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.