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.

Photo by DutchScenery/iStock


Professor Berube, I profoundly respect your efforts to address the "mess" at your institution. However, it is still based on maintaining a 2-tier faculty system which is the root cause of the dysfunction in higher ed. In some cases, contingent faculty are stronger instructors, researchers, and contributors to our social fabric than tenure-line faculty. The "mess" is that the 2-tier system is supposedly based on merit, which is both highly subjective and clearly untrue. The way out (it seems to me) is to work towards one faculty, all hired into tenure-lines, but hired for different things. Some are hired full-time, and that includes teaching, advising students, contributing to governance, recruiting, and other service for the university. Others are hired part-time and that includes teaching and contributing to governance. All are equally respected, all are treated with due process. Let's cut to the chase here, and dump the 2-tier system.

Many thanks for this comment, Professor Harty. Two years ago, Jennifer Ruth and I published a book-- The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments-- that outlined (among other things) a plan for the conversion of NTT faculty to a tenure track. Weirdly, some people totally misread our proposal and claimed that we were (a) barring NTT faculty from doing research (we were simply arguing for a tenure track that did not require research) and (b) creating a two-tier system. But if you look at the Appendix to that book-- which is based on a proposal Jennifer actually made at her institution, Portland State University-- I think you'll find that you and we are on the same page. Unfortunately, I couldn't get my administration at Penn State to buy into that proposal. So I have been working for what I (and my NTT colleagues) consider the next best thing.

Michael Berube makes me cringe. Why not remove your own voting privileges? The god's eye view he pretends to have is always patronizing and self-serving. He publishes these celebratory treatises as if he's done us all a favor. Jane Harty is exactly right. The problem is the form of thinking he advocates. Some deserve rights and privileges, while others don't. He'll argue eloquently to conserve the power people like him have, as we see here, instead of listening to others. It's a sorry thing.

The book he published does indeed turn research into a hobby for people who aren't like him. Why do they deserve that? What makes you and your ilk capable of a teaching and research balance? Why do others not deserve it? Why limit research as a part of the vocation for anyone other than yourself and those in your labor conditions? I could get onboard with that, arguing that your labor status should be more like NTT. As a symbol of that collegiality and interest, take some of those releases you have and give them to others. Take some of those funds you use to go to MLA and give them to the NTT down the hall. They deserve it just as much as you do. Any new labor plan should move toward that end, making all faculty EQUAL, not the other way.

With people like him battling for even more hierarchy and no voting rights, who needs enemies?

Professor Berube's recount of the arduous process for promotion, titles, and multi-year contracts for the Fixed-Term Faculty is accurate. I want to recognize and extend my appreciation for the level of work that has gone into the successes that have been achieved thus far.

However, as the Fixed-Term Faculty who did lose her right to vote, I would like to add clarification to the article. At our campus, the fixed-term faculty, in addition to tenure and tenure-line faculty, had the right to vote for the tenured faculty members we thought best to serve on the P&T committee. Since the outcome of tenure decisions are not made in isolation and do impact the campus plus its resources, the importance of my right to vote was participation in shared governance, not that I wanted to serve on the P&T committee. Furthermore, as a senator representing my campus, I retained my right to vote for P&T promotion committee membership at the Senate level as a Fixed-term faculty member, why should it be different at the local campus? I would like to see tenured and tenured-line faculty vote for membership of Fixed-term Promotion Committees as well.

Prof. Berube, Michael, I appreciate your comments, and can see that you and Jennifer Ruth have been trying to do handstands, far more than most, to work towards better treatment for contingent faculty. But we keep running into the same giant roadblocks from our higher ed administrators and some tenure-line faculty who are protecting their turf. Prof. Collins, Abbey, I think we have to model respect for those who don't have it for us. That, and continuing to say, over and over, may we (as NTT) be part of governance please? Would you treat us fairly please? It is in the best interest of our institution(s) that we be humane to our colleagues and not put each other down. NTT faculty are holding the whole creaky structure up, and that needs to be recognized. Since I am here, Michael, is it possible to make this thread on your excellent (if frustrating) article more public? I had a hard time finding it after the initial read, and this is a very important discussion.

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