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Doing the Right Thing

November 27, 2009

One of the major changes that has occurred since I became a faculty member over 35 years ago is the proliferation of contingent or non-tenure eligible (NTE) faculty on campus.   During this period, we lost a large number of tenure-track faculty.  Why this increase in NTE faculty?   The most important reasons for this given by administrators have been to save money and to provide greater program flexibility.  The increase in NTE faculty has also had some unintended consequences on faculty workloads and on faculty status markers.

NTE faculty teach many more course or course sections per semester than do tenure-track faculty.  Most NTE faculty are poorly paid and hence cost the university much less money than tenure-track faculty.   Administrators have responded to declining budgets by hiring cheaper faculty.   The low pay of many NTE faculty on my campus has been described as disgraceful, and it truly is.  Many NTE faculty teach primarily in introductory courses, but they have also been used to staff off-campus and on-line courses.  One common characteristic of courses taught by NTE faculty is that they are the least desirable courses within a given department or program.   These are the courses that administrators threaten to assign to uncooperative tenure-track faculty as a punishment.

Because of alleged uncertainties in the number of courses or course sections  that will be needed from semester to semester or year to year,  administrators argue that they need the flexibility to hire  NTE faculty as needed.  This argument has little validity.   Although there are situations such as a faculty member going on leave or dying that may require hiring a temporary replacement for a semester or year, most NTE faculty teach the same courses year after year.  In fact, there is not a lot of difference in the number of NTE faculty from one year to another.  I know NTE faculty on my campus who have been teaching the same courses for decades.  Much of the high turnover in NTE faculty is due to poor pay, poor treatment, and poor working conditions, not due to changing course needs.   Unless we stop teaching freshman English, math, foreign languages, etc. , the number of NTE faculty that we need to employ annually is not going to change in the foreseeable future.

In reality, it is not flexibility but salary savings that is responsible for the decline in tenure-track faculty and the increase in NTE faculty.   “Hiring faculty on the basis of the lowest labor cost and without professional working conditions” represents a “disinvestment” in the university and “in the nation’s intellectual capital” as noted in a recent AAUP report (Conversion of Appointments to the Tenure Track (2009)).  The number of NTE faculty varies considerably by department, and their roles in departments also vary.  One of the unintended consequences has been that in some departments NTE faculty are on track to become  the majority of the faculty.   This increases the workload of the remaining tenure-track faculty who have to take on more of the service load (primarily committee work) of the department.  Because NTE faculty feel that they do not have academic freedom, they are unwilling to speak up on controversial issues at department and college  meetings   This complicates all decision-making within departments with large number of NTE faculty because hallway conversations have become more important than faculty meetings.

For those lucky enough to be tenure-track faculty, tenure has become an increasingly important status symbol, as it is to administrators who are drawn exclusively from the tenure-track faculty.   Tenure-track faculty do not want to see the status of tenure reduced by giving NTE faculty tenure or its equivalent.  Tenure-track faculty argue that they were recruited after a national search and a comprehensive interview process.  They claim to be  the most qualified people in their fields.  NTE faculty are believed to be drawn only from local pools of people who were not good enough to get tenure here or elsewhere, ignoring the fact that many of these people are spouses.  The reality is that many NTE faculty are hired as a result of national searches.  The real issue is not credentials or hiring criteria, it is the prestige associated increasingly with research.  Tenure-track faculty are expected to do research.  Having tenure has become the most important status marker for research faculty.   Being a researcher entitles you to tenure, being a teacher does not.

The low status of teaching at research universities is not new, and it continues to decline.  When I was hired, it was well understood by starting assistant professors that you could only get tenure based on your research productivity.  Your teaching just had to be  competent — not a very high bar to clear.  However, over the intervening years, there has been a change in what it means to be a productive researcher.   Publish or perish has been replaced with get large grants or perish.  Research faculty are valued increasingly because they bring money to the university.  Tenure-track faculty now equals research faculty, and research faculty is linked to  indirect cost recovery (cash they can spend) in the minds of administrators.  Ironically, teaching, of course, brings in much more money (tuition) than indirect cost recovery.

The AAUP has been worried about the impacts of the increasingly large numbers of NTE faculty at universities for many years.   In a recent report cited above, the AAUP suggested a simple way to solve this problem, give tenure to  NTE faculty who hold what are, in effect, permanent positions.  This obvious solution solves a multitude of problems.   However, there are some major obstacles to its implementation.  The most important of these is not increased costs or decreased flexibility, but the unwillingness of research faculty to share the status associated with tenure with teaching faculty.  Whether they will  be willing to do the right thing and extend tenure to teaching faculty will have a profound impact on the future of American universities.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. gldickson01 permalink
    December 29, 2009 06:25

    As an adjunct/contingent/part-time instructor I found the last two sentences of your post to be the most important. In my mind there are at least three issues at work here: the dwindling resources of public higher education (which we can do nothing about), the reluctance of tenured faculty to share the job security and related benefits with non-tenure eligible faculty, and the the importance of teaching in our colleges and universities.

    The reduced state funding that is currently being experienced by all types of public postsecondary institutions will likely continue for some time. Of course the issue is more than just money; it is also the lack of accountability that tenured faculty seem to possess. Finally, there is the need to achieve certain desired outcomes, which of course is related to accountability, that tenured faculty, in my opinion, have a tendency to ignore.

    The arrogance displayed by tenured faculty at four-year institutions, and in my case the full-time instructors in community colleges is insulting to adjuncts, to administrators, and to the taxpaying public. It is not surprising that tenured research-oriented faculty do not want to relinquish any of the benefits of tenure to those who display quality teaching skills. The “haves” historically have actively resisted giving power to the “have nots” — not just in higher education, but in plenty of other settings and professions.

    This inequity of power is especially evident in community colleges where part-time instructors make up on average 67% of the faculty. At the community college I work at contingent faculty make up more than 70% of the instructor total. Not only do adjuncts not have academic freedom and job security, but we lack representation as well. If nothing else, it is ironic that nearly three-quarters of our faculty do not have representation in the faculty union or have seats on the faculty senate. The same issue of non-representation arises in many four-year colleges where even tenure-track assistant professors get the shaft, as only those with tenure are allowed to sit on the faculty senate.

    No wonder tenured research faculty don’t want teaching faculty to have the same benefits. They have discovered that in many institutions it is much more ego-stoking to have the minority holding the power and the career benefits. As for accountability for academic outcomes, most adjuncts I know are active, experienced professionals who are accustomed to meeting specific performance outcomes and expect to do the same in their collegiate instructional settings. I know of darned few tenured research faculty who could even write a real performance objective.

    Will all this change? Not until the tenured research faculty are forced to recognize the importance of both full-time and part-time teaching adjuncts. Until then, part-time adjuncts will experience a continued pay gap, no academic freedom, and an ongoing existence as invisible academic professionals.

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