Originally, ‘stress’ described the force necessary to break steel. Today, this metaphor is routinely applied to describe contemporary mental states. In recent years, the vectors of stress have so accelerated that many psychologists are sounding the alarm. University administrators, too, are confronting a mental health crisis. They have responded by ramping up counseling service, beefing up drug benefits, and initializing wellness campaigns to help students cope with stress.
Given this landscape, it is lamentable how the ‘wellness’ of contract faculty has not received major scrutiny. Multiple surveys show that the stress levels confronted by educators of all stripes is already disproportionately high. For contract faculty, professional stresses are magnified by their economic insecurities and the pressure to complete unpaid work in order to retain their contingent employment. Even ‘part-time’ professors with decades-long tenures have little security, working from contract to contract. Despite immense loyalty to the institution, or dedicated service to their students, every year professors lose their jobs when tenured faculty take over courses they have built up.
Another problem is that part-time professors serve as the university’s first line of defense for at-risk students. The incidence of student mental health issues and students arriving to campus with learning disabilities has exploded during the last decade. Although the causes of this crisis remain debated, one dimension of student stress is the feeling of isolation. It is not uncommon for students at the edge to confide in their professors. But how can contract faculty adequately respond to students in need if they are themselves in distress? How can a student suffering from a personal crisis confide to their professor at café table pressed into service as an emergency office?
We can do better
We can and we must do a much better job of improving working conditions across Canadian campuses. An important first step is for administrators to admit that their contract faculty are not seasonal labourers. Many contract faculty are PhD’s, fully qualified for tenure-stream positions and indispensable employees that enable universities to achieve their educational mission. Publicly recognizing this reality is necessary to build institutional momentum to create a genuine environment of campus wellness. This is not just a matter of doing the right thing; it is a pre-requisite for Canadian universities to fulfill their mandate as public institutions of higher learning. How can contract faculty to serve as first line of defense for at risk students when their conditions are equally precarious?