What You Need to Know About Contingent Faculty (AKA Your Professors)

The Faculty Forward union advocates on behalf of non–tenure track faculty, and it needs your help to create a better UChicago for workers and students alike.

By Faculty Forward

When you decided to come to UChicago (good choice, by the way), the school’s low student-to-faculty ratio and reputation for excellent teaching probably played a part. But when you sign up for your first classes, it might start to seem like all professors are not created equal. What gives? And why are some faculty unionized while others are not?

While academic titles admittedly verge on the arcane and grotesque, many of the differences between your professors start to make sense once you realize that the University doesn’t treat us all as equals. Some of us are asked to do a lot more with a lot less. And since our working conditions are also your learning conditions, we’d like to tell you a bit more about those working conditions and ask for your voice as we fight to improve them—thus improving your learning conditions as well.

Why are some of my professors called “lecturers” or “instructional professors” or “professors of practice”? Are they real professors?

Yes, we are—we’re just not “on the tenure track.” What’s the difference?

Tenure-track faculty are hired primarily to do research and secondarily to teach. Non–tenure track faculty—also called contingent, instructional, or adjunct faculty—specialize in teaching. We have the same qualifications as tenure-track faculty (typically a Ph.D.), and many of us continue our research, scholarship, and artistic practices.

Contingent faculty may be part-time or full-time, but all of us work on limited-term contracts ranging from one quarter to five years. Unlike tenured faculty, we must pass frequent performance reviews in order to keep our jobs. We are also paid less, sometimes much less, than tenure-track faculty.

You will almost certainly take classes taught by contingent faculty. In fact, contingent faculty teach roughly half of all classes in the College!

What is the Faculty Forward union at UChicago and why was it formed?

Faculty Forward is a labor union of over 300 contingent faculty members on campus formed in 2015 and affiliated with Service Employment International Union Local 73. The purpose of the union is to protect our working conditions so that we can concentrate on being great teachers (not having to teach an excessive number of classes, for example, so that we can devote more time and energy to each student).

We also want to be paid fairly for the work we do. We think that all faculty should have the same benefits for themselves and their families (time off when they have a new baby, for instance), regardless of whether they are tenure-track or not, and that if part-time professors are doing a great job, they should be promoted to full-time.

But the reason we’re here is because the administration doesn’t always agree with these positions. And when that happens, the union and the administration have to resolve their differences through collective bargaining, which is what we’re engaged in as you’re reading this.

What is the union asking for in the current negotiations?

Here are our three biggest asks—though honestly, we think they’re pretty reasonable. Especially since, even though we teach half the classes in the College, our salaries make up only about 0.3 percent of the University’s $5 billion annual budget!

  • Don’t cut our pay, especially during a pandemic! The administration is offering us tiny raises, but they’re below the long-term rate of inflation, meaning they’re as good as pay cuts. We want just a little bit more than inflation, because we think we’re doing a pretty good job, and we’re always working to become even better.
  • Don’t ask us to cut down on the attention we give our students! We put everything we’ve got into our teaching (and we’re proud of it), but the administration seems to think that there are more than 24 hours in a day and that teaching one more class is no big deal. When we say this would mean giving less personal attention to you, our students, they say, “Too bad.” But we don’t want to make that compromise.
  • Equal dignity for professors of social work! Currently, all part-timers in our union are paid the same amount to teach a class, no matter the department—with one exception: the graduate school of social work. Why? We’re not sure, but we do know that social work has historically included disproportionate numbers of women and people of color, and UChicago pays its adjunct faculty in social work about 25 percent less than literally everyone else. The Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice’s motto is “advancing a more just and humane society.” We say: Be the change, UChicago!

How can I show support for my non–tenure track professors?

If you share our values and appreciate our teaching, we’d be incredibly grateful for your support. Here are some simple things you can do:

  • Email President Alivisatos and Provost Lee and remind them that our working conditions are your learning conditions!
  • Share this FAQ far and wide with your friends, family, housemates, and the person sticking a Q-tip up your nose.
  • Get involved with organizations that support organized labor across campus, such as the UC Labor Council.

If you can do any of this, thanks! If not, we’re still here for you. Here’s to a new academic year—we can’t wait to get back to class.

Faculty Forward is a labor union of more than 300 contingent faculty members on campus formed in 2015 and affiliated with Service Employment International Union Local 73.