Struggling sessionals

By ├ćndrew Rininsland

It’s a generally-accepted view that university professors are paid more than burger-flippers. However, many students would be shocked and appalled to learn the wages at McDonalds are significantly higher than those received by a full quarter of the university’s teaching staff.

Sessional instructors at the university comprise 25.7 per cent of the overall academic staff. As opposed to tenured professors, who are contracted by the University of Calgary to teach on an ongoing basis, sessional instructors are given a set stipend per class they teach and are often seen as little more than auxiliary staff.

According to The University of Calgary Faculty Association president Anne Stalker, there are over 500 sessional instructors at the university with an additional 200 or so on contingency terms.

“It’s a huge difference; a tenured or tenure-track instructor has an ongoing position and until they are denied tenure or they do something really wrong, they have a position at the University of Calgary,” said Stalker. “They have relatively good pay and good benefits and pension plans. They’re secure. Sessionals are anything but secure. The worst thing is the security. They may not know until a month before they start teaching whether they have any courses at all.”

Dr. Allison Dube–also featured in this week’s opinions section–is one such professor. After teaching at the university for 14 years, the sessional is finding the minimal pay and security provided by the job to be unsustainable. Two students, Tarra Wandler and Dean Horsfield, have started an online petition asking the university to give tenure to Dube as well as re-evaluate the role of sessionals within the university.

“It’s a completely, 100 per cent, student-run initiative,” said Wandler. “We’re doing it in part for Dr. Dube, but it’s on our behalf as students. We care about our education, we care where our money is going and we don’t want to see a really awesome professor leave the university.”

The petition has over 600 signatures from a combination of students, graduates and parents. The group plans to present the petition to U of C president Dr. Harvey Weingarten, as well as the dean of social sciences and the head of the political science faculty.

“Our tuition is going up, yet one of the greatest professors I’ve had–and you look at the comments and ideas people have written on our website–this man has truly made an impact in our lives. He’s leaving and not being recognized for any of his contributions here. It’s shocking, really,” she said.

Canadian Association of University Teachers assistant executive director Michael Piva noted that the number of sessionals in Canadian universities has been increasing sharply over the last five to ten years.

“It’s significantly less than it is in the States, and it’s probably approaching the 50 per cent mark,” he said.

Piva noted the number of sessionals and contract teachers in the United States was over 60 per cent.

“There was a period in the mid- to late ’90s where government funding to universities was cut sharply and in a period of significant underfunding, it was a cheap-labour alternative,” he said. “You had a situation where budgets were being cut, but student enrollments were increasing so the question was how [universities] could deal with the needs of an increasing population. You dealt with it with rapidly increasing class sizes and by hiring part-time. It was a response to especially harsh budget cuts.”

Many sessionals receive very little recognition beyond teaching awards. For instance, Dube has received the Students’ Union Teaching Excellence Award several times, as well as the Order of the University of Calgary. According to SU vice-president academic Brittany Sargent, sessionals often have trouble advancing due to an emphasis on published research.

“I think it’s really easy to use research to establish how successful someone has been,” said Sargent. “When looking at applications for tenure, promotion or even their merit increments, the easiest way to see how productive somebody is, is by looking at their research. It’s very easy to say, ‘check, this person has done a really good job.’ It’s harder to analyze their service contribution and it’s even harder to understand how much teaching they’ve done and what the quality of that teaching is.”

Sargent stressed the need for qualified tenured instructors with a connection to the university.

“I don’t think that sessionals are a sustainable solution to what’s happening,” she said. “We need a more permanent solution to how to teach kids on campus properly. The people teaching the undergraduate classes are qualified and here for the long term, particularly when a professor’s on the tenure track and there’s a vested interest in how they teach their class. When you’re a sessional and not coming back, I can’t imagine there’s a lot of vested interest in the organiza- tion or the university as a whole.”

According to Piva, the average pay for a sessional instructor at major metropolitan universities can be as high as $6,500 per course while as low as $4,000 at smaller universities. CAUT advocates a move to different hiring system that Piva says will improve the pay and job security of sessional instructors as well as improve the overall academic experience.

“From our point of view, we believe that the quality of post-secondary education depends upon the integration of the research and teaching functions as the research function is there precisely to inform the teaching,” said Piva. “That’s undermining the quality of education and what needs to be provided is that part-time people should be treated as part-time people. If you’re 50 per cent, you should be 50 per cent of all the components of the job–teaching, research, service–rather than just one component of the job, only teaching.”

The job should to be defined pro rata, explained Piva.

“Meaning that if it’s a 50 per cent job, it’s 50 per cent of the teaching, research, and service of a full-time job in order to reintegrate those teaching and research functions,” he said. “Alternatively, you should be compensated on the same basis. If you do 50 per cent of the teaching, research and service of a full-time job, you should receive 50 per cent of the salary of a full-time person.”

Administration twice declined to comment during writing, citing it as a personnel issue.

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