The Toll Road to Contingency

By Philo A. Hutcheson

Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education. John G. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009.

Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education
by John C. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg

In Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, John G. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg set out to document the highly varied nature of non-tenure-track faculty appointments at elite universities (since these often serve as models for other institutions), and almost without exception they succeed. Their task is difficult both because institutions of higher education often have woefully incomplete data-management systems and because colleges and universities pursue policies and procedures as individual institutions. Emulation among private and public research universities constrains some of the individual characteristics—no university wishing to appear too different—but nevertheless, institutional differences pose one of the most substantial challenges to understanding higher education in the United States.

The authors make clear that they are not interested in portraying these elite universities as exploiting non-tenure- track professors, even though much of the literature about these faculty members rests on arguments about the corporate university and the use of individuals as economic resources. Throughout the book, however, Cross and Goldenberg establish many distinctions between non-tenure-track faculty members and tenured faculty members, especially “star” professors. For example, salaries are often frighteningly different, and teaching loads (as opposed to research opportunities, typically minimal for non-tenure-track faculty members) are unequally distributed. Nor do non-tenure-track faculty members have the full force of the protection of academic freedom—and it is worth noting that even the full force is not always robust. The authors also acknowledge that it is unclear whether non-tenure-track or tenure-track faculty members are better instructors and, more problematic, that each group may well bring differing perspectives to policy decisions. Thus, for example, changes in program requirements can adversely affect teachers more than researchers, and non-tenure-track faculty members might well vote against such decisions in order to preserve their positions. Nevertheless, non-tenure-track faculty members at these universities often have postdoctoral teaching opportunities or multiyear contracts and benefits and see themselves as partaking in the rewards of being a professor.

Cross and Goldenberg conclude their book with a discussion of dilemmas and some recommendations but hesitate to argue for tenure for non-tenure-track faculty members, thereby reaffirming impressions that tenure at these institutions is reserved as a privilege for those who conduct research and scholarship, placing teaching in a subordinate position. They recommend that senior faculty members teach introductory courses and that universities deemphasize the economic return of higher education in order to further support for the humanities and social sciences, and they urge examination of governance structures as well as caution about adopting business models.

The authors want universities to pay more attention to careful data  management, while acknowledging the associated fiscal costs and administrative challenges. Perhaps most striking is the constant evaluation of the growth of enrollment, especially at the undergraduate level, and how rarely it is well planned. As a result, departments and colleges often hire non-tenure-track professors, especially since central administrations are not willing to pay for tenure-track faculty members. I would have wished for a more extensive discussion about how external funding often results in last-minute appointments of non-tenure-track faculty members; the authors discuss that problem only briefly.

Cross and Goldenberg see budgeting processes as often inadequate, especially those such as responsibility-centered management (in which colleges or departments are assigned “responsibility for revenue generation and expenditures”), since business distinctions among organizational units do not obtain in the interdependent world of higher education, where colleges of engineering, for example, usually rely on departments of English to teach introductory composition. One of the more convincing, and recurring, arguments in the book is that universities have come to rely more and more on non-tenure-track faculty members not through planning but through various processes at departmental, college, and central units and that those processes are not coordinated. In fact, at research universities, academic departments and colleges typically dominate the decision-making process in areas ranging from graduate admissions to faculty workloads.

I am concerned, however, that a reader might too easily conclude that the unplanned processes ought not to be examined for underlying ideological characteristics. The pursuit of prestige through business affiliations and entrepreneurial research has long been criticized, from Thorstein Veblen in the early 1900s to Sheila Slaughter, Larry Leslie, and Gary Rhoades in the present, and this book would have benefited from at least a brief review of those critiques. The prevailing ideology might well also have gendered and racial characteristics; for example, many feminized fields such as teaching in the schools are less lucrative for institutions than traditionally masculine fields such as engineering.

Unfortunately, the authors shift from citations of research and scholarship on higher education to a less careful discussion of the history of U.S. higher education. At times, they are simply wrong. For example, the colonial colleges did not solely enroll the wealthy; there is a long history of very poor students at four-year colleges and universities beginning with the colonial institutions, a practice that ended in the late 1800s at most institutions. Nor did Johns Hopkins University begin to pursue German forms of scholarship in the mid-1800s; it was founded in 1876. Most universities did not pursue research and scholarship with any vigor until the late 1800s. Finally, the authors declare that the AAUP was founded when tenure was the norm among faculty members. Tenure was certainly a goal in 1915, but it was not a norm; it was widely accepted only after decades of effort by the AAUP to promote the principles of academic freedom.

Despite such substantial concerns, this is a book well worth reading. Many faculty members will recognize their institutions in examples of decision-making processes, budget processes, and use of non-tenure-track faculty members, and the authors’ analysis is a reminder that we need to know more and, ironically for higher education, be more thoughtful.

On a final note, throughout this review I have refused to reduce non-tenure-track faculty members to an abbreviation, “NTT”; given the unavoidable repeated use of the term in the book, I agree with the authors’ usage of an acronym there. I would suggest, however, given the authors’ critique of business budgeting approaches, that we uniformly refer to any abbreviated or “acronymed” business approach as BMOD: business model of the day.

Philo Hutcheson is associate professor of educational policy studies at Georgia State University. The former coordinator of his department’s higher education PhD program, he is the author of several works on tenure and on academic freedom; he also wrote a book examining the AAUP’s development of collective bargaining. His e-mail address is [email protected].