"One Faculty" and Academic Governance

Toward a meaningful role in governance for non-tenure-track faculty.
By Nicole Monnier

Hello. My name is Nicole, and I’m a contingent faculty member.

According to data compiled by the AAUP, that makes me part of the majority, a member of a group comprising more than 70 percent of total instructional staff appointments in American higher education today.  

It’s not a majority I choose to embrace. And contingent is not a term I much like, either. I prefer non-tenure-track, in part because it is the term in common currency at my home institution. Unlike tenure- track or tenured, contingent faculty is an umbrella term that includes graduate assistants, instructors of one-off courses, faculty on continuing or multipleyear appointments, and everything else in between. The label can apply to faculty members on part-time or full-time appointments, though most contingent faculty are part time. It can refer to an instructor working at a single institution or one who teaches at two or more institutions. It can refer to someone who by all humane measures should be considered full time but whose appointment depends on how an institution defines a full-time workload. Even worse, and perhaps more typically, it can refer to someone whose de facto full-time work is cobbled together out of two or more officially part-time appointments. Put simply, not all contingent faculty positions are created equal. Not by a long shot. And while some are better than others, they never equal tenured or tenure-track positions in rights and protections.

But perhaps the real reason I don’t like the word contingent is that, ultimately, it defines those of us in that category by our vulnerability. It can encourage fellow faculty members and administrators to see us—and can even lead us to see ourselves—through the lens of that vulnerability, with adverse consequences that go beyond the psychological. For all the bald precision of the term as it relates to our employment status, it makes me, for one, feel more unstable than I think (and hope) I am.

In many ways what I do is stable. I am one of the lucky ones. I have a continuing, promotable, full-time appointment. I teach at an institution where non-tenure-track faculty—with crucial help and support from some of our tenured and tenure-track colleagues and even from some administrators—have successfully lobbied for an increasing number of rights and opportunities once reserved solely for tenure-line faculty, from voting rights to access to research funding.

I’ve been a full-time faculty member here for over sixteen years. For more than a dozen of those I have held a ranked non-tenure-track title. (“Ranked” at my university means “with professorial title.”) Over that time I’ve been promoted from an assistant professor of teaching to a full professor. I’ve been the director of undergraduate studies for my program for fourteen years and served on what feels like countless committees with multiyear appointments. Probably the most significant governance position I have held has been on our faculty council, where I recently finished serving six years as a representative for our campus non-tenure-track teaching faculty. Five of those six years I spent on the executive committee, first as a subcommittee chair, then, in my final year, as vice chair. In 2012–13, when we were advocating for campus-level voting rights for our ranked non-tenure-track faculty, I joked that I was a Canadian, someone who passed as “real” faculty among those who knew me from various campus committee and departmental activities but were unaware of my non-tenure-track status. For what I have done in all of those roles looks—is—generally indistinguishable from what my tenured colleagues do. It amounts to a public display of stability and institutional commitment, if you will.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . that “contingent,” contract-limited status continues to color how I am perceived by faculty colleagues and administrators, in ways both subtle and not so subtle. Let me offer a single, illustrative example. This year my dean decided to incorporate ranked non-tenure-track faculty into the promotion process for non-tenure-track faculty at the divisional level. Under current practice, promotion dossiers for ranked non-tenure-track faculty are reviewed by the college promotion and tenure committee, which consists entirely of tenured full professors. The initial proposal by the divisional policy committee frustrated the dozen non-tenure-track faculty members at full professor rank in the college who were asked to provide feedback. I attribute no malicious intent to the framers of the draft proposal, a group that included a ranked non-tenure-track faculty member, but one of the provisions highlights the unconscious bias that often shapes the treatment of faculty in contingent positions. While the tenured full professors on the current tenure and promotion committee serve three-year terms, the proposal initially designated one-year terms for the full non-tenure-track positions because, the policy committee assumed, we were all on one-year contracts and thus couldn’t serve three-year terms.

The problem isn’t merely the erroneous assumption that we were all on one-year contracts. (Though to be fair, some of us are, for reasons I will address below.) It was that the collective position of a dozen non-tenure-track faculty at the rank of full professor— most of whom had been at the institution for at least twelve years, some with fifteen or more years under our belts—was nonetheless viewed as unstable, contingent. This despite the fact that the group of non-tenure-track faculty included a couple of associate chairs of departments, various program directors, members of divisional and campus standing committees with multiyear terms, and so on, and despite the fact that we were all full professorswhich means that all of us had successfully gone through two rounds of promotions predicated on a record of ongoing contributions and commitment to our departments, college, and university. Somehow, an assumption about the length of our contracts, and the contingency of those contracts, effectively obliterated the demonstrated record of our stability.

The assumption about our contract lengths was also troubling because it revealed a misunderstanding about the opportunities for multiyear and rolling contracts for the non-tenure-track faculty at our institution—a misunderstanding that, however unintentional, serves as an even subtler and, practically speaking, more dangerous means of amplifying the sense of “contingent” in contingent appointments. Chairs and directors who don’t know that they can advocate for longer contracts for their non-tenure-track faculty most likely will not do so.

Academic Freedom and Governance

Here I’d like to turn the conversation away from my institution and toward yours. For, to repurpose Tolstoy’s famous observation concerning unhappy families, all contingent faculty are contingent in their own way. That is, contingent appointments can vary significantly not only from institution to institution, but even within a single institution. Of course, not all tenure-track positions are the same, nor are all tenure-track faculty happy. But while the expectations for research, teaching, and service can vary from one institution to another, there is a far greater agreement about the ways the tenure process should be conducted. Even more important, access to due process is enshrined in the idea of tenure generally. But contingent academic labor makes our institutions and all of our faculty more vulnerable, more contingent.

I once asked an associate provost whether I enjoyed the same rights of academic freedom as my tenured and tenure-track colleagues. He asserted that at our institution, non-tenure-track faculty most certainly do, before quickly adding, somewhat ruefully, “But you have a one-year contract.” His response acknowledges that tenure is the gold in the bank, as it were, against which we insure the protection and defense of academic freedom through due process. In my case, however, I could simply be “nonrenewed” with little formal recourse, regardless of whether the reasons for nonreappointment were financial, curricular, performance-based, or retaliatory.

The AAUP’s website offers the compelling story of Marc Edwards, the engineer at Virginia Tech who discovered lead in the water supplies of Washington, DC, and Flint, Michigan, to illustrate why professors need academic freedom and tenure to do their work. Academic freedom plays a crucial role in making such research possible, but we are at a moment in our culture when public and political hostility toward higher education has made our classrooms the broader, more accessible target for attacks on academic freedom. This situation makes the lack of protections for contingent faculty particularly dangerous, for it is on the front lines of the lecture hall, seminar room, and laboratory where the vast majority of contingent faculty do their work. And as countless non-tenure-track faculty will tell you, many of their institutions don’t offer even theoretical protection, let alone the formal policies that might protect their academic freedom in those spaces.

Part of the solution to this problem is participation by contingent faculty in institutional governance, where they can advocate within institutional structures for creation of due-process protections and present contingent faculty voices more generally. To be clear, this means participation not only in faculty senates where “big picture” policies are generally made but also in other departmental, divisional, and institutionwide committees. For it is from these lower-level committees that the impetus for larger campuswide policies often emanates; more consequential, perhaps, is the way that faculty opinions on non-tenure-track faculty issues can be shaped—and changed—through this diffuse and widespread faculty work. But here again, the ability of contingent faculty at any one institution to participate in such faculty governance activities varies. Some are excluded by formal means— by bylaws and collected rules that explicitly deny them rights or by exclusionary definitions of “faculty” that do so implicitly. Many faculty members, including those with limited or even full formal access to governance, may be excluded in practice by other factors: the lack of time or availability; irregular teaching schedules; the lack of recognition or compensation for participation in service work; and, most problematic, the lack of reliable protections from reprisals for what can be perceived as “political” activity. Those of us who teach in contingent positions know the truth of these obstacles.

None of the above observations is new; indeed, the AAUP’s 2012 report The Inclusion in Governance of Faculty Members Holding Contingent Appointments ably parses these and other real barriers to contingent faculty participation in academic governance. In response, I offer the wisdom of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Tenure is earned, not given. But I suggest that, from a non-tenure-track point of view, tenured faculty often appear more aware of the privileges of their position than they are of its responsibilities. To my mind, the responsibilities of tenure include defending the principles of academic freedom and shared governance, not only in one’s own case but also for all of us in the profession, tenured and nontenured alike. Significant gains by contingent faculty generally require at least the passive goodwill of the “regular” faculty and of the administration; they often require the active advocacy of those protected by academic freedom and fully vested in campus governance.

Time for Action

I ask all of you faculty members with tenure to fight for us and with us. Use your own protections to create new faculty policies that will protect our academic freedoms—for example, to give us access to due process for nonrenewal, as AAUP policies require. Bring us into institutional governance structures—and advocate for us when we cannot be there. And, most fundamentally, recognize us as fellow members of a shared profession. As faculty colleagues.

My own experience suggests that resistance to a more inclusive definition of faculty is not predicated on ill will. But it is often predicated on an increasingly outmoded definition of “faculty” that confuses status (tenure) with the actual job for which that status is awarded (teaching and research). The AAUP defines as faculty “all those whose appointments consist primarily of teaching or research activities conducted at a professional level,” regardless of status or hours of work. The success or failure of our profession, in the battles we already face on the ground and the ones threatening on the horizon, will be determined by our numbers—and by our ability to stand together.

My university is home to about 1,100 tenured and tenure-track faculty members and around 870 ranked non-tenure-track faculty members. Together, we number almost 2,000—and even that number excludes so-called nonranked non-tenure-track faculty: part-time adjuncts, lecturers, instructors, and so on. That’s a lot of faculty members to defend on our campus and in our state. For as we know only too well from the example of Wisconsin, the threats are real and consequential. Here in Missouri, our legislature has gotten an early start on a variety of proposals to curb both our institutional independence and faculty protections, including a bill to eliminate tenure for all future hires at our state-funded institutions. At a moment when higher education as a whole and tenure in particular have never been more vulnerable, the best way for us to fight is to minimize the contingency of all our faculty.

Oh, wait. I believe the AAUP even has a campaign for that. It’s called One Faculty. Because that’s what we are. And when I see my fellow faculty members actively recognizing that fact in word and especially deed, I find myself feeling, well, less contingent.

Nicole Monnier is a teaching professor of Russian at the University of Missouri, vice president of her AAUP chapter, and a member of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance. Her e-mail address is [email protected].