Sessional concerns affect us all

by Faculty Association | Filed under Fair Employment Week, October 2014, President's Message.

– By Sandra Hoenle, Faculty Association President –

Imagine, as an experienced academic, having to reapply for your job every year – or possibly every semester; and possibly even knowing the program you teach in would collapse without the teaching you provide. Many of our colleagues at U of C experience this reality, year after year. These contract academic staff members we call sessional instructors, are hired by U of C to teach individual courses; they are not expected to do research and they are not offered long- or short- term commitments beyond the individual courses. These academics often work for low pay, and with the uncertainty of whether or not another short-term contract will be extended to them.

In some faculties, sessionals make up roughly half of the academic staff. That means half of the faculty members do not have job security or a reasonable salary with benefits. Many do not have a private office in which to meet students or a say in the academic and other decisions made in the academic unit. And last, but far from least, because of the nature of their positions, they would not have true academic freedom, one of the cornerstones of the academic profession.

This two-tiered system was brought to national attention in Ira Basen’s CBC Radio documentary (Sept 7, 2014) about academia’s ‘dirty little secret’: “Universities in Canada … are propped up by a huge army of part-time teachers, who are highly qualified and poorly paid. They have no job security or pension, and little hope of ever getting a full-time position. They go by many titles: sessional lecturers, contract academic staff, adjunct faculty. Today more than half of Canadian undergraduates are taught by these very precarious workers.”

What do things look like at the University of Calgary? You can see from the chart (Academic Staff by Rank) that about 23% of the academic staff are sessionals – roughly the same percentage as Associate Professors; and these numbers have remained steady since at least 2011. These highly qualified and dedicated individuals care deeply for their students and the University, yet they tend to be treated poorly and receive much less support than ongoing faculty members to do their work. As contract academic staff often teach large classes, the number of students they teach is significant and their poor working conditions can affect learning conditions for their students.

There are other direct impacts that we all feel. As one example, there are fewer people who can take on the numerous service elements of the academic job; fewer continuing faculty means heavier service responsibilities. It also means not being able to take advantage of the experience and expertise of colleagues who would have much more to offer their academic units if they were incorporated into decision-making processes.

The working conditions of contract academic staff are of both local and national concern, which is why the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) annually promotes and plays a coordinating role in Fair Employment Week (FEW). FEW (this year’s incarnation runs from October 27th to 31st) is a national event that raises awareness of the difficulties inherent in being a member of the contract academic staff. Contract academic staff are often on the front lines of attacks on academic freedom, quality, fair treatment, and the value of research.

To recognize the work and contributions of our sessional instructors, the Faculty Association introduced a program of Sessional Travel Grants in conjunction with FEW in 2012. The purpose of these grants is to provide these members with an opportunity to profile their research (work some continue to do even though they may not be compensated for it) or attend conferences to remain current in their fields. Three grants are available to be awarded (more information and application forms are available here). Last year, the Association awarded three grants. We would like to congratulate the FEW 2013 grant recipients: Sarah Eaton (Werklund School of Education), Valerie Pruegger (Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts) and Owen Slater (Department of Ecosystem and Public Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine).

While the Faculty Association is pleased to support these sessionals in their academic endeavors through this program, this is really a drop in the bucket. Ultimately it is up to universities to better support the academic work of their contract academic staff.

The Association has made a number of gains, including the conversion of some long-time sessional instructors into instructor positions, as well as a sessional’s right of first refusal in applying for a further sessional appointment. We know this is just the tip of the iceberg, so we will continue to look into this and try to make more progress.

While these small changes ease the working conditions of many long-serving contract academics, the University’s reliance on sessionals as a cheap and flexible workforce remains problematic. I encourage all continuing academic staff to let your colleagues and administrators know that the unfair treatment of sessionals at the U of C needs to be resolved.

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