WIT welcomes as a guest post this anonymous description of the experience of a woman in a contingent faculty position in a Catholic university, reflecting on broader structural issues in academia and Catholic social teaching. Given that the Catholic Theological Society of America’s 2020 convention theme is “‘All You Who Labor…’ Theology, Work, and Economy,” these types of experiences will be important to keep in mind.
In Benedict XVI’s Caritis in veritate, he discusses the problem of the mobility of labor in the modern world. Among other points he makes on that topic, he writes, “Nevertheless, uncertainty over working conditions caused by mobility and deregulation, when it becomes endemic, tends to create new forms of psychological instability, giving rise to difficulty in forging coherent life-plans, including that of marriage. This leads to situations of human decline, to say nothing of the waste of social resources” (CV, 25). As I reread this text, it is a real struggle to do so without getting angry or emotional because it describes the exact experience I have with contingent positions in academia, a problem that is definitely “endemic.” I have spoken to many friends in similar positions about their experiences as well, and we have all experienced this type of psychological instability. I have other friends who have left academia, which we can consider a “waste of social resources.”
I am writing this post looking ahead at a calendar in which I only have three weeks left of employment. This takes a toll on all aspects of my life. Professionally, I had to withdraw from a conference that I really wanted to attend over the summer because I have no idea if I will have a paycheck starting in August. Personally, I had to cancel plans to visit my family because I cannot afford the plane ticket. I have also been fighting with my spouse who likes his job where we live and so is angry that his life may potentially be uprooted—we cannot afford to live where we are on only one salary, meager as mine has been in this contingent position. The job instability I am experiencing affects personal relationships, not just professional ones. In Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis cites the Synod on Family, saying, “Families, in particular, suffer from problems related to work where young people have few possibilities and job offers are very selective and insecure” (AL, 44). This resonates with my own experience. The psychological instability that comes from my situation affects my family too. My husband has expressed his anger at the situation we are in. My child, though young, is also manifesting signs of stress.
In addition, the psychological instability I feel mostly comes in the form of depression. It is hard to feel good about yourself as you count down the days to unemployment. The therapist that I’ve been seeing this year (who I will no longer be able to see when I lose this position’s health insurance) has commented numerous times that she has many clients who are academics, most who are either in full-time or part-time contingent positions. At work, I’m often on the verge of tears while in the office—once I cried in the bathroom before heading off to teach a class—and yet I have to put on a façade of everything being fine for my students and colleagues.
I am in this situation because I took a limited-term non-tenure-track position after finishing my PhD. My family depleted our savings and moved across the country for this position. Although I was content with my situation in the beginning, the stress of my final year is changing my feelings toward the job. My job officially only includes teaching and research, but that’s a silly designation given that I’m also applying for tenure-track jobs and they want someone who has a record for service. I teach more classes each semester than tenure-track faculty do and get paid around $25,000 less. In a high cost of living area, this is only possible because I have my spouse’s salary to rely on as well. Furthermore, there are many faculty development opportunities that the university offers that I cannot get as a non-tenure-track faculty member. Needless to say, if there is any sense of community in this department and at this university, it doesn’t feel like it’s really extended to me. I don’t feel welcome as a real member of the department.
Just being on the job market every year has been a detriment to my career and overall well-being. This year, because it’s the final year of my contract, I’ve applied to every single job (tenure-track and non-tenure-track) that would be possible for me and my family. Not being single, I cannot just apply for anything because I have to consider my spouse and my child in any potential position. Even with not applying to every single job, I submitted something like 40 job applications this year alone. And, as those in academia know, these job applications each take a lot of time. I’ve been applying for jobs nonstop since August. Job applications have quite literally taken the place of my research.
What I’ve learned on the job market is that Catholic universities have to do some serious soul-searching in relation to their labor practices because none of what I’m going through is in line with the social teaching of the Catholic Church. One might argue that the university has fulfilled its obligations to me because it employed me for the agreed upon salary for the period of my contract. This is, of course, a type of commutative justice. But Catholic social teaching doesn’t just ask employers to fulfill the agreed upon terms of the contract. The Church’s teaching asks employers “to treat their employees as persons, paying them fair wages in exchange for the work done and establishing conditions and patterns of work that are truly human” (USCCB, Economic Justice for All (1986), 69). I am not getting a fair wage for what I do, especially compared to tenure-track faculty. On one hand, I am doing better in this contingent, but full-time position than if I was in a part-time, adjunct position, but that doesn’t make it right or just.
Now, one also might argue that this is my fault for agreeing to such a horrible situation. But, as scholars of Catholic social teaching recognize, just because a contract has been agreed upon doesn’t mean that it’s just and people can be forced to agree to such terms because of economic pressure. When I accepted this position, I did so in part because there was no other option. As is often true in the academic job market (and as I’ve seen with friends and colleagues), you mostly end up in a job because it is the only one that you get. That is the economic pressure that leads one to accept what would otherwise be unjust terms.
And, as I’ve experienced on this job cycle, Catholic colleges and universities are taking advantage of the unequal bargaining power. I applied for quite a few continuing, but non-tenure-track positions. These are better, in some sense, than the position I’m in now, but they are creating a permanent divide in the faculty. While full-time, contingent faculty are a better solution than relying on adjuncts because at least full-time faculty get benefits, it is inherently unjust to pay lower salaries to those who do the majority of teaching. Not to mention that at one university I was told that the non-tenure-track contract only requires teaching and service (as my current one only requires teaching and research), but I would still be expected to do research. Other universities have created positions that are full-time administrative work on top of the same teaching load as tenure-track faculty, without—in all these cases—the possibility of the job security granted by tenure.
So, I’m angry. I feel used and exploited by a university that does not care one bit about me as a human person. That aspect is most evident in that there is no possibility for me to continue in a full-time position here and although I will have my salary through the summer, come August we will no longer be able to afford our rent on just my spouse’s salary.
I’m angry. I’m depressed. I’m in a constant state of stress. And what makes me the most angry about all this is the fact that I’m writing it knowing full well that I must remain anonymous because God forbid anyone be honest with these universities about all the ways they violate the social teachings of the Catholic Church as part of their normal policy.