Contingency, Irony, Solidarity

Since I began pursing a PhD in 1990 there has been astonishing growth in the hiring of college and university faculty. According the Department of Education (DOE), between 1995 and 2009 the academic workforce has grown by fifty percent. However, ninety percent of those positions were non-tenure-track faculty. As a result, in this fourteen-year period, the percentage of tenure-track faculty has dropped from eighty to under fifty percent. This erosion of tenure-track positions raises a number of challenging questions about higher education, the system of tenure, and the nature of faculty work. For someone like myself, a department chair at a medium-sized public college, the erosion of tenure-track faculty in postsecondary institutions raises other issues as well.

At a recent campus forum that was called to address concerns about the College reductions in the number of courses taught by adjunct faculty, we were asked what we thought the fundamental issues affecting community relations at the College. Forum participants called attention to problems with communication, a lack of respect across staff and faculty groups, and a culture that exploits adjunct faculty. While these things may be true, my response—and some people, I learned later, were surprised by what I said—was to call attention to the failure to understand (and take part in) a culture of shared governance.

My point was that the decisions the institution had made over the past ten or more years were designed to reduce our reliance on adjunct faculty. Contrary to what many claim, however, these decisions were based, at the same time, on valuing the many contributions of adjunct faculty. But the value these contributions were running up against the work we were doing to increase the number of tenure-track lines. In making my case, I reminded my colleagues why active participation in the life of the College is so essential to the work we do to create better working conditions for faculty and learning conditions for students. For everyone who participated in our College’s embrace of a 4-credit course curriculum knew that the change would result in fewer course sections—in fact, the number of course sections would drop by about 25%, or 500 sections each year. Department chairs and other faculty who choose to attend faculty meetings knew that the Provost had made a commitment to hiring a certain number of tenure-track faculty each year, too. In fact, the President had published a letter to the campus that outlined this initiative that would place us among our public liberal arts college peers with at least 2/3 of courses taught by tenure-track faculty. (The initiative from the President’s office was in part a response to a NEASC recommendation following the College’s Self-Study.) From 2006 to the present, in fact, we added 43 new positions—from 181 to 224 tenure-track faculty. This is a trajectory that goes against national trends, and I am hopeful that the new administration can sustain these gains.

Yet a friend, who happens to be an adjunct faculty member at the College, noted that hiring more tenure-track faculty would not necessarily improve the College. While I agreed that there is little data to support the institutional initiative to increase the percentage of tenure-track faculty, I disagreed with him that we should be arguing for temporary and non-benefitted positions. Though in disagreeing I found my way to the question I was facing as tenured member of the faculty and a department chair: can one value adjunct faculty at the same time one is working to diminish the number of adjuncts at the College?

Perhaps the best answer is yes and no. One the one hand, increasing the number of tenure-track faculty is important for a number of reasons: 1) we end up advocating with the administration for more stable positions with competitive salaries and benefits; 2) we endorse the mutually constitutive relations between scholarship and teaching by making scholarly work a contractural obligation for faculty on the tenure track; and 3) we hire faculty from a national pool of applicants with a terminal degree and with different expectations for teaching and advising, scholarship, and service. On the other hand, in making decisions to cut adjunct lines, and reduce long-serving adjunct faculty from full- to part-time positions, we are actors in a system that offers little employment stability to those who do not have a tenure-track position and who have chosen to take a job as an adjunct.

Increasing the number of tenure-track faculty is important. Our collective bargaining agreement specifies that tenure-track faculty will generally teach 24 credit hours per academic year and may be assigned a maximum of 21 advisees; engage in ongoing study and professional development, participation in professional organizations, work with campus committees; spend hours spent mentoring students as well as evaluating their work; undertake activities supporting quality teaching that may include setting up and breaking down labs, ordering and inventorying supplies, maintaining equipment, supervising student assistants, and coordinating multi-section courses and other dimensions of academic programs. We need people do do this work so that we can do this work well.

From the standpoint of shared governance, a higher percentage of tenure-track positions allows us to move beyond a stakeholder model of governance to an actual model in which the faculty accept both the authority and the primary responsibility to reach decisions in our areas of expertise, including the shape of the curriculum, our subject matter and our methods of instruction, the nature of our research, and the dimensions of student life that intersect with the educational process. Instead of functioning as employees of the institution, then, the faculty is recognized as a body of professionals with specialized training and knowledge who are in turn uniquely qualified to exercise decision-making authority. In identifying the understanding of roles faculty must assume in a genuine system of shared governance I was also making a case that many of my adjunct faculty colleagues are not prepared to make: an argument based on participation in and understanding of the structures and  systems in particular educational institutions; and an argument based on an understanding of the kinds of decisions that involve the implementation of long-term institutional goals.

I’ll continue to do my best to make with these decisions in a transparent, compassionate and respectful way. Yet it is neither simple nor easy when I am sharing difficult news with an adjunct faculty member in my own department whose work has for many years benefited our students and whose professional competence I deeply respect.

4 Replies to “Contingency, Irony, Solidarity”

  1. Although some may disagree, I think reducing the number of adjunct teaching positions is actually a good thing. It hurts in the short term, but in the long run it will strengthen your department and save many from exploitation (even if that exploitation is facilitated by acquiescence). In fact, I believe there should be very few positions that resemble what we now call adjuncts. Instead, I would like to see these positions upgraded to (at the very least) annually contracted positions. A multi-year “teaching track” contract would be even better.

    I also think it’s only fair to:
    1) Interview and seriously consider your current adjuncts for these new TT positions
    2) The adjuncts who survive the culling process should be paid a respectable salary. If you have less adjuncts, those you keep deserve to be treated properly.

    Josh Boldt
    Adjunct Project

    1. Hi, Josh, Thank you for this and for the work you are doing to make these issues visible. One of the complicating issues at our institution has been the adjunct faculty union. Before the union was formed, a number of us were attempting to find ways to re-imagine long-term adjunct positions by making them multi-year contract positions. I also talked with my dean more than once about the possibility of creating renewable postdoctoral positions. These ideas were no longer viable, however, when the contract limited the ways we could re-imagine these positions. Another dimension of the problem is that the the collective bargaining agreement has a salary scale tied to seniority. While I fully support the salary scale in theory it has created the impression that the institution values one’s work more as one moves up the salary scale. The problem, of course, is that this is not the case, as the past few years have shown. Contingent means contingent when resources become thin.

      When I first became a department chair a very successful high school teacher with an MA came to me to ask if there were opportunities at the College that would be sufficient for him to conclude his secondary teaching career while staying active as a the work that he loved. At the time, there were opportunities in more than one program, and so I told him that a full-time position looked very likely. I also said to him, though, not to ever think (and he reminded me of the importance of this conversation last year) that the position was permanent or that he could count on the same number of courses in future semesters. Over the years I have had this conversation with a number of the adjunct faculty we have hired, and it has helped people (I have been told) who want to teach not fall into the false premise that becoming a member of the bargaining unit or gaining seniority makes the position necessarily more stable.

  2. I must say that the post itself, while certainly respectful of adjuncts, seems also to angle for a shared-responsibility narrative for the development of the two-tier track in the first place. No doubt this can be said: if, over the past 40 years, no one had ever agreed to take a faculty position that was in any way less than that offered to traditional FTTT faculty, all would be different. So, to that extent, we all can share responsibilty for the process through which reliance on adcons became normal. But that’s not all that satisfying, is it? After serious percentages of FTTT jobs disappeared, it became the reality for higher education and for job seekers that the adcon world was an objective reality. For most, there was, and is, no “holding out” for a traditional position, and if too many were in fact “holding out” the system would grind to a halt. Against this reality-again, 40 years’ worth-it’s hard for me to feel much sympathy with the idea that the system was very often being creatively “re-imagined” from the inside and that, now, adjunct unionization is going to gum up the works. I say this, by the way, in some agreement with Josh Boldt’s idea here that reducing adcon appointments would be a good thing-we can all argue about numbers in specific situations-if it improved the overall situation. But adjunct unionization is probably something we will see more of, and why should limit our re-imagining because of this?

    1. Hi, Alan,

      The Staying Alive project seeks to sustain a dialogue about about individual, professional and institutional challenges so as to move through them rather than to become subject to them. Your thoughtful focus on the long-term and structural changes are useful to this end.

      I appreciate your comment about shared responsibility: I believe it is important, as we think about these issues, that we are honest about the “disappearance” of tenure-track lines. As Joseph Harris pointed out over twenty years ago, and David Bartholomae has recently argued, tenure-track faculty participated in the redefinition of the humanities. In Bartholomae’s words, tenure-track faculty in English, “those who argued for and reaped the rewards of increased support for research,” would do well to remember that the result of choosing not to teach courses in the lower division had consequences. “It was not just done to them (or us),” Bartholomae concludes. “In a sense, our interests and the interests of the institution lined up perfectly” (26). This has happened across the humanities at my college and in fact the tenure-track faculty no longer teach the majority of our first-year writing course. (A situation that I have been working with my colleagues to change so that we can staff courses in a responsible and sustainable way.)
      Also, my point about the union (which I support in principle) was that the seniority system created a short-term amelioration of the problem of low salaries and non-benefited positions without addressing the larger structural problems at the institution.

      This past winter Bartholomae offered a relevant commentary on teaching on and off the tenure track that have helped me to better understand the staffing decisions of my own institution. His reflections followed his work as the chair of the Association of Departments of English (ADE) committee that produced the report Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English.” The Report (2008) makes visible the most recent phase in staffing patterns in higher education: the creation of full-time non-tenure-track lines that offer more attractive and secure positions for qualified job candidates who are unable, uninterested or unwilling to secure a tenure-track position. Indeed, my college is moving in this direction. Last month, I talked with the chair of a study committee (that emerged out of the adjunct faculty contract negotiations) that has been talking about codifying a distinction between teaching and research by creating longer-term renewable positions. These changes will of course be challenging: positions would be consolidated to create career paths with meaningful long-term employment for a fewer number of non-tenure-track faculty; adjunct faculty would be fewer as we continue to increase tenure-track lines; and we would also reduce the number of adjunct faculty by countering the trend of moving tenure-track faculty out of the lower-division courses.

      Staying alive has everything to do with understanding the situation we are in and how that situation came to be. For with such an understanding we can make informed choices about our lives. It is difficult to imagine solutions to problems when one does not have a sense of the situation one is in. My experiences as a faculty member and a department chair have taught me that too often this is the case.

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