A Snapshot of Structural Inequity

[by Carolyn Betensky, Seth Kahn, and Talia Schaffer]


The AAUP just issued its latest analysis of the degradation of labor conditions at American universities and colleges.  Across the academy, from R1 institutions through community colleges, the percentage of faculty who are either on the tenure track or are tenured has decreased to such an extent that (potential) job security, academic freedom, and — frequently — a living wage are perks available to only a minority of us.  The expanded use (we say “use” advisedly) of non-tenure-track faculty is at its most egregious at institutions awarding associates degrees, but it is pervasive at the most prestigious research universities in the nation, as well.  The average percentage of faculty who were part-time or full-time non-tenure-track instructors was no less than 73% in 2016.  These faculty members – defined by different institutions as adjuncts, postdocs, TAs, non-tenure-track faculty, clinical faculty, part-timers, lecturers, instructors, or non-senate colleagues – constitute the overwhelming majority of the academic workforce. Certainly, some institutions are improving their treatment of full-time non-tenure-track faculty, and some faculty prefer to stay off the tenure track; however, neither of these considerations addresses the structural issue: institutions can refuse to commit to their own faculty and refuse to provide minimally decent working conditions.

The consequences of this trend cannot be overstated.  For the institutions themselves, the differential treatment of the majority of their teaching workforce means a lack of cohesion and a growing sense of resentment among the majority of instructors.  Faculty teaching under precarious conditions of employment are often excellent and beloved instructors, but if they must teach on multiple campuses or teach more courses than the tenure-stream minority, their ability to offer individualized attention and mentoring to students is constrained by their lack of time. The fact that they outnumber tenured and tenure-track faculty but are all too often still not considered “real” faculty means that the majority of instructors must endure additional and unquantifiable insults to their professionalism (and frankly, to their humanity). 

American universities and colleges have gradually developed a two-tier system of employment that is both short-sighted and mean-spirited; the fact that it has been thirty years in the making doesn’t mean it is less of either. We are hurting our institutions on many fronts: we are depriving our students of the fullest attentions of those who literally cannot afford to be present to them beyond the classroom, we are turning a blind eye to social injustice, and we are doing real harm to a great number of our colleagues. And, if you wonder who we is in this paragraph, it is anyone who has benefited from the precarity of another faculty member in the name of your professional advancement; anyone who has balanced the books for your department, college, or campus on the backs of faculty who could least afford to fight back; anyone who accepts the increasingly precarious labor conditions in our profession as given, or normal.

The trend toward a contingent instructional workforce has continued through both times of austerity and times of plenty.  Decisions to allocate funds for buildings or climbing walls – or for more highly paid administrators – instead of for paying faculty a living wage and providing benefits are just that: they are decisions, and they cannot go unchallenged.  Currently, most administrations defend the shift away from tenure as if it were inevitable, offering a shifting series of rationales we are all familiar with: austerity because of budget cuts; the need for “workforce flexibility”; responses to  “market demands” (often left unarticulated); and so on. Such economic justifications must be challenged at every turn. Reducing operating costs and responding to managerial preferences (posing as imperatives) cannot justify exploiting your workforce and degrading your institution.

 Adjunct and contingent faculty activists have been sounding the warning for years–not only that their conditions are unjust, but that the tenured–even the whole notion of tenure–are more precarious than we think. It is long past time for us to hear that warning and act in solidarity.

Therefore, the members of Tenure for the Common Good are calling on those of us with job security to demand better for all our colleagues. We need to hold our administrations responsible for their decisions to hire contingent and precarious colleagues. We need to make the point loud and clear that the benefits of increasing precarity are not distributed evenly among faculty, students, and administrations; neither are the harms. Not to put too fine a point on it: the people who benefit from the ongoing casualization of the faculty are few; the people who are harmed most directly–students and faculty (including those of us who are personally secure)–are many.

Tenure for the Common Good organizes tenure-track faculty to fight alongside our contingent and adjunct colleagues. We advocate for local actions at individual institutions, legal actions and unionization. We want to initiate campaigns to shame and put economic pressure on universities who rely on ill-treated contingent faculty. Universities may never go back to a tenure-track norm, but let us imagine the kind of academic future we want – a future where we are all treated with respect and given the basic conditions we all deserve – and work together to make that a reality. We invite our members to join us in the battle to stop the current situation and to start imagining what kinds of work conditions, safeguards, and opportunities can keep American academia flourishing in the twenty-first century.

Make Two Tiers Toast

[This essay by Joe Ramsey was originally published on Facebook, 12 October 2018]

The other day, while walking to my bike after 4 hours of teaching at UMass Boston, I had to walk through one of those fancy catered events in the ISC (our new-spangled Integrated Sciences Center). It was an administration event held to celebrate newly tenured faculty–I could see the power point slides with all the names up on the giant projector screen– complete with what looked to be an open bar, and trays of hot appetizers circulated on the shoulders of workers in black tie. There was a dark curtain I’d never noticed before pulled across the cafe area, dividing the ‘food preparation’ area from the ‘fancy event’ area. Workers scrambled in the back, as folks in front lifted glasses of well-earned wine–toasting their colleagues.

Suddenly something hit me. This deep gross ambivalence in my gut. Here was a room full of my colleagues, an event celebrating academic achievement, teaching and research and service and so many things that I hold in high esteem. No doubt I would be among the first to celebrate the work so many of these folks had done to earn their cherished laurels. And yet…I felt radically excluded. Like I was walking through a country club to which I was not a member, through an exclusive party to which I had received no invitation. (I’ve gone back and checked; I was not emailed for this one.)

I somehow knew those hot apps weren’t for me.

I flashed back to UMB’s Convocation several weeks past, an event that became notable for the massive protest and petition delivery of our Save UMB Coalition, which interrupted the proceedings for 8 minutes, to make clear to UMass President Marty Meehan, as well as interim Chancellor Katherine Newman, that students, faculty, and staff alike are not going to sit back as parking fees are jacked up to the point where our working-class commuter students are pushed out of our public urban university. I am proud to be part of a place where many folks take ideas about equity and service to the public seriously.

But I flashed not to the demonstration, but to another, less remarkable, moment from that day–another occasion for pomp and circumstance– a moment that came during Katherine Newman’s opening speech, her first formal address to our entire UMass Boston Community. It was a good speech, in many ways, full of statements about the progressive public mission of UMB, and sincere remarks about our sacred commitment to serving our diverse first-generation, low-income, predominantly working-class student body. I found myself agreeing with so much of what she said. Even as I was preparing to stand and protest the parking fee hike, I couldn’t help but be moved by Newman’s speech: so many shared values, so many moving phrases articulated so well.

But then came this. The moment where Newman took time to introduce all the “New Faculty” that were joining us at UMB that year. Each faculty member from each college got a kind, personalized, and detailed introduction from their respective dean at the podium. They stood and we clapped and they were acknowledged, and then they sat, and the next one rose, and so on. Each new faculty member receiving their due.

And here is the thing: there was not one mention of us Non-Tenure track faculty the entire time. Not one mention of us, the newbies or the veterans, not one acknowledgment of the people who compose more than half of the UMB faculty, those who do perhaps 75% of the actual teaching of students at our institution. (Since a full-time NTT person teaches 4 courses per semester to the tenure-track person’s two; contrary to the misnomer, most of us are not “part-time”…we are more often “double-time.”)

Over and over the term “faculty” came off Newman’s lips, and each time it meant not me, not us. It meant only the tenure-stream faculty. Hundreds of hard-working, devoted, degree-holding, self-sacrificing, decades-committed but alas un-tenurable faculty were rendered invisible in the very moment when ostensibly our new chancellor was paying homage to the sacred teaching and research mission of our public urban university.

And another thing hit me:

Here I had just completed an article for Labor Notes on the critical struggle of 1500 local gas workers, who are standing up to National Grid, specifically by refusing to allow their employer to deny future workers the benefits that they themselves had fought for and enjoyed. Before they were locked out, these United Steelworkers expressed a willingness to strike rather than give in to the company’s demands that new hires won’t get the same health benefits and pension package that the current workers get. (See our piece in Labor Notes for the details.)

Since that article appeared, I’ve received a number of nice emails, including some from faculty saying something like “good job with that piece” “good for you for standing up for those locked out workers.” At times it sounds like the kind of writing I was doing was being seen kind of service work or charity for the under-privileged. (Certainly not the kind of thing that wins you tenure these days! :0 )

But then this hit me.

Maybe rather than thinking of ourselves in higher ed as the ones who have something to “give” and “to help” these locked-out gas workers, we should look to them and try to learn something ourselves. Maybe contrary to our self image of being the left and the enlightened ones, we in academia should realize that these workers are the ones who have something to teach US. As Marx put it, maybe “the educators need to be educated.”

To the point: Imagine if the tenured faculty of our profession followed the example of these United Steelworkers and refused to accept the management plan for creating and expanding a two-tier academic labor system. Imagine if tenure folks a generation ago, or those protected by tenure today, saw clearly that by allowing university administrations to create more and more non-tenurable positions–more and more teaching positions without benefits, or livable salaries, or pensions, or academic freedom, or support for research–they were ultimately undermining their own power on campus, as well as the future of their (our!) profession. Imagine if these protected and relatively privileged academic workers had the foresight, the solidarity, and the courage to stand and refuse to disown their present and future colleagues (and students!) coming up behind…

Wouldn’t we be in a radically different place today?

This is why, when I received a note of thanks for our piece from the president of one of the locked out locals, of course I accepted his thanks, but I thanked *him* right back. And then I wrote him this:

“It hit me the other day that those in my own profession of college professors have for over a generation now *failed* to live up to the kind of solidarity that you Steelworkers are showing towards not just one another, but towards the next generation–workers that you don’t even know yet.

“Tenured professors in higher education, with too few exceptions, have failed to stand together, or to fight together for the next generation, as you are doing. And the result has been the creation of a vicious and unfair two-tier system in colleges and universities, where most professors don’t have job security or a fair salary, many don’t have benefits, and some are reduced to relying on food stamps even as they teach at institutions that charge students an arm and a leg. This two-tier system is bad for higher education in general, and even for these tenured profs themselves, who now find their numbers (and thus their power) dwindling (and their service loads rising) in the face of aggressive administrations bent on running colleges like corporations.

“Meanwhile, most of the professors in the USA are scrambling to make ends meet, working at 2 or even 3 institutions at a time, often not knowing where we will be teaching a year from now. It’s a crisis, and in a way, it was enabled when highly ‘educated’ and often ‘brilliant’ professors failed to see what you and your union brothers and sisters are seeing so clearly: that an attack on the future generation is an attack on you as well, and on your profession as a whole, and on the public you serve.”

I am thankful to be at a university where we have a union, one that represents (or tries to!) all faculty on campus, NTT and TT alike, and also to be in a department where I am treated with respect, like an actual colleague–even if my teaching schedule often makes it impossible to attend department meetings! :0. But, let’s be honest, we still have a long way to go–at UMB and beyond. Even here NTTs still have no representation on our Faculty Council, are not eligible for various pockets of travel money (regardless of the research we are doing), and on and on….

But what concerns me most I guess, and where I’d like us to start right now, is with the unacceptable fact that too many of us, even those whom I see as model comrades and allies on so many fronts, often tacitly accept the idea that the two-tiers dividing higher-ed faculty are something natural, to be accepted and adapted to–perhaps ameliorated–rather than something to be abolished.

I look forward to the day when I can toast the tenured accomplishment of *all* my colleagues without a gnawing grossness in my gut.


Strategies for Achieving Equity: How Some Tenured Faculty Have Helped to Transform their Workplaces

Many tenured and tenure-track (“TT”) faculty wonder what we can do to create more equitable working conditions on our campuses.  Here are two accounts of faculty – at a small, private liberal arts college and at a large, public university – who have been successful at doing just that.  The first account details the efforts of faculty at Skidmore to achieve decent working conditions for all. The second describes the process whereby Penn State University faculty reimagined and restructured their system to create protections and far better pay for contingent faculty. 

These examples demonstrate the power of faculty to create change where we live, providing we work together.  They also demonstrate the fact that different campus cultures and structures will call for different approaches to achieving equity among our colleagues. 

If you have a model to share with us from your campus, please contact us and we will be delighted to feature it. 

Case I:  Skidmore College (from Janet Casey)

Here is a summary of strategies we employed and policies we devised at Skidmore, both to offer immediate support to non-TT faculty and to improve non-TT positions in a structural sense.  They may be helpful to other small liberal arts colleges.

First we convened the off-tenure-line faculty as a group to engage in discussion about their expectations, needs, or concerns.  This discussion was mediated by a faculty member whose line had recently been converted to (“TT”).  A report was presented to the Dean.  The results of this work:

In the short term, we:

  • rewrote College policy to allow non-TT faculty to be eligible for teaching awards and faculty development opportunities previously closed to them;
  • persuaded Human Resources to honor non-TT faculty for “years of service” in the annual event that traditionally honored only TT faculty;
  • improved our education of chairs and program directors regarding non-TT hiring;
  • created an online portal for non-TT faculty with materials they might find useful, including:
    • sections of the Faculty Handbook that pertain specifically to non-TT faculty;
    • names and contact information for volunteer mentors on campus, including both TT and non-TT faculty;
    • information about additional teaching opportunities for those who want/need to supplement income;
    • information about Faculty Development opportunities open to non-TT faculty.

In the long term (which took several years), we also:

  • reduced the teaching load of full-time non-TT faculty (formerly 3-3) to match that of TT faculty (3-2);
  • introduced more regular review of non-TT faculty to facilitate conversion to TT lines whenever possible, with multiple conversions resulting (and still ongoing – this was a major culture shift);
  • created Teaching Professor lines with clearly established promotion paths built on codified service and teaching expectations, now held by many of our formerly non-TT faculty.  This required revisiting titles and regularizing evaluation and reappointment proceedings.    


Case II:  Penn State University (from Michael Bérubé)

In March 2016, the Faculty Senate approved the creation of “Fixed-Term Review Committees,” elected by and consisting exclusively of fixed-term (“FT”) faculty, to review FT faculty for promotions (and attendant raises). The administration signed on in September 2016, directing all designated units (that’s complicated, given our 24-campus system, but not important here) to start electing those committees in time for 2017-18. That initiative also created a third tier of promotion for FT faculty beyond that of “senior lecturer,” a category that many of them have occupied for over a decade. Since faculty can be reviewed for promotion only by people in higher ranks, temporary measures were put in place for the review of FT faculty to the third and highest rank until that rank is sufficiently populated with FT faculty.

Last year, the Senate approved a sweeping overhaul of FT faculty titles, designating the three ranks as “lecturer/ assistant teaching (or research) professor/ associate teaching (or research) professor” for people without terminal degrees, and “assistant teaching (or research, etc.) professor/ associate teaching professor/ teaching professor” for people with terminal degrees. This represented a compromise between the people who wanted a single system of designation that did not take degree status into consideration, and the people who did not want faculty without terminal degrees to have professorial titles. Each unit is empowered to determine what counts as a terminal degree, thereby leaving it open for units to consider JDs, MFAs, and LPNs (licensed nurse practitioners) as terminal degrees. (Nursing is somewhat complicated because of the RN degree.)

This year, the Senate proposed that each promotion carry with it a multiyear contract: three years upon promotion to the second tier, five years upon promotion to the third. Last week, the administration came back with language that simply allows each promoted candidate to be considered for a multiyear contract. They insist that FT faculty are paid out of “temporary” funds, and temporary funds cannot be extended beyond three years. We are not happy with that, but the administration says it is open to further negotiation, so further negotiation there shall be. We have already agreed to carve out an exception for FT research faculty funded by grants, because of course their continued employment is dependent on the grant involved.

Welcome to Tenure for the Common Good.

Tenure for the Common Good seeks to rally tenured faculty to use their tenured positions to fight for justice on their own campuses and nationally. We represent a broad spectrum of public and private colleges and universities across the United States.   We aim to work with our already active contingent (adjunct, lecturer, part-time) colleagues to achieve the goal of equity in the academic workplace.  All of us, no matter our academic position, want decent working conditions, job security and academic freedom, health care, and a livable wage. And we want them for everyone.  The exploitation of contingent faculty degrades us all.