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From the President: Reforming Faculty Identity

By Cary Nelson

Last year the AAUP’s Committee on Contingency and the Profession issued an important report titled Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Appointments. I have repeatedly endorsed its recommendation that all long-term college teachers be granted tenure at the percentage appointments they currently have. I always point out that the proposal is budget-neutral. It doesn’t make institutions give contingent faculty members a living wage; it just gives them job security, though of course they’d be better able to agitate for improved working conditions if they were tenured. And students and institutions alike would be better served by a more stable professoriate. As I have also suggested, the plan should be coupled with a commitment to stop making contingent faculty appointments in those fields that would be best served by tenured faculty. In other words, this proposal has a sunset provision.

The proposal has exposed some frequently unacknowledged fault lines in faculty identity. “We didn’t invite you here to psychoanalyze us,” one friend asserted after I gave a presentation earlier this year. I replied that that might be exactly what was needed.

It is easy for tenured faculty members to imagine that they are superior to part-timers. Some tenured faculty members have taught a wider range of courses, done major campus service, and perhaps had time and support for substantial research. And they have gone through a focused and sometimes harrowing tenure review process. They may believe that they have earned tenure and that the lumpen proletariat teaching corps has not. Why diminish the value and prestige of tenure by opening it to the undeserving masses? Yet thousands of contingent faculty members have major accomplishments despite the lack of institutional support.

Consider a friend of mine at a University of California campus, a full-time humanities teacher off the tenure track, though not by choice. He has four authored books and many articles. His department head has told him the books don’t “count”; they’re not part of his job description. Said the head: “Think of them as a hobby, like gardening.” Setting aside the brutality of this remark, one might note that most people reviewing these books would see, say, “teaches at UCLA” on the cover and not worry about his status. These books accrue to a university’s reputation in roughly the same way books written by a tenured faculty member might.

But tenure is not a prize awarded for merit in research; it is a protection for freedom of teaching, research, and extramural activities. Long-term full- or part-time teachers have contributed what they were contracted to contribute—their teaching labor. They have done what their contracts called for them to do and have been renewed year after year. And like any other faculty member, a teacher in a contingent appointment deserves and requires academic freedom. Have many contingent faculty members been hired using procedures that fall far short of ideal? Are they frequently evaluated using only student reviews? Certainly—and these things must change.

We cannot restore shared governance at institutions overburdened with contingent appointments unless we empower contingent faculty members by granting them job security. If we are to preserve faculty authority over hiring and the curriculum—and preserve a meaningful faculty role in defining institutional mission—we will have to find grounds for solidarity. We need the entire faculty working together at sustaining the values that define the professoriate.

The two-tier system we have enables some tenured faculty members to believe themselves vastly superior beings. I hope that view is not widespread, but I do encounter it. Little matter that many academic publications go unread and uncited, their half-lives barely more than those of moths. Little matter that few academic reputations survive the death of their bearer. No wonder an exalted self-image has to be shored up by imagining those on alternative career tracks to be less worthy, even inferior. It’s not the first time in history that one class has exploited another one or kept its members in their place to sustain an ideology of superiority. One would simply hope that those in higher education could do better. They have to if the faculty is to unite behind the effort to preserve higher education as we know it.

I freely admit that people with major research accomplishments are different from those without them. But better? More noble? More worthy in the eyes of god and country? What justifies that illusion? There are plenty of other reasons to be dedicated to a research agenda—from a belief that you can change your discipline or the world to the pure pleasure of the work. But those motives do not require contrasting yourself with an exploited class of teachers. It is time tenured faculty members sought other mechanisms to support their pride.


AAUP President Cary Nelson offered some ideas regarding the tensions between tenured/tenure track faculty and contingent faculty in the July/August 2011 edition of Academe Online.  I think that Mr. Nelson misses some important points and leads us down a dangerous path.

I am tenured at a unionized campus where tenured/tenure track (T/TT) faculty and instructors (contingent faculty who have met the requirements to join the union) share a union contract.  In 2004, our union went on strike.  We were held out in the snow for three and a half weeks before winning our demands, the most important of which was an increase in salary for our instructors. 

Coming off the high of winning our strike, many wanted to further empower instructors with more voice on the campus.  Our faculty constitution was re-written to allow instructor representation on the senate.  While this actually added a voice in the senate that did not exist prior to the constitutional re-write, some saw it as silencing instructors because the constitution did not allow them to vote in departmental decisions. 

While I completely supported striking for instructor raises and the new voice in our senate, instructor voting in departmental elections and decisions, was to me, not appropriate.  This is not because I see instructors as lesser people, but because I know that they are on the one hand lesser protected, and on the other more easily manipulated by an administration that has, in my view, had no shame in its use of appointments to further its political agenda. 

In some departments on my campus, instructors outnumber T/TT faculty. A chair (non-union administrative position) could very easily win any departmental vote by calling in the instructors. Inviting instructors to departmental meetings is also a political problem.  Some chairs see them as allies to their agenda and some faculty find that having their input on all matters is not appropriate.  The invitation itself puts pressure on instructors to attend meetings in which they may have a lack of knowledge of the topics under discussion.  For example, a discussion about the impact of allowing a particular transfer course requires knowledge of the degree requirements and advising experience.  Because instructors do not do this work, they may have lots of questions which slows the meeting and adds little to the discussion but does illustrate why instructors should not be included in these decision or in the meeting.

While we do have protections for the re-hiring of instructors in our contract, the chairs have great latitude in when, how, and to what courses instructors are scheduled.  Chairs also make the bulk of hiring decisions for contingent faculty who may later become instructors.  Because of their reliance on instructors, some chairs have shown a willingness to give instructors priority over tenured faculty.  This may be done with the expressed intent to “equalize” opportunities, but is subject to personal and political motivations and impinges upon the T/TT faculty’s contractual rights and historical place on the campus. 

The privileging of the T/TT faculty is not elitist nor is it inappropriate.  T/TT faculty, are hired through national searches, extensively reviewed annually and at all levels of the university prior to attaining tenure.  Surely this process could be more humane and less politically charged as Nelson and others often argue.  But, to give blanket tenure to contingent faculty is, in my view short sighted and fraught with problems.  Contingent faculty are not equal within the category.  Some have master’s degrees, some have professional experience, some are graduate students working toward their Ph.D.s, and some have Ph.D.s.  None, however, have the responsibility (though some may have the practice) of research or service.  To offer blanket tenure to contingent faculty, would in my view, devalue the tenure and our profession.

We are equal people.  We do not occupy equal positions.  I do wish that all faculty were T/TT, but do not believe that the way to accomplish that is to give tenure to people who have not been through the tenure process.  Instead, I believe, that we should take on the opposite fight to that proposed by Nelson. Rather than concede that T/TT faculty are too expensive, we should demand that contingent faculty receive equal pay for equal work.  That might motivate administrators to actually do T/TT searches.  They would no longer have the luxury to rely on temporary labor willing (for whatever reason) to accept low pay.  This would bring more stability to individuals, to our institutions, and to our profession.

This is the heart of the issue that identity misses.  The purpose of the contingent faculty is to undermine tenure and replace T/TT faculty with cheap labor.  Contingent faculty did not create this scheme.  T/TT faculty did not create this scheme.  We should not be fighting each other to end this scheme.  We should be joining together in struggle against our administrations to end this exploitation and to maintain our profession.  It is not just our individual interests that are at risk and we should not be pulled into individualistic fights over ego or sympathy.  It is our profession that is at risk and that is what we need to defend.

Every faculty member deserves the opportunity of a tenure track position, support through the tenure process, and a fair and unbiased tenure decision.  We all deserve a professional wage, regardless of our tenure status.  We are the 99%.  We should be fighting those who represent the 1% on and off of our campuses to gain the professional respect, wages, job security, and labor rights that we all deserve.  These are the grounds for solidarity.

Loretta Capeheart, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Justice Studies, Northeastern Illinois University

Member, Committee A, Illinois AAUP

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