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Contractually Bound

Let’s reconsider our hiring practices for contract academic staff

There are ethical issues around overlooking those who remain hidden in plain sight.


With an ever increasing faculty complement of contract academic staff, should hiring committees consider the ethical aspects of internal hiring?

In many universities, hiring practices are long established and complex. Built-in safeguards are introduced to ensure that principles of fairness, equity and diversity are met. Ensuring that the hiring process is transparent and accountable is of vital importance to its legitimacy. But, is there also an ethical obligation to place long-serving contract academics under special consideration?

It is a common story told by many contract academics: they have more than a decade of teaching essential service courses and possibly additional courses that they designed. They all receive consistently high course evaluations.  And yet, when a permanent position is created, either a full-time teaching position or a tenure-track line, these dedicated academics are often passed over in favour of an external candidate.

This is especially problematic when the person hired is from the United States rather than Canada. During the 1960s and ’70s, there was a dearth of Canadian-trained academics, and that required casting the net widely in search for scholarly talent. Today, with a much larger number of Canadian-trained PhDs, there is a surfeit of highly qualified applicants.

Although it would be wrong to task hiring committees to dedicate themselves to absorbing the growing number of Canadian-trained PhDs, or to hire from a qualified pool of long-serving instructors in their own departments, there are nonetheless ethical issues around overlooking those who remain hidden in plain sight.

There is little financial incentive to consider contract academic staff, since one can assume that they will continue to provide their services at a lower cost. However, by not considering them, we risk undermining the foundations of an institution’s mission to promote the highest ethical values. In several other industries, loyalty and merit are rewarded in very tangible ways.

There are also benefits in enfranchising the contract academic labour pool with full-time positions. Long-serving contract academic staff members possess departmental and institutional wisdom, and they have demonstrated their teaching abilities and dedication to both the departmental and university mission.

Of course, the demands and expectations of a tenure-track position vary in key respects from a part-time teaching position, particularly in the need for recent research that fits the requirements of the department. To be sure, the contract labour pool cannot always satisfy the department’s need for faculty renewal and strong research potential.

But this isn’t always the case. Some contract staff are doing high-quality research without access to adequate resources, and without any means of having the work recognized in their department. In these instances, viable internal candidates need to be considered for tenure-track positions in ways that are not merely pro forma.

When full-time tenure track jobs are advertised by an academic department, systemic biases sometimes diminish the opportunities for contract staff to apply. For example, consider the wording of the job ad. Is it tailored to an internal candidate the department already has in mind? Or is it entirely aspirational in attempting to attract a superstar candidate from afar?

Meanwhile, to be fair to their long-serving contract staff, universities need to seriously consider ways to help them access secure long-term employment in their field. If these contract faculty were good enough to teach core courses for 10 years, why are they not good enough to be hired for full-time positions?

Partial solutions do exist. Some collective agreements specify that part-time faculty with a certain level of seniority will be granted interviews when more secure positions are created. Such interviews should be offered seriously and not be an exercise of providing false hope. At the same time, the department’s autonomy in making hiring decisions must be respected.

One possible answer to this dilemma is the formal creation of tenure-track teaching-stream positions. These already exist at several Canadian universities. While this isn’t a perfect solution, it may be a start. And it also may be a way for universities to honour their ethical commitment to those who merit opportunity and security. Ultimately, a balanced approach to providing opportunities and support to long-serving contract staff may improve departmental morale and ensure the kind of educational quality that departments wish to sustain or improve.

Kane X. Faucher
Dr. Faucher is an adjunct with the title of assistant professor of media, information and technoculture in the faculty of information and media studies at Western University.
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  1. Nkem Pius / March 4, 2015 at 20:44

    This is a great pace of writing and reflective of the Canadian University system. It is unbelievable that there are a lot of malpractices in hiring university professors or instructors. This is similar to PDF, who are supposedly to be trained in taking up academic positions but it has turn out to be a child’s play where these jobs are given only to those who are within a so call network.

    I also differ with you in that, “it is not meant to bring top quality professors to a university BUT to the best of my knowledge, what matters must is from which network one belong to. It does not even matter on the number of publications, teaching qualification, awards and research experience one brings.

    I have BEEN interviewed by many of Canadian universities but end up discovering the positions are given to less qualify candidates compared to either my publications, teaching experience, research, and awards etc.

    I will strongly suggest a next write up focus on PDF transaction to faculty position (Is it by Merits or Network connections)