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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Remaking the Public U’s Professoriate

by Jennifer Ruth,  Portland State University

I’ve written before about my experiences at Portland State for Remaking the University. I’ve described effortsmy colleagues and I made to increase tenure-line positions. I’ve explored whythese kinds of efforts are difficult to coordinate and sustain in environments already reliant on non-tenure-track (NTT) instruction. Some of the readers have agreed with me that those of us with tenure should use it to refuse to grow through precarity. They then have taken the next necessary step—a hard look at the numbers. (See, in particular, Matthew H. Clark’s excellent comment on the math at the bottom of thispost.) They ask, as we all must: How realistic is it to push for a return to a majority tenure-line workforce at the typical public university?

At Portland State, as at many other state universities across the nation, we have what is now being breezily referred to as “the faculty mix”: tenure-track (TT), full-time non-tenure track (NTT), and part-time or adjunct faculty. Full-time NTT faculty members are involved in governance and service; adjuncts are not. The involvement of the former is an acknowledgment of a reality that has obtained for at least two decades: though on one-to-three-year contracts, these faculty members are permanent. Now, as we’ve steadily grown our third workforce, the adjunct faculty, it too is arguably as permanent. I’ve discussed before thenumbers behind Portland State’s economic dependence on faculty originally often hired as if they were stop-gap. I don’t have access to all the university numbers so I can’t say how much money would be liberated for faculty hiring were administrator salaries and real estate purchases to eat up less of the budget. I do think, however, that it is fair to say that we cannot afford one tenure track composed of positions bundling research, teaching, and service. I think it is equally fair to say that we can afford two tracks.

In our forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, Michael Bérubé and I call on universities like Portland State to create a tenure track for full-time faculty hired and promoted on the basis of excellence in teaching, and require that the vast majority of faculty be hired onto this track if not hired onto the other research/teaching tenure track. As a boundary, part-time adjunct instruction should account then for no more than 10% of student credit hours a term. The ratio of teaching-intensive faculty to research-and-teaching faculty will depend on many variables, and no doubt the relative size of the two tracks will vary greatly from university to university. The important thing in our minds is that both tracks confer eligibility for tenure after rigorous review. Universities will improve the teaching their students receive—there will be more accountability, not less, in such a system–and they will strengthen faculty involvement in service and governance. It is this last area of faculty work—service and governance—that has most convinced us of the necessity of tenure eligibility for all full-time faculty at universities.

Some people argue that universities should implement rolling contracts for non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty. We do not believe that this is sufficient: multi-year contracts do not provide meaningful academic freedom. In a recent essay in Inside Higher Ed, Michael Bérubé quotes Don Eron, a long-term contingent faculty member at the University of Colorado at Boulder and member of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, who says, “Multiyear contracts are guaranteed to keep a faculty docile. Having to constantly reapply for one's job actively discourages the academic freedom that tenure is designed to protect.” The comment thread trailing Michael’s essay affirms Eron’s point. Quoting Michael on the catch-22 of NTT faculty in governance (vulnerable if you do it, vulnerable if you don’t), one commenter stated, “Uhh... there are full time faculty on one-year contracts doing committee and Faculty Senate work on our campus. That cow left the barn a decade ago.” Someone then responded: “yes, i [sic] am one of them - and I think twice before I say anything on the committee because i [sic] don't want to lose my job actually- Berube has it right.”

Time and again, I’ve seen governance dynamics sour when committees operate on the implicit pretense that TT and NTT faculty have the same degree of security with which to deliberate on issues. Awkward, failed committee work is often attributed after the fact to TT faculty’s arrogance and insensitivity to NTT faculty vulnerability. This no doubt is a factor in some places and at some times, but in my experience, the situation is untenable because everyone in the room becomes painfully aware of the power differentials warping the discussion’s outcome. In these environments, nobody feels free to say what she or he thinks—the TT faculty for fear of looking like a bully, the NTT faculty for fear of repercussions for their future.

At Portland State University, I currently serve on a “Faculty Roles and Structure” topic team, a kind of subcommittee of a university-wide strategic planning committee. Last week, two of us from the topic team—myself (a long-time TT faculty member) and a colleague from another department (a long-time NTT faculty member)—had a meeting with a staff member from the President’s office to discuss scheduling and other logistics. We found ourselves telling her that there was something extraordinarily naïve about putting a bunch of strangers of different ranks into one room and expecting us to walk out with a coherent set of recommendations concerning the faculty mix. My colleague told the staff person she should consider the university a country club circa 1950: the TT faculty members are the elite and NTT faculty, the excluded.

And TT faculty concerns are real, too. The sometimes casual hiring of NTT faculty, some of whom do not have terminal degrees, has led to a situation in which some TT faculty are uneasy throwing governance open to all faculty. They worry that people who have not gone through the entire training process of the discipline—which includes not only the earning of the terminal degree in their fields (typically, the Phd or MFA) but the work involved in competitive searches —may not be well-equipped to promote and preserve disciplinary standards. Additionally, TT faculty are not slighting their NTT colleagues when they worry that growing groups of faculty involved in governance without job security weakens the faculty’s aggregate ability to enter into shared governance with administrators as equals.

Tenure not only provides a degree of independence that multi-year contracts don’t; the hiring and evaluation processes are legitimating in and of themselves. One feels a lot less vulnerable when many different people and stages were involved in one’s hiring and retention than when one or two people were. Another commenter on the IHE thread following Michael’s article wrote, “At my school, there are numerous adjuncts with MAs who simply got their job because they live in the area and know the right people - a patronage system. However great their teaching evals , this practice is deprofessionalizing our profession.” The last thirty years of off-track hiring, Adriana Kezar and Daniel Maxey argue in “Adapting by Design,” now threatens the “core of our educational mission and the status of the academic profession.” This cannot be construed as an insult to NTT faculty when it is very patently the resulting institutional dysfunction, not the unprofessionalism of individuals, that has pushed us off our ivy-covered brick walls.

Many administrators will argue that they turned to faculty with higher courseloads to survive when states divested from higher education. Okay, we can answer, but you can and must find the money for a full-time teaching-intensive tenure track composed of positions with comparable salaries and equal benefits. With a teaching-intensive tenure track, we establish a credible degree of equality and legitimation and protect academic freedom. And we treat the profession of college teaching with the dignity it deserves.


Bob Samuels said...

Tenure has not protected the academic freedom or shared governance of most of the faculty. Tenure has not prevented the growth of administrative control or the growing cost of administration. Most importantly, tenure has not protected the quality of education by fighting the expansion of class sizes and the use of multiple-choice tests. It has not prevented subsidies for athletics or the commodification of knowledge. At times, unions have taken on most of these issues because unions are collective and not fundamentally individual-based. At the UC, the non-tenured faculty have negotiated over class size, shared governance, administrative control, and academic quality.

It is important to stress that in the UC system, the tenure-track faculty are not unionized, and the non-tenure-track are unionized. Instead of tenure, the unionized faculty have due process, continuing appointments after six years, and a collective agreement, which is far from perfect, but does allow us to negotiate with the administrative from a certain position of collective power. Moreover, in this system, the tenured faculty are often in a relation of structural opposition with the non-tenure track faculty. We have been told that the tenure track faculty do not have the time to review or evaluate the non-tenure-track faculty, and that due to the decrease in course load for professors in some programs, we are unable to control our own workload. Making matters worse, the free agent tenured faculty often make private deals with administrators for higher salaries and lower course loads, and this system creates collusion between the tenured faculty and the administration. Since tenure is for the most part an individual protection, it feeds into a careerist logic, while a unionized full-time non-tenure-track system is more of a collective system. The tenure review process also breeds conformity, rankism, and isolation.

For far too long, unions and associations have used a “tenure or nothing” strategy to avoid organizing non-tenure-track faculty, but this is beginning to change. Unionized full-time non-tenure track faculty can protect academic freedom and shared governance as a collective right and not as an individual freedom. What tenure faculty can do is to support the inclusion of non-tenure-track faculty in shared governance and the right of all faculty to unionized.

Chris Newfield said...

so I think you're agreeing with Jennifer about expanding tenure? That said, you've just written the best short statement I've seen about the weakness of tenure as a source of collective faculty strength. It would be great if faculty would read it and think about the extent to which tenure and deprofessionalization readily coexist (Jennifer brings this up in the post). The same goes for tenure's failure to enable faculty's professional authority on educational quality, which is now largely defined by networks of consultants, think tanks, journalists, and non-teaching administrators. I still see tenure as a necessary condition for most professionals to try to define their research and teaching conditions, since they are not raised into trade union forms of solidarity and the latter has liabilities as well. But your comment makes clear how far it is from being a sufficient condition.

Jennifer Ruth said...

Thanks Bob and Chris. Your comment, Bob, is very helpful in forcing me to think through the downsides of tenure. I agree with all of what you say while maintaing my sense that the tenure system remains indispensable, and this for a few reasons, one of which, ironically, is the same reason it's a problem--because it does have an individual component to it and so allows some independent positions rather than defaulting to positions that have to be articulated so as to appeal to an entire constituency (union members).

Your comment got me thinking about my own trajectory: I started out trying to build a strong force of people across many departments to fight the erosion of tenure. It worked pretty well when it was a loose coalition taking on broad policies and initiatives (such as, pressuring the administration to change a number of newly created positions that were to span a number of departments from full-time NTT positions to TT positions). Trying to do it within one department was brutal and I got a lesson in exactly what you describe: careerism, self-interest, etc. Perhaps as a direct or indirect result of that disillusioning lesson, I have found myself lobbying PSU administrators directly for change-- thus, my willingness to serve on things like university-wide strategic planning committees. The limitations of this approach are obvious: we are at the mercy of administrators. Further, the only reason that I get as much of a hearing with administrators as I do is that our union -- which combines TT and full-time NTT -- threatened to strike last year and these administrators had to admit to themselves what they were long unwilling to admit: the faculty are unhappy with many aspects of the university and the faculty can make life difficult for you. Because of this, they now understand that they should *want* faculty to feel empowered in shared governance, if only so that faculty don't feel they have to take more dramatic routes to be heard.

So I agree with you: the culture shaped by the tenure system has been manifestly unable to fend off deprofessionalization (in many forms). Creating a teaching-intensive track to professionalize jobs that are now exploitative and unsustainable and lacking in academic freedom would not eliminate the need for unions. It would, though, strengthen all individual voices in service and governance. The situation you describe sounds like one in which TT faculty have a voice in governance as individuals but NTT faculty primarily have power through the union. It'd be far better, I'd think, to have two tenure tracks so that all faculty have power both as individuals and collectively as members of the union.

Bob Samuels said...

I think tenure will not die, but it will be used mostly for middle management people (chairs, writing programs administrators) and entrepreneurial people (grant supported, self-supporting programs) and some private elite institutions. This change does not promote collective issues. It will be unions or something like unions, which hold out the only hope. Since the biggest growth in academic labor is for people outside of the tenure system, and Yeshiva does not block organizing contingent faculty at privates, the growth as we are currently seeing is in unionized non-tenure-track as a revolution from below (SEIU). These efforts could also help to democratize unions from below, which would be a very good thing. I see no other possible path to improvement. Begging for more tenure-track lines always comes off as self-serving and feeds into the public and political perception that tenure only protects individuals and does little for society. There can be some individual improvements at individual institutions, but we have a regional and national academic labor system, which requires regional and national organizing, like the SEIU Metro strategy.

The other major problem with the history of tenure is that it has been coupled with the exploitation of graduate students as part-time faculty. For K-12 and community college, tenure may still be the best system, but at research universities and institutions copying research institutions, tenure is a big part of the problem. Protected individuals do not see how they are living off of a system of labor exploitation, and many professors have helped to construct and maintain the careerist model where academic freedom transforms into libertarian anti-collectivism. As in the rest of the culture, a meritocracy has reverted back to a partial aristocracy, and we see this in the academic obsession with rankings, ratings, titles, and other elitist markers. In the example of trying to change the job status of people in a particular program, of course it turns into a war of all against all because there is no collective structure or culture. Just because collective action and social consciousness has been demonized by neoliberalism, we do not have to cave to the individualistic free agent model.

Jennifer Ruth said...

One does not-- as I explicitly did not-- demonize collective action and social consciousness when one also wants some form of institutionalized way for the minority view, or the individual, to be tolerated. You suggest here that democratizing the unions from below would be a good thing--an implicit acknowledgement that group-driven politics can have their own downsides?

I don't see how fighting (or begging, however you want to characterize it, and it is both) for more tenure lines is self-serving. TT faculty who are fighting for TT lines are not fighting for themselves in any sense that it is not stretched beyond meaning. Nor is it some form of corporate body power, wherein each tenured individual gains by the growth of the group. They are fighting for more people to be able to do their work -- whether research, service, teaching -- from a position of independence.

The critique of the academy as a meritocracy is necessary but it's necessary from two (or more) angles: 1) the hierarchy now is arbitrary because many off-track hires are as qualified as on-track ones; and 2) universities have to account for the way that bypassing the tenure system in such great numbers has led to another kind of arbitrariness -- a patronage system. We may find it hard to believe that the system is objective any more, given its deterioration, or we may even be someone who believes it never was objective. But it's hard to see how off-track hiring outside the tenure system isn't worse -- fewer people involved, fewer steps makes it harder to disperse responsibility so people are much more likely to feel obliged to a few people rather than vetted by a group and obliged to nobody.

Lastly, the world you describe -- tenure in the hands of a very small administrative group -- is a dismal one. It's hard to imagine how such a world doesn't become much more of an all against all among the non-tenured -- or, worse, factions fairly cynically allying against other factions for survival. If you're lucky enough to have a very strong union, it can protect jobs but a unionized environment without tenure would be as vulnerable to corruption as a non-unionized environment with tenure is. People need protection to make cases that displease others, whether that other is an administrator or the union.

Bob Samuels said...

I think this is an important dialogue, and I hope more people will participate. 1) Every system has positive and negative aspects, and unions tend to follow the model of bureaucratic professionalization, so they have to be democratized from below; 2) if tenure is perceived and often function as protecting individuals, then fighting for more tenure-track lines can be seen as self-serving especially under the current structures and hierarchies; 3) there is a long political debate about the relation between collective organizations and individual actions; I would just say that historically, on the whole, in higher education, tenure has helped to protect specific individuals but has not been effective in combatting systemic changes like casualization, deprofessionalization, rankism, and managerialism; 4) a major problem with meritocracy is that it focuses on the individual as the locus of power and reward and not on groups, also, meritocracy rationalizes our systems of inequality by saying that in a fair system, it is up to the free individual to sink or swim – meritocracy is the bipartisan consensus that supports neoliberal ideology, and higher education is positioned to be the center of the meritocracy; 5) the world I described is clearly the logical extension of current trends, but we can do something to change these trends – I just don’t think tenure for teachers is the best solution because, a) it is very hard to imagine how this movement can be implemented on a national level; b) all of the problems of tenure that I have outlined would still exist; c) we are seeing real movement in the unionization of non-tenure-track faculty now; d) protected full-time non-tenure track lines with due process and a commitment to teaching have proven to be effective and growing and achievable at the bargaining table and administrators have shown a toleration for this position; e) the raging public debate against tenure can be side stepped through FTNTT; and f) I have supported and will continue support tenure for teaching – I just don’t see it as a major, realizable solution. I look forward to see you book with Berube.

Jennifer Ruth said...

@Bob Samuels

Thanks Bob. I appreciate the dialogue. It's hard to anticipate how things are going to play out and with what combination of good and bad consequences. One thing is for sure, and you are right to emphasize this, and Michael and I say this in the book: the unionizing of NTTF is providing the most momentum/energy for change and everyone should support that. There can be no question at this point that tenured faculty shat the bed, during the years in which we had more power to head off deprofessionalization. (Sorry for the crassness. I tried to think of a different expression but I can't shake that one.)

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