Before releasing our report publicly on Thursday, October 9, we (the survey authors) were fortunate enough to present some of our findings and recommendations at a meeting with provost David Wu and the deans of GMU’s various schools and colleges.
Two weeks earlier, we had sent a copy of our report to the university’s administration—including President Àngel Cabrera, Provost S. David Wu, and the Deans—because we felt it was fair for them to know ahead of time of our intention to publish it.
As we stress repeatedly in our report, we didn’t choose GMU as the site of our study because their treatment of contingent faculty is especially egregious. There are many troubling findings in our report, but everything that we found at GMU is being reported at colleges and universities all over the country. Although there are a few specific areas in which GMU is significantly better or worse than the norm, on the whole GMU—with inadequate pay, few benefits, and inconsistent provisioning of resources—is on par with many universities across the nation.
Because GMU aspires to be better than an average university, with a particular emphasis on the well-being of its community, we hoped that the university would be receptive to our report. Still, we were shedding light on some unflattering findings, and we were apprehensive about what their response might be.
Instead, we were pleased to receive an invitation from the office of Dr. Wu to present at the deans’ council meeting on Thursday. We spoke for about 15 minutes, and then responded to comments and questions from the provost and deans for another 15 minutes. We want to share some of our reactions from the meeting with the GMU community and other interested observers.
- First, it was apparent to us that at least a significant minority of deans, if not more, are supportive of many of our recommendations. Several commended us for doing this work and identified recommendations they want to pursue, including the issues of low salaries and exorbitant parking fees. We were very heartened to find that some of GMU’s administration are very aware of the problems, take them very seriously, and are eager to address them with action.
- Second, while some deans proffered critiques of our methods, these were presented very respectfully. Because of a lack of time, we were not able to respond to every question presented at the meeting, but plan on doing so in a formal response (which we will post here as well). Furthermore, we want to stress that we did not receive any critiques that we did not anticipate, and we remain completely confident in the academic quality of our study.
- This includes Dr. Wu’s suggestion to The Chronicle of Higher Education that the most discontented contingent faculty may be overrepresented in our sample. We believe this is unlikely because 1) the magnitude of our findings at GMU is consistent with all other research of contingent faculty that has been conducted to date, including findings at other colleges and universities as well as national surveys, and 2) as we note on page 12 of our report, while it’s possible that the most discontented might have been more motivated to respond to our survey, we believe it’s equally possible that they might have been more afraid to respond, fearing reprisal for reporting poor working conditions in spite of our attempt to assure them that their responses would be confidential. Given that our findings suggest roughly half of GMU contingent faculty are financially dependent upon their earnings from GMU, and the majority of them have contracts of one year or less, those with positive experiences are likely to have had far fewer reservations about responding than those with negative experiences.
- Finally, as we stressed in our presentation to the deans, while some changes may take time to implement, there are many that can be implemented quickly and efficiently. Many of the problems our respondents reported with respect to inadequate training or provisioning of resources, for example, could be addressed by an initiative to better integrate contingent faculty into the training and resource provisioning frameworks that already exist at the university.
- Furthermore, while we certainly understand that deans and other administrators face real financial constraints, there are many other institutions facing similar constraints (including some in the state of Virginia) who are doing better by their contingent faculty, and so can GMU. We presented the deans with several resources designed for administrators by the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success to help them 1) understand the need for change, 2) locate resources needed to support these faculty, 3) provide them with example practices that are happening on other college and university campuses. We hope the deans will utilize the findings and recommendations from our report along with these resources and start making changes soon.
In short, we came away cautiously optimistic about the future of contingent faculty at GMU. We were extremely encouraged to discover so many administrators publicly or privately supportive of our recommendations. We believe enough are taking these problems seriously that positive, concrete changes may follow.
However, this change won’t come unless there’s a push from faculty, students, parents, alumni, and others in the GMU community. Although some administrators are supportive, not all are. The more they hear from you, the more emboldened those administrators who do support positive changes to contingent faculty working conditions will be, and the more likely those who would prefer not to address these conditions will have to concede that some changes will have to be made.
We will be holding a public forum on the Fairfax campus in the coming weeks, presenting our results and recommendations to the GMU community. Check back to this space for details on that event soon!