unionization at private institutions (it has been the norm at many public institutions for some time), I am hopeful that a new minimum standard for pay, benefits, and other aspects of work will begin to emerge throughout the US and in both public and private institutions.

To the extent that we can offer anything further to support our contingent faculty in Judaic Studies, we do our best (though I suspect there's more that we could be doing). Office space is always at a premium even as some tenured faculty here have access to two separate offices. Wherever possible, we encourage these faculty to share their offices with our part-time colleagues and this can make a very big difference in their feeling better integrated into the department. We host monthly faculty colloquia in which faculty of all ranks and appointments, along with advanced graduate students, are invited to share their current works in progress. Events like these provide out contingent faculty with the opportunity to meet colleagues who might share their interests or who could serve as mentors and advisors in their efforts to find more permanent employment. And they also generally help to build an intellectual community in which we all feel ourselves to be contributing members.

As we continue to expand our program and its activities—both internally and in the public sphere—we are hoping to offer more opportunities for our contingent faculty to gain further professional experience by presenting their work in many of the public venues with which we have relationships. Our Center has funds available to support travel and research, which we make available equally to both ladder and non-ladder faculty. Many of the grants we write include support for teaching positions that are not permanent, as well.

None of this will solve the inherent structural problems built into a system that relies so heavily on such a vulnerable work force. But I would love to see more sharing of ideas amongst directors and heads of programs since I am sure there are plenty of other meaningful ways to make the lives of our contingent faculty colleagues more secure and supported.

Jeffrey Shoulson is the Doris and Simon Konover Chair in Judaic Studies and the Director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut.