June 13 2024

A Promissory Note on Ethical Debt in Theological Education

by Anonymous

a group of locks hooked onto a wire cable

You do not know who wrote this article—but you probably know who I am.

I am a professor in theological education. I am well respected by my students and by scholars in my field. I am mid-career, an established scholar and a veteran teacher. I work full time—at least 40 hours a week. I teach four to five courses per year; advise students; recruit prospective students; direct DMin projects; and lead workshops. I am the author of multiple books (one by a university press) and over a dozen peer-reviewed articles. I am co-editor of a well-received textbook and am sought after as an editor by colleagues and publishers. I am regularly invited to peer review articles and books, and I serve in leadership in my scholarly guild, my church, and the seminary communities in which I teach. Yet, I earn less than $20,000 a year—and without benefits or job security.

I am the contingent faculty member in your midst. What, if anything, am I owed?

Ethical Debt

The case for ethical debt arises from the gap between our stated values and our actions. I am by no means the first person to invoke the idea of a promissory note to address unfulfilled promises of justice. In theological education, that promise is made through a school’s mission statement. When we fall short of our mission by borrowing from those community members with the least power, we incur ethical debt.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, senior faculty member and President Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary, issued a call to theological schools to recognize, name, and address their mounting ethical debt. For the purpose of institutional self-preservation, many schools of theology, she noted, attempt to address financial debt by outsourcing educational leadership to contingent faculty as a cost-saving measure. The result is a widespread labor practice that goes against the institutional missions of these very schools. James F. Keenan, SJ, the Canisius Professor of Theology at Boston College, also raised the issue of contingent faculty in his book University Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015) and in an article, “The Scandal of ‘Contingent’ Faculty.” Both he and Thistlethwaite call institutions of higher learning to recognize what is due to their faculty as a matter of both justice and institutional integrity.

What do theological schools owe their adjunct faculty members? What does this promissory note include?

Barriers to Success within the Scholarly Community

One step in addressing ethical debt in theological education is to understand and acknowledge the barriers to success faced by contingent faculty. The usual markers of professional success for faculty are teaching, scholarship, service. However, how can career success be recognized, yet alone achieved, absent adequate financial compensation and institutional standing?

Pay for contingent faculty, especially for those who are not unionized, is paltry—an average of less than $3000 per course. If a course is canceled due to low enrollment, only a token is paid as reimbursement for preparation time. This means that an adjunct would have to teach between 15 to 20 standard three-hour courses a year to earn the equivalent of a full-time salary—and still lack the basic benefits of health insurance, sick leave, and a retirement account, not to mention any guarantee of employment from year to year. Furthermore, contingent faculty face significant risk in choosing their pedagogy as well as gatekeeping in research.

In what sense can one claim a successful career without the accompanying validations of benefits, salary, and job security?

To compound the problem of participation in the scholarly community, contingent faculty find many avenues for funded research closed to them. Major fellowships and grants are often restricted to full-time faculty in accredited institutions of higher learning. Sabbatical grants are available, not to the contingent faculty in need of a salary, but only to the full-time faculty who are already drawing full compensation. When scholarly writing so often goes unpaid, the very opportunities that would afford contingent faculty additional sources of funding are closed-off.

To view these barriers to success as the problems of unfortunate individuals, however, is to ignore the systemic factors of inequity in scholarship and teaching.

Falsely Blaming Life Circumstances

This promissory note demands truth-telling about systemic injustices. The status of contingent faculty is often misunderstood—and, I believe, as does Thistlethwaite, deliberately misunderstood—as an individual problem.

Construing the issue as an individual’s problem raises suspicions, invokes pity, and supposes inferiority. Why can’t that scholar/teacher land or hold a tenure-track or tenured position? What life circumstances prevent her from finding a full-time position? What qualities does he lack? So often, adjuncts are considered less-than-equals among “regular” faculty—even when they outnumber those employed full-time.

Contingent faculty themselves get caught up in viewing their situation as an individual problem, too. It is tempting for me, as an adjunct, to feel a need to explain away my situation: I’m just looking for the right institutional fit; I can’t relocate because of my spouse’s job; I need flexibility in scheduling to take care of dependent children or parents; etc. Yet, all of these responses buy into a subtle form of victim-blaming, as if exploitive labor practices were somehow justified because of choices I have made.

Let us be clear. The structural inequality of the academic labor market is not a situation I or my contingent faculty colleagues caused ourselves. The situation of contingent faculty today is not an individual problem. It is a structural injustice and must be seen that way in order for there to be change.

Calling and Dedication

We cannot explain away the unjust situation of contingent faculty as if their situation is “their own fault.” If anything, their common “fault” is dedication to a career and calling despite institutional structures that devalue their time, talents, and efforts. Some might ask, “If the financial remuneration is so low, why don’t contingent faculty just exercise their free choice by refusing to work?” This ill-formed question denies the honor owed contingent faculty for their sense of calling and dedication to this profession.

I stay because this is the profession I love. I love to teach and am good at it. I enjoy my students and become energized through classroom interactions. I learn best when I am teaching, and my students challenge me to learn more every day. In addition, I love to research and write. I enjoy the process of investigating and formulating new ideas. Scholarship is a creative outlet for my fertile imagination engaged theologically with the world around me. And not least, I believe that the humanities—including the study of religion—is a culturally valuable endeavor and that I contribute to a better society when I promote thoughtful, self-critical reflection on religious practices and traditions.

I am the contingent faculty member in your midst. If I’m still willing to teach for a pittance and conduct unpaid research rather than quit the profession, don’t blame me. And don’t deny me justice by dismissing this promissory note as somehow cancelled because of my dedication to the profession of teaching and scholarship.

Theological schools of all institutions should recognize this kind of dedication as an expression of vocation. A person’s sense of call is not something to be taken advantage of but something to be valued as an honored contribution to the community under God.

A Promissory Note

My tenured faculty colleagues and the educational institutions that support them owe much to contingent faculty. Our institutions of theological education have signed a promissory note to the whole community to strive to live up to our mission, and we are in serious default on that promise.

The continued exploitation of contingent faculty is an ethically and theologically untenable position. Will you respond, as Keenan urged in University Ethics, in solidarity with the contingent faculty in your midst? Will you respond to Thistlethwaite’s call to partnership and change? Will you acknowledge your debt to contingent faculty and begin repayment?