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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2002

A Few Thoughts about Sessionals

Patrick Grassick
There's a lot of mythology out there about sessionals. People think that there aren't really that many sessionals, when actually, on our campus, they exist in their hundreds. Just about 25 per cent of the faculty association, more than 450 of our colleagues, holds sessional appointments. In some faculties almost half of the courses are taught by sessionals. In many departments the undergraduate curriculum would fall apart if it weren't for the core of sessionals who staff these programs. And the number of sessionals has been growing, even though the administration and the faculty association agreed several years ago to a limited set of conditions in which sessionals could properly be employed (the so-called "a-j rules" in Article 23 of the collective agreement).

People think that sessionals are unqualified, when actually if you examine the credentials of sessionals (as we have done from time to time in reviewing their plight) it turns out that most sessionals are perfectly well qualified for tenure track positions. If this is so, goes the next element in the mythology, then why aren't they actually employed somewhere in tenure track positions? The reason is pretty clear to anyone who cares to look: for the past decade or so, in most disciplines there have been very few tenure track positions available as governments everywhere have starved universities for funds. Everybody is hiring sessionals. For sure, in sexy fields where there is a hot seller's market, highly paid tenure track positions continue to be offered, and a small number of candidates can demand the sky from any number of universities who would be glad to pay whatever price is asked. But most disciplines have been starved for funds, and what hiring there has been has been largely short-term and soft money.

So, when you actually look at sessionals' credentials (as opposed to merely consulting your prejudices), it turns out that most sessionals are actually well qualified for tenure track positions. Many have the terminal degree required for tenure track academic jobs, and most have respectable research track records. Sessionals know full well that if they ever hope to secure tenure track positions they will have to produce a C.V. with a healthy list of publications. And they manage to produce such a list in conditions that are quite unsupportive of the research enterprise - insubstantial professional expense reimbursement, no access to research funds or labs, no entitlement to sabbaticals and so on.

And then if you look at teaching performance, the myth of the unqualified sessional becomes patently absurd. It's possible, of course, to suggest that a sessional who has been hired to teach one class might not be up to the task. It might even be possible to assert that a sessional who had been rehired to teach the same class again might not actually be qualified to do the work. But if a sessional has been employed to teach the same or similar classes over and over again for a period of years, they are clearly capable of doing the job.

Another element in the mythology is that sessionals only stay that way for a little while, and they soon move on to regular academic employment. Actually, many sessionals live out their entire academic lives as sessionals, moving from place to place and position to position in a grim attempt to eke out an academic career. When we first started collecting information to prepare for Article 23 negotiations years ago, we found that patterns of sessional employment were all over the map. Sure, some sessionals were only around for a term or two before they went elsewhere. Some departments actually had rules limiting the number of years a particular person could be employed as a sessional (these were completely illegal rules that existed entirely outside of authorized university policies). In these departments, sessionals would be employed for a specific number of years and then they were turfed out so someone else could be rotated into what was essentially a permanent position occupied serially by casual employees. And then we found many sessionals who had been employed year in and year out on a course-by-course basis in the same departments for periods of up to 20 years!

What's wrong with this? Well, besides the obvious fact this kind of employment means our academic colleagues who are forced to accept these positions are paid a pittance and have absolutely no security of employment, it means a substantial number of academic staff at this university have absolutely no real academic freedom. They can be tossed out of their employment at the end of any term for any reason whatever - or for no reason - just on the whim of the head. Maybe the head hears a student complaint about you - you can be gone without an opportunity for the complaint to be examined. Maybe the head finds you annoying. Maybe the head wants to help out a new graduate. Maybe the head wants to hire their latest sweetheart. So sad, too bad. It doesn't matter how well and how long you have served the department, if the department head takes a dislike to the cut of your jib, then you can be tossed out of your job without any recourse whatever. So, can you teach according to your best lights? Well, no, because you have to be constantly concerned about when a dissatisfied student (and there always is a dissatisfied student!) will cost you your job. Can you give students the grades they deserve? Sure, but only if you're confident that a determined grade appeal won't undermine your credibility with the department head. Can you deal with controversial ideas in the classroom or in the scholarly work you manage to produce? Well yes you can, but only at your peril because, again, student reaction to what you say can jeopardize your job, and you always have to worry about running afoul of the department head's academic prejudices. So that's what wrong with having lots of sessionals: it's exploitative and abusive of the sessionals themselves, and it threatens the academic integrity of the enterprise.

How to improve the lot of sessionals? First, the salaries and working conditions of sessionals have to be improved. Second, there have to be real and enforced limitations on the number of circumstances in which sessionals, instead of tenured faculty, can be employed. And finally, sessionals who have demonstrated they can do the work of academics (by virtue of their actually having done it) should be given tenured, or at least tenure track, appointments.

And here is where we run into the most vicious piece of mythology that keeps sessionals firmly locked into the academic lumpenproletariat. This is the myth that we have to guarantee the quality of the academic staff by conducting national/international searches and competitions. In the first place, it's the rankest hypocrisy to assert this myth in tones of righteous piety, and then turn around and staff the place with sessionals who are hired in the most casual way possible. Clearly, the quality argument is only trotted out when it is convenient.

And secondly, it is simply and demonstrably false that competitive search processes are a guarantee that the "best person" will be hired - or even, that a "good" candidate will be hired.

In my business in counselling and student development, one of the things we do is help students find good work, either to support themselves through school or to launch their careers after graduation. In order to help these students focus on the reality of the situation, we often ask them a series of questions. We ask: "Do you think that in a job competition the best person is always hired?" And they answer, of course, "no." Everybody actually knows that sometimes people who are hired turn out to be terrible at the job. So how does it happen? Well, if you think about it for just a minute, it is abundantly clear that the person who is going to get hired is going to be - not necessarily the best person for the job, or even the best qualified for the job - but the person who makes the best impression on the people doing the hiring.

We have all been on hiring committees and we have all seen that sometimes after the most rigorous processes imaginable the person who is hired turns out to be absolutely a disaster. It's even the case that people who have been hired as university presidents using these processes can turn out to be duds! This is why we make academics go through the long process of demonstrating that they are worthy of receiving tenure, so they can actually demonstrate that they can live up to the promise they demonstrate at the time of hiring.

And it's obviously false that competitive hiring guarantees that the "best" people get hired, because we do not have the necessary conditions in the academic labour market to make it so. If every qualified applicant applied for every job, and every employer could secure the services of each applicant judged to be uniquely best qualified for each position, then we might be able to assert the competitive hiring process actually was capable of ensuring the best people were hired. But we are very far from these conditions, have been for decades and will continue to be miles from meeting them for the foreseeable future.

In recent years, when there actually have been tenure track positions on offer, the truth has been that in most disciplines there has been a very strong seller's market - that is to say, the market favours applicants rather than employers. In "hot" fields in management, hi-tech, and philosophy, universities get into fierce bidding wars for potential employees. Given our competitive position (even with market supplements) we have ended up hiring, not always the best qualified person, but the person fourth or fifth down the list. In some cases, departments have decided to suspend competitions because they can't find a suitably qualified candidate out there in the market.

Sometimes this is because they simply aren't looking at the people who are actually doing the job on the ground in the department (clearly, if somebody is working as a sessional, teaching X in the department, they can't actually be qualified to teach X or conduct research on X, or else they'd already have a tenured appointment).

So we continue to look for freshly minted PhDs with sexy dissertation topics, rather than give the nod to the shopworn people who are actually doing the work without recognition or respect.

Finally, we have to deal with the notion that it is somehow "unfair" to hypothetical potential applicants if we give tenure track positions to sessionals who are actually here.

It is a fundamental rule of employment law essentially everywhere that employees have a duty of loyalty to their employers and that employers owe a reciprocal duty to acknowledge loyal service. This works out in lots of ways. For instance, new employees can be let go without cause during or at the end of a probationary period, while "permanent" employees can be let go only for cause, and often only after a detailed process is gone through. Often, seniority is used to determine entitlement to benefits of various kinds. And this is the way it should be, if you really do want people to be loyal employees and you want them to stick around.

So as for being "unfair" to hypothetical potential applicants who have yet to come onto the market, much less to actually apply for a hypothetical position, I think we have a greater duty to be fair to those who have already demonstrated their commitment and loyalty. And if you don't accept that, then I suggest that really what you're up to is not protecting "quality" or being "fair" at all. What you're up to is maximizing the power you have as an employer to hire and fire at will, regardless of the demonstrated competence or commitment of your employees. What you're up to, in other words, is showing that you don't really care about academic freedom, except possibly your own.

And for cripes sake, let's do remember that while there may be obvious examples of people who are clearly qualified for tenured appointments, in most cases we will be talking about changing people's appointment status to tenure track. We are not talking about giving permanent jobs to unqualified people. They'll still have to actually demonstrate under the regular conditions that they are indeed worthy of tenure. But at least they'll have a fair chance and a real chance of doing so.

Patrick Grassick is a recently retired academic staff member from the University of Calgary's counselling and student development centre.

This article first appeared in the February/March 2002 University of Calgary Faculty Association newsletter Academic Views. Reprinted with permission.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.