05 June 2015

These Deck Chairs Aren't Going to Rearrange Themselves

As commenters have been pointing out, the teaching-intensive tenure track is already a thing: at any number of non-R1 institutions, tenure is already based on teaching.  But as Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth emphasize, it is also the norm at many institutions for the heavy-lifting of a department's teaching workload to be performed by contingent employees who lack livable salaries, job security, benefits, a voice in their departments, procedures for evaluation and promotion, and institutional recognition.  And then of course there are a lot of institutions making unwieldy and incoherent compromises between those two extremes.  Issues of department service and governance are particularly vexed: the self evident truth that "shared governance" ought to give those fulfilling an institution's mission a voice is at odds with the hierarchical boundaries that define academic life.

As public support for the liberal arts diminishes, tenure comes under attack, online teaching is valorized as a cost-saving measure, and institutions increasingly replace tenured lines with contingent faculty, the issue of extending tenure seems, well, academic.  In fact, the question is not, "are better conditions for teaching faculty a good thing?" but "how can we ensure that the people tasked with providing instruction in higher education are qualified to do it, afforded the protections they need to do it well (including academic freedom, grievance procedures, and long-term contracts), and compensated appropriately?"  A re-tooled tenure process would be a lovely answer to that question, but it's hard to see how the political will (much less leverage) to bring it about is likely to emerge.

Instead, what we'll have to work with is varying degrees of contingency.  My department recently took some steps in the direction Berube and Ruth have sketched out.  A committee of tenure- and non-tenure-stream faculty (including faculty members with relevant administrative appointments) put together, in response to prompting from our Provost, procedures for hiring, evaluating, and promoting full-time contingent faculty members.  Our department has, for many years now, had a fairly entrenched and stable cohort of such faculty, mostly assigned to teach required composition classes.  A departing college-level administrator had previously put in place a livable salary scale to gild her legacy, so the details to be worked out mostly involved the conditions under which contingent faculty could be granted long-term contracts and the creation of a system of annual review where there had been none before.  It has been a gratifyingly collegial process, and we are well on the way to replacing a series of unstable and ad hoc arrangements with a fair and respectful system.

Note, however, that these developments emerged against a backdrop of contingent faculty unionizing.  CFA Local #6546 formed in May of 2014 at the culmination of a card drive, The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board certified the union in July 2014 (all full-time non-tenure-stream faculty, excluding those in Law, Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine).  In August, the University of Illinois administration announced that it was challenging union certification in court. The details of the ensuing court battles--over both union certification and collective bargaining--can be found here. The Illinois Supreme Court has unassailably confirmed union certification; collective bargaining, however, lurches along inconclusively.

Does the leverage that earns contingent faculty in English suitable professional working conditions lie in the unionizing effort?  The growing share of writing instruction provided by contingent faculty as graduate programs scale back?  A few actively sympathetic tenured faculty members in key administrative positions within the department?  It's beyond my skill to tease out the causes and effects here.  I will only note that although the provost holds out the possibility of a specifically tenured teaching position, it seems increasingly likely that this chimera will only be available to superstars who are otherwise of value to the university.

The bottom line is that tenure is no longer a bottom line.  The students are there and they need to be taught.  The conditions under which we teach them will depend on the kinds of administrators we work with at various institutional levels and the pressure we can bring to bear on our institutions, not on the kind of elegant schemes we can create to sustain old hierarchies.


  1. Getting a union contract is a long and arduous process, but it can protect faculty better than tenure. Trustees can't mess with it and grievance procedures protect more robustly than faculty governance, in many cases.

  2. Except when the governor and legislators pass laws making unions for state employees useless (as in Wisconsin a few years ago).