Our Job Was to Fix It

An effort to improve the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty.
By Michael Bérubé

In summer 2015, the new chair of Pennsylvania State University’s faculty senate, Mohamad Ansari, appointed me chair of the senate’s Faculty Affairs Committee, on which I had served the previous two years. Among the charges he gave me were two that would dominate the upcoming academic year and—if my committee fulfilled them—would drastically change the way fixed-term, non-tenure-track faculty are treated at Penn State.

One charge involved taking votes away from fixed-term faculty, and was therefore politically dicey. Indeed, when I eventually introduced my committee’s recommendation on the floor of the senate, I opened by saying that I believe you should never take votes away from people without a very good reason. But in this case, we had one.

The situation was this. On some of Penn State’s campuses, fixed-term faculty were permitted to vote for the members of promotion and tenure committees; on other campuses, they were not. No one knew how this state of affairs came to be, but it clearly didn’t make any sense. My committee was therefore asked to standardize fixed-term voting rights across the campuses.

So why didn’t we simply grant votes to the fixed-term faculty who did not have them? Because of the other charge—to create a system for the review and promotion of fixed-term faculty on all campuses. Incredibly, even though Penn State calls itself “one university geographically dispersed” (that is, it does not consist of a flagship and “branch” or “satellite” campuses), there was no such system. On some campuses, only a unit head conducted reviews. On the fifteen relatively small “Commonwealth Campuses” that make up “University College,” fixed-term faculty had to wait at least eight years for promotion; at University Park and at the five “stand-alone” Commonwealth Campuses (Abingdon, Altoona, Behrend, Berks, Harrisburg), they could go up for promotion after five years. Some departments and divisions had fixed-term review committees (almost fifteen years earlier, I had created one in the English department at University Park); most did not.

In other words, it was an incoherent mess. Our job was to fix it.

Review and Promotion

Over the next few months, my committee decided (a) to bar fixed-term faculty from voting for the composition of promotion and tenure committees, on the grounds that fixed-term faculty themselves could never serve on such committees and would never be administered by them, and (b) to create Fixed-Term Review Committees—one for University College, one for each of the stand-alone campuses, and one for each college at University Park—that would consist entirely of fixed-term faculty, elected by fixed-term faculty.

We believed—and I, personally, strongly believed—that this was a significant net gain for fixed-term faculty. Some fixed-term faculty would lose the right to vote for promotion and tenure committees, but that loss, I thought, would be more than offset by the right to vote for, and serve on, committees that would create a markedly more just and less arbitrary procedure for the promotion of fixed-term faculty. Additionally, we created a third tier of promotion beyond that of “senior lecturer,” mirroring the three-rank structure of the tenure-line faculty.

Spoiler alert: the story ends well. We created those committees—accomplishing the single most important change for the better for fixed-term faculty working conditions in Penn State’s history. In September 2016, the president and the provost approved them, and elections began the following spring. In the course of 2016–17, the Faculty Affairs Committee proposed, and the faculty senate passed (again meeting with the approval of the president and the provost), a standardization and revision of the titles for all three fixed-term ranks. This change not only involved cleaning up the Augean stables of contingent faculty nomenclature; it also granted many fixed-term faculty professorial titles (for example, “associate teaching professor”) for the first time.

But on the way to our happy ending, there was much friction and debate—and at the time I write this, one important piece of work has yet to be done.

Regrettably, though understandably, some fixed-term faculty members objected to losing the right to vote for the members of promotion and tenure committees. One senator emotionally testified that to her mind, that voting right was an index of trust, a sign that her tenure-line colleagues valued her input. It was not easy to look her in the eyes and say, “That may very well be, but they’re still not going to let you serve on those committees.” Likewise, to the senator who objected that his campus treats all faculty as “one faculty,” I had to reply that I am very familiar with, and supportive of, the idea of “one faculty.” But that does not change the fact that the fixed-term faculty on his campus did not have tenure and did not have a means of earning it.

The most remarkable objection to my committee’s plan was that it created a “separate but equal” system for fixed-term faculty—as if fixed-term faculty would have all the rights of tenured faculty, starting with continued employment with termination only for cause, with the employer bearing the burden of proof by clear and convincing evidence, if only my committee and I hadn’t come along to Jim Crow them out of those rights. I refrained from pointing out how profoundly obscene this objection might sound to the actual people who lived under the reign of Jim Crow.

Multiyear Contracts

The more substantive impasse with fixed-term faculty involved multiyear contracts, and that remains our piece of unfinished business. From the outset, I had regarded these initiatives for fixed-term faculty as a tripod: one leg involved the creation of review committees elected by and composed of fixed-term faculty; the second involved the creation of a third tier of promotion and standardizing titles across the tiers; the third involved the provision of multiyear contracts.

Inevitably, administrators—at Penn State and everywhere—will insist that they need the “flexibility” afforded them by one-year contracts, in case of precipitous drops in enrollment or job performance. But there is no meaningful sense, at Penn State (or at many other places), in which administrators need as much flexibility as they claim. On the contrary, many fixed-term faculty members at Penn State (and at many other places) have worked for a decade or two on one-year contracts, on campuses where enrollment has held steady or grown all that time.

All through 2015–16, the Faculty Affairs Committee and the Intra-University Relations Committee (which chiefly represents the interests of the faculty on the Commonwealth Campuses) were at loggerheads on this issue, even though no one was opposed to the provision of more multiyear contracts. The reason is that Faculty Affairs saw the creation of Fixed-Term Review Committees as the ideal vehicle for awarding multiyear contracts; such contracts, we believed, could be bundled with promotion and the raise attendant on promotion. Intra-University Relations, by contrast, did not want multiyear contracts pegged to the promotion process. And it took me the full year, a couple of joint committee meetings, and hundreds (if not thousands) of e-mails to understand why.

As their committee saw it, multiyear contracts should simply kick in after a certain number of years. One version of the proposal mandated three-year contracts after five years and five-year contracts after ten years. To their way of thinking, then, the Faculty Affairs Committee had mucked up a strict seniority system by introducing a review and promotion process; their argument was that (a) for fixed-term faculty, multiyear contracts were more important than promotions, and (b) the promotion process would never be approved by the administration anyway. I summarized (b) in our final joint meeting like so: “You think the promotion-and-review process we created is bullshit.” They heartily agreed.

Members of the Faculty Affairs Committee, for their part, understood (a) but were baffled by (b). Intra-University Relations Committee leaders explained that although the senate had expressly stipulated that fixed-term promotions would be awarded exclusively on merit (not based on financial considerations), the money for the promotions would come from the individual campuses rather than the central administration in Old Main, which funds promotions for all tenure-line faculty. Moreover, many of the members of the Intra-University Relations Committee had worked for years under capricious and arbitrary conditions and had no faith that those conditions would ever change.

And that was where we were stuck. Faculty Affairs wanted, and successfully passed, a promotion system overseen by fixed-term faculty, a system we believed could also provide for the creation of multiyear contracts; Intra-University Relations wanted, and did not get, a system for multiyear contracts that relied solely on seniority. And they either did not believe that their system would give administrators an incentive to fire fixed-term faculty before they became eligible for multiyear contracts or were willing to take that risk.

Clearly, the Intra-University Relations Committee was wrong to believe that the administration would not agree to the creation of fixed-term review committees. But once those committees were approved, administrators argued that they did not see why they would grant multiyear contracts to fixed-term faculty members unwilling to go through the review process they had just endorsed.

As of 2018–19, I will become chair of the faculty senate; this year I serve as chair-elect. I will continue to argue that the senate needs to establish all three legs of the tripod if we are to effect the kind of improvement in fixed-term working conditions we had originally envisioned. But I have learned, in this process, that tenured faculty ostensibly working as allies of fixed-term faculty can readily be perceived by fixed-term faculty as working at cross purposes to their real interests.     

Michael Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University and a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

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