For the Good or the Guild? Scholars Respond to Kate Daley-Bailey: Jack Fitzmier


In this series, a number of scholars respond to Kate Daley-Bailey’s provocative essay, “For  the Good or the ‘Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion,” which appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin journal, Vol 44, No. 4 (2015). The essay can be found here, with an abstract reading as follows: This letter/essay addresses some of the critiques and recommendations I have for the American Academic of Religion regarding its treatment of adjunct concerns. I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild. Subsequently, I recommend the American Academy of Religion discontinue its obfuscation of data on adjunct existence in the field, readjust its membership dues and conferences fees with the monetary plight of its underemployed or unemployed members in mind, and avoid marginalizing or patronizing those members who find themselves within the cycle of contingent employment.

Some Thoughts on “For the Good of the “Guild”: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion”

Jack Fitzmier, Executive Director

American Academy of Religion

Note: for other posts in this series, see here.

I welcome this opportunity to respond to Kate Daley-Bailey’s “Open Letter to the AAR.” I think she identifies important points about the state of the field and raises good questions about the role of a learned society like the AAR. I hope to address some of these issues and offer some perspectives based on my own experience as a long-time untenured faculty member, a tenured professor and dean, and the Executive Director of the AAR.

Higher education is changing dramatically and rapidly, and the challenges posed by the growth of contingent faculty labor are among the most vexing. Daley-Bailey opens her letter by reciting two tales of woe – one about a friend, and another about her own ironic experience with regard to the costs of AAR meeting attendance. Accounts like these are seen with increasing frequency in places like the Chronicle of Higher Education, Faculty Forward, and other sites and organizations that advocate for contingent and adjunct faculty. These tales ought to be told and heard. For many scholars in contingent faculty positions, things are bad. They are that bad. People are justifiably angry. (One thing to note: It seems to me that from an administrative perspective, contingent faculty and adjunct faculty pose similar, but different challenges. This is not the place for a discussion of this, but it should be noted at the outset that my use of “contingent” may or may not include the “adjunct” category of labor.)

As an administrator, I have tried to train myself to examine problems through more than one frame, perspective, or point of view. A problem like the growing reliance on contingent faculty is complex and gnarly. There is no simple, accurate explanation for why this plague has visited our house. I can think of it in moral terms:

  • How are contingent faculty treated?
  • How are their efforts rewarded?
  • What does justice require when it comes to job security?

In the economic parlance of supply and demand:

  • Can we have any confidence that the number of good faculty jobs will ever be sufficient to employ the ever increasing number of PhD’s? If so, when?
  • If not, when will doctoral programs adjust admissions accordingly?

Or in the idiom of responsibility:

  • What or who is to blame for this mess? Administrative bloat?
  • Have faculty mentors failed to warn potential doctoral candidates about the dearth of “traditional” job opportunities?
  • Are doctoral candidates culpable? Have some believed they would be the one to land that rare good job, and took on debt while doing so? Were they misinformed? Overly confidant? Naïve?
  • What role should learned societies play?

I could go on. Any of us could. Instead, some thoughts on the “Open Letter”:

The AAR’s Position on Contingent Faculty Practices

Though Daley-Bailey refers to the AAR’s “new found commitment to contingency,” I was dismayed she was unable to make a specific reference to the document in which that commitment is stated. For the last couple of years, the AAR has supported the work of a Contingent Faculty Task Force. That group drafted a statement that was edited by a number of members and formally adopted by the AAR Board of Directors in September 2015. You can find the document here:

From my perspective, the document is strong: It underlines our concern about contingent faculty trends and about the complex ethics of this dilemma, and makes detailed recommendations about practices we believe should inform and govern the hiring and retention of contingent faculty members. In addition to adopting the statement and featuring it on our website, we recently sent it to our department chairs list for their consideration. Reactions to the statement demonstrate that some departments have already adopted these or similar practices, and that others are woefully behind.

The Character and Capabilities of Learned Societies

Prior to making her recommendations, Daley-Bailey reports that she began to “ponder the role that the AAR plays within the academic study of religion and American society at large. I wondered what kind of organization the AAR is, precisely.” Great questions; I ponder them every day.

The AAR is a 501(c)(3) organization – a “not for profit” – incorporated in the State of Georgia and recognized by the Internal Revenue Service. The focus of our Academy is on higher education, and more specifically on the study of religion, as outlined in our Statements of Mission, Purpose, and Values, which can be viewed here:

Daley-Bailey is correct: sometimes members and others refer to our organization as a “guild.” We are a voluntary society of experts in the broad field of religious studies. We gather for mutual support and advocate for our field. But unlike archetypal guilds of old, our power to effect change is constrained. We can adopt statements like the Contingent Faculty Practices or others regarding Academic Freedom, Best Practices for the Posting of Graduation and Placement Records, or Best Practices for Academic Job Offers, all of which are here:

But we have little power or authority to enforce them. To be sure, in some sense our members shape our field (or better, our fields) with new discoveries or interpretations. But that shaping rests on their scholarship, not on some power inherent to our Academy. In my view, if we want to press the term “guild” onto an entity, we should apply it not to learned societies but to colleges and universities. They control who is admitted to the guild (via admission policies), who gets to serve it (via job searches and placements), and who gets to stay and for how long (via tenure and promotion protocols). We are happy to provide advice about these processes and to advocate for our members, but educational institutions have much of the power to bring about change. With that caution about our power, however, what Daley-Bailey recommends are, in fact, things largely in our control. Let me take them up ad seriatim.

Recommendation One: Discontinue Obfuscation of the Data

You would not expect me to say that the AAR is obfuscating data. I won’t disappoint you, because I do not believe we are doing so. Daley-Bailey raises two important issues. First, she is troubled by what she sees as our lack of collaboration with the Coalition on the Academic Workforce. Yes, we were one of the early members of CAW. We have featured its work at our Annual Meeting and promoted its reports in our newsletters. In recent months I have wondered if AAR should rejuvenate its collaboration with CAW, only to discover that the work of CAW has slowed. Unfortunately, coalitions tend to wax and wane in their strength and activity. As can be seen at the CAW website, the last CAW report dates from June 2012 and some of the other reports to which CAW has linked are quite old. There have been fewer conference calls (the main vehicle of communication among the participant organizations) and the research activity has been reduced. Given this situation, the AAR has focused its energy on creating and supporting our own Contingency Faculty Task Force. If CAW becomes re-energized, we may find ourselves more involved once again.

Second, Daley-Bailey is unhappy with our annual jobs report. She and I concur on one point. As she notes, “Now to be fair, this set of data is about job advertisements listed by the AAR and the SBL and thereby reflects a very specific niche of the academic job market. It doesn’t claim to reflect the entire spectrum of employment in the field. This service does not deal in the adjunct market.” Agreed. Our jobs report is carefully circumscribed, and we have never offered it as a panacea or as evidence for particular trends in the national job market. We quietly rejoice when our job postings increase, and we share incredulity when a job ad receives 900 applications. (That astonishing number is a clear outlier in our data. From AY08 through AY13, our data show an average of 58.7 applications per position. Data for individual years is here:

We acknowledge that the overall market – thanks to reliable data gathered by CAW and others – is very grim. In a lousy job market, our goal has been to make our Employment Center as accessible as possible to employers and as useful and comfortable as possible to candidates. We can change some things (and have), but how many jobs are available is not one of them. (One idea we are exploring: Solicit job postings outside the traditional “academy,” in foundations, museums, NGOs, and so forth. Such a move would entail that all of us make the case that a person with advanced training in religious studies can be extremely effective in such an employment setting.) In the future, I will ask my colleagues who prepare this report to underline, more than in the past, that our jobs data does not cover all the hiring activity in religious studies, and that it has no statistical predictive power. It is about the AAR SBL Employment Services only.

I am sure we have failed to fulfill our mission at times, but in this instance (the statistical representation of the jobs featured in our Employment Center) I think we have been truthful and transparent, and thus have worked for, not against, our members.

Recommendation Two: Make a Policy Statement that Addresses Adjunctification

We have done so. As I note above, my sense is that ours is a robust and comprehensive statement. In fairness, our Statement on Contingent Faculty Practices was adopted in September 2015 and added to our website in October. Daley-Bailey may not have been aware of its existence at the time of her writing. 

Recommendation Three: Adjust AAR Membership Fees and Allow Monthly Payment

Let me take the second part of this recommendation first. Our staff accountants work tirelessly to make sure that AAR finances are handled properly. One of their constant concerns, and one that keeps or Membership Director awake at night, is to make sure we collect and acknowledge member dues accurately. With our calendar-year system, based on self-reporting income, things get complicated. When a new calendar year rolls around, unless a member has already paid for the new membership year, he or she becomes a “former member.” So we wait for members to renew. Many do not renew until quite late in the calendar year – often in relation to the Annual Meeting. As we wait, we have to answer questions that seem mundane but are not: Who gets JAAR? Who gets access to the website? To whom should we email newsletters? Who is eligible for other member benefits? We spend lots of time on this. I did not realize other societies offered monthly memberships. But for the AAR, this would be nearly impossible to administer.

As to Membership Fees, we have a complicated history of working on this, and have recently begun thinking about making additional changes. At one time, the AAR membership fee structure had eighteen different member-income categories. Several years ago we decided to simplify the structure to the current six income-level structure (with a couple of additional adjustments for international members.) To reform the old structure, we had to compress some of the income categories, and this led to an enlargement of the range of incomes at every level – perhaps most especially at the bottom. Now that we have taken a more active interest in the contingent questions, and now that we are facing what we have long anticipated – a decline in the number of student memberships – we have begun conversations about easing rates on the lower end, and likely raising them on the upper end. We recently received the final report from our Membership Task Force, and this was a part of its deliberations. Our staff has begun modeling what a revised structure might look like. I think Daley-Bailey is correct when it comes to dues, and our members can expect some changes. These would likely kick in at start of the 2017 calendar year, but perhaps we can made some lower-end adjustments sooner than that.

One final note about dues: I greatly appreciate the effort that Daley-Bailey put into her AAR/MLA/AAUP comparisons. This is a good place to start; our staff does these sorts of comparisons on a regular basis. But over the years we have learned to temper our expectations, at least a bit, regarding the ultimate utility of such comparative work. As it turns out, the comparison of learned societies is not an apples-to-apples affair. At its most basic, this works at two levels. The first is sheer size: The MLA has 26,000 members; the AAUP has 40,000; the AAR has 8,500. In the case of the AAUP, the organization also has a foundation devoted to the support of its work. Larger membership numbers translate into increased financial capacity. Larger groups can leverage their size to benefit their members for less cost per member than smaller ones can. Indeed, among our sibling societies in the American Council of Learned Societies, the AAR is considered large. Just as MLA or AAUP has a capacity greater than the AAR’s, the AAR has greater capacity than many smaller ACLS groups. The second factor has to do with member benefits. Some societies, notably the AAR, bundle benefits. Annual dues give everyone the same thing: In our case, a paper subscription to JAAR, access to the website, reduced Annual Meeting registration, and so on. Other societies work on a cafeteria model. A member pays a fee to join and an additional fee to get a particular journal, belong to a subgroup, and so forth. So while the comparisons are interesting, they sometimes mask fundamental differences.

Recommendation Four: Rethink Conference Fees

We do so regularly. When AAR and SBL set the fees for the Annual Meeting we do so having made comparisons with our siblings among learned societies. We try to stage the important events in our yearly cycle (Call For Papers, Selection of Panels and Sessions, Early Bird Rates, and such) in a way that allows members to save money by setting plans sooner rather than later. These considerations are a regular feature of our planning.

In outline, here is how the pricing works in the meetings industry (yes, that is the best expression to use!) We hire a company to represent us and negotiate with Convention/Visitor Bureaus, Hotels, and Convention Centers. In this we have several advantages: Our meeting size (typically 10,000 for concurrent AAR/SBL Annual Meetings, which translates into good rates); our meeting dates (the weekend before Thanksgiving is not a great weekend for hotels, and we take advantage of this); our track record (we are uncommonly good at meeting our hotel “room block” commitments; we have never missed a target). Typically, the negotiations take into consideration the cost of a single room night, the cost of additional meeting or convention space, the accessibility of a city by air (something entirely outside our control), and the number of other perks we can get. All this goes into the deal we are able to get for hotel room rates.

Our registration fees are based on different considerations, all having to do with hotel or convention center ancillary costs. Remember those shuttle buses in Chicago in 2012? They cost us $225,000 – after a 25% discount we negotiated. Audio Visual costs are staggering: AAR’s share of the AV bill last year in Atlanta was in excess of $180,000. The cost of Internet access in the San Diego Convention Center: $30,000 for five days. It costs us about $60,000 to manage the book exhibit, and almost $30,000 for the receptions we hold for our Committees and other groups. I do not want to whine or take a defensive posture, but I think the average member does not realize what sort of infrastructure a meeting like ours requires. Add these costs up, spread them over those in attendance, and registration fees grow.

That said, we continue to seek ways to reduce costs, especially for members with access to fewer financial resources. Last year, we decided to eliminate the candidate fee for use of the Employment Center. We added the Travel Grants program, aimed to assist the same group of members (more on that below). And, just as in the case of membership dues, in recent months we have been giving additional consideration to keeping registration fees as low as we can. As it happens, we have begun a new round of negotiations with cities for the years beyond 2021, and all of these questions will be revisited.

Recommendation Five: Having a Patron Shouldn’t Be Patronizing

Of course. In our attempt to make our Travel Grants Program fit into the universe of “scholarships,” we may have overcooked our requirements. With this in mind, we are now setting up the jury that reviews the applications and will likely revise and or streamline the application process. Patronizing? Maybe, but inadvertently and regretfully. “Infantilizing?” I think not. As to our intended target population, Daley-Bailey is correct: We do not intend these Grants only for contingent faculty. Graduate students and independent scholars get onto the program, often with little financial support. We wanted to assist them as well.

My Recommendations

I can add some of my own recommendations to Daley-Bailey’s list, not for consideration by the AAR administration, but for its members (especially those at the senior level):

  1. Study the AAR’s Statement on Contingent Faculty Practices. To the extent to which you feel “safe,” share it with the Chairs, Deans, and Provosts at the school at which you study or teach. If they are observing these “best practices,” applaud them. If they are not, ask why and see if you can engage your school’s leadership in a constructive conversation about the use of contingent labor. In recommending this, I remind myself of the “safe” qualifier: Many of the folks about whom I am writing feel vulnerable, expendable, or otherwise endangered. We are not asking them to fix the system. The fix (to the extent that such is possible) should begin with their tenured and tenure-track colleagues.
  1. Take a look at the AAR’s Best Practices for Academic Job Offers and Best Practices for Posting of Graduation and Placement Records. We think these guidelines would go a long way toward making job market realities transparent. If you agree, and are in a position to raise your voice, write another email to your Chair asking about their plans to adopt these best practices.
  1. If you are a senior AAR member who lives at the top of our income categories, and if you care about supporting underfunded adjunct, contingent, and student members, make a donation to our Travel Grants Award program. Every dollar you give will go directly and entirely to struggling scholars. You can make such a gift here:

Kate Daley-Bailey raises a number of good questions. I am not sure I have addressed them all in the manner they deserve, but hope that these brief responses will become part of a larger conversation about the realities of the situation we all face.

This entry was posted in Editorial and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *