Columbia University in New York City is among the institutions that have extended tenure contracts, but a recent statement calls for protections for non-tenured and graduate workers. (photo by Alejandro Mallea via Flickr)

More than 1,500 academics have pledged to refuse speaking engagements and other invitations from institutions that do not protect non-tenured faculty and graduate workers during the pandemic. Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Jack Halberstam, Christina Sharpe, and Zadie Smith are among the scholarly heavyweights who have signed the recent Academic Solidarity Statement, urging US universities to offer equal protections across faculty ranks.

The authors praise institutions that have pushed back the so-called “tenure clock” — the metaphorical countdown to the end of the probationary period during which educators on the tenure track accrue professorial experience. However, they warn, “Without extending the same measures to non-tenure track (NTT) faculty and to graduate workers, universities leave unprotected the most precarious academics, including those who shoulder the greatest teaching burden.”

“NTT faculty and graduate workers are facing the same challenges as tenure-track faculty: adapting to remote teaching, massively increased caretaking responsibilities, lack of access to libraries, labs, and archives, and the forgoing of professional opportunities,” the letter continues. “They are also faced with an anemic job market that will only get worse as universities announce hiring freezes for the coming years.”

The coronavirus pandemic has rendered race and income inequalities grossly conspicuous in every sector, from prisons to museums, and the American higher education system has been no exception. But until now, the conversation has concentrated on the plight of students, many of whom have requested tuition refunds and other reimbursements as classes shift to virtual learning and campuses are emptied.

The recent Academic Solidarity Statement touches upon the ways in which the current crisis impacts those on the other side of the desk, bringing attention to the wave of layoffs, furloughs, and hiring and pay freezes across universities in the US.

“We are gravely concerned that budgetary restrictions will exacerbate existing inequalities on our campuses, which in many cases have grown only more severe since the 2008 crisis,” reads the letter.

Those disparities deeply affect contingent faculty, the part- and full-time faculty appointed off the tenure track already disadvantaged by the tenuous nature of their employment. A report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that institutions’ reliance on postdoctoral researchers to handle teaching positions delayed their access to job security in their fields. 

“Increasingly the academic structure in the US and other parts of the world has been relying on non-tenure track faculty and graduate workers to cover classes,” Nada Shabout, Professor of Art History and Coordinator of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative at the University of North Texas, told Hyperallergic. “They are an essential part of every program and department. They deserve to know that their jobs are safe and that they are appreciated by their institutions.”

Chelsea Haines, a PhD candidate in art history at the City University of New York (CUNY)’s Graduate Center, is defending her dissertation this semester and planning to enter the academic job market.

“The way I see it is that in many ways the COVID-19 crisis is the straw that broke the back of higher education in this country. The already difficult path to a tenure-track job just got that much harder,” she said in a message to Hyperallergic.

“It’s heartening to see tenured and tenure-track professors act in solidarity with the majority of us currently working in more precarious situations. I think the Academic Solidarity Statement is an important first step in what will be a long and tough fight for more equitable universities for faculty, students, staff, and members of the larger community.”

The letter asks universities to include all academic workers employed for fixed terms in appointment extensions, “regardless of institutional position on the ‘employee status’ of graduate students.” They might do so by renewing graduate employee funding for a longer period, or extending the terms of lecturers and preceptors.

Marta Gutman is a Professor of Architecture at City College of New York (CCNY) and Professor of Art History and Earth and Environmental Sciences at CUNY’s Graduate Center. “I work closely with tenure-track faculty, adjunct instructors, and graduate student teachers, and each and every one is a treasured colleague,” she told Hyperallergic.

“I fear a bloodbath is in the offing at public universities; CUNY has been on an austerity budget for years, New York State is facing a huge deficit. We need help from the federal government, now.”

The effects of the pandemic on academia will be devastating, the Academic Solidarity Statement says, and all the more so if institutions do not take steps to buoy contingent staff.

“The gulf between secure and precarious academics will deepen; countless promising academic careers will prematurely end, depriving the world of knowledge they would have produced. Thousands of scholars and their families will be stripped of economic security just as they need it most,” the letter admonishes.

Signatories promise to not accept invitations from universities that exclude these faculty from protective measures throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. They also commit to advocating for their own universities to “make the most progressive and equitable possible provisions for all of their staff, graduate students and contingent faculty.”

“We hope this letter brings awareness to this issue but also so our colleagues know that we care and they have our support. The motto of this pandemic crisis has been, ‘we are all in this together,’” said Shabout. “This should not be any different.”

The Academic Solidarity Statement can be signed here. The statement’s website also includes a “Resources” section, including a public spreadsheet that lists the universities offering tenure clock extensions.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...