The employment of “permatemp” faculty at the University of Washington weakens undergraduate education and threatens the principle of equal opportunity in hiring. More fundamentally, it creates unfair and often intolerable working conditions for the individuals involved.
In 2021, about 700 faculty were employed as lecturers and 600 more as teaching associates. A majority of these individuals worked as permatemps — a temporary employee who is repeatedly rehired. A faculty Senate survey found that 55% were hired for at least three years, 33% for five or more years, and 10% for 10 or more years. Just as the temporary portion of their title is illusory, so too is the descriptor “part-time.” Part-time lecturers may, and often do, teach full time.
People might assume that part-time and temporary lecturers prefer these roles because they fit their life situation of retirement, child-rearing, schooling or caregiving. A UW Senate survey found that only 33% prefer part-time employment and just 14% are unconcerned by job security. To make ends meet, more than half are employed by one or more additional academic units at the UW or at other institutions of higher education.
Temporary faculty are contractually distinct from other faculty. Career advancement is barred, regular review or mentoring is not required, and salaries are adjusted with across-the-board increases. Quarterly faculty exist in a precarious state but protest little fearing that raising issues may result in their being viewed as difficult or troublemakers. Their working conditions make it difficult to build meaningful relationships within their departments. They often lack offices, equipment, telephones and generally become practically invisible. Students may have difficulty finding them. Many agree to take assignments for which they are not paid out of a sense of responsibility, fear or a desire to curry favor.
For permatemps, benefits, especially health coverage, are always in doubt. Several faculty with cancer and other health conditions discussed harrowing stories because they could not count on reappointment at the 50% level required for benefits.
Many at the UW believe that because temporary lecturers have not gone through a formal search process they can’t or shouldn’t be treated better. Open and competitive search is a central element of most universities’ compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity rules. Universities advertise widely in order to attract a diverse pool of well-qualified candidates. Yet, many UW departments fail to activate formal searches, hiring faculty through word-of-mouth, personal contacts or unsolicited inquiries. Without open and competitive search, incumbent lecturers may remain in limbo for years. While the university community is committed to equal opportunity, this failure violates the spirit if not the actual law requiring open hiring.
When a person occupies a temporary position over multiple contract cycles, there is no meaningful sense in which their jobs are temporary. At the UW, in the provost’s guidelines for temporary lecturers, a job search is only required if a lecturer manages to get rehired for three years at half-time or more, and even then, the search may not occur if a lecturer’s time is reduced, which restarts the clock. More problematic, the three-year rule feels like a Catch 22 to affected lecturers: These faculty must compete for the very jobs for which they have been repeatedly rehired to fill after successful performance. Significantly, major university contracts in California and Oregon allow the regularization of permatemp faculty.
Non-academics may still be wondering, “Where’s the beef here?” For faculty with kids or other commitments to the area it is almost impossible to seek a better position outside Seattle. Dependence upon temporary teaching gigs creates huge anxieties about their future, and even their ability to simply plan day-by-day. To honor its commitment to equal opportunity and to promote a decent workplace, the university should implement searches as soon as practical, and certainly not after what amounts to a three-year probation. Additionally, long-serving faculty deserve a recognized path toward greater security. This may inconvenience some, but that inconvenience is nothing compared to the hardship permatemp work inflicts upon faculty.
The UW Faculty Senate last week took an important first step in passing a resolution regarding lecturer concerns. However, this nonbinding measure is not enough. The university community must now enact genuine change.