The Unhappy Experience of Contingent Faculty: The Curious Case of Boston University.

An anonymous faculty member speaks out
By Anonymous

This article, like most of the others included in this issue, was submitted in response to the editor’s widely circulated call for papers that would present compelling stories about how different institutions have responded to the current financial crisis. It is not Academe’s policy to publish anonymous articles. However, it is an unfortunate commentary on the job insecurity and the limits on the academic freedom of contingent faculty in American higher education that the editor received several separate inquiries about the possibility of keeping the identity of contingent faculty authors confidential in order to avoid potential retaliation. Because the editor thought it was important to include at least one essay that would address the problems of contingent faculty in a time of economic crisis, he decided, in this particular case, to make an exception to the magazine’s editorial policy of not publishing anonymous articles.

As with all features published in Academe, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, not necessarily those of the Academe editor or of the AAUP. Comments on this article or any other article in this issue can be submitted online.


Boston University has had a history of contentious relations between administrators and faculty. John Silber, who ran the university from the early 1970s through the late 1990s, gave faculty little say in university governance, and an “us versus them” atmosphere soon developed. In 2004, however, major changes in the board of trustees and the presidency provided an opportunity to mend fences with faculty by increasing transparency and offering faculty, including those not on the tenure track, a role in decision making. Robert Brown, the current president, and David Campbell, the provost, promoted shared governance by fashioning new procedures for the development of university policy that mandate faculty input. The future looked good, and faculty morale improved. Then came the economic downturn, and BU, like many other universities, saw its portfolio decline significantly in value.

When such troubles occur, the reaction of the powers that be is extremely illuminating. Such was the case at Boston University. The institution’s callous disregard of non-tenure-track faculty members, along with last-minute layoffs at the College of General Studies in spring 2009, has prompted a number of the nontenured “survivors” to wonder whether BU, like Benjamin Button, is aging backward into its former inglorious days of ignoring faculty input and rejecting shared governance.

To understand the problem and why it is of relevance to other universities, one needs to understand better the role of faculty, both tenured and nontenured, in the College of General Studies. The college offers a two-year program that was originally designed in the wake of World War II to enable GI Bill students who were underprepared for college to attend BU. It evolved over many decades from a remedial program to a bona fide collegiate liberal arts program; students complete basic requirements before entering other schools at the university.

Faculty from four broadly constituted disciplines—natural science, social science, humanities, and rhetoric—teach a four-four load, working together in interdisciplinary teams to instruct a group of about a hundred students for a full year. Nearly half of the college’s faculty members are in non-tenure-track positions, and a significant fraction have taught in such positions for more than five years. A single dean runs the college, with four department chairs serving as advisers to the dean. The entire faculty meets monthly with the dean and the chairs, and tenured faculty have additional meetings with their chairs and the dean; in both of these meetings, faculty vote on policy changes. Working across disciplines in teams, the faculty appears cohesive, with little distinction made between those on and off the tenure track. In fact, non-tenure-track faculty serve on annual merit committees with tenured faculty, and the same criteria used to assess the performance of the nontenured are applied to the tenured. In other words, the college seems to run in a fairly egalitarian manner.

Deteriorating Climate

In the 2008–09 academic year, however, this egalitarian approach changed. The year began with the dean of the college, Linda Wells, presenting to the chairs first and the tenured faculty second a proposal to eliminate half of the natural science faculty for the stated purpose of allowing students to take an elective in their first year in lieu of a science course covering the evolution of organic life and of the universe. All of the positions targeted for elimination were off the tenure track. Only later did the entire faculty learn that Wells had presented her plan, allowed the chairs to present alternative plans, and then held a vote of the tenured faculty by secret ballot, with results reported only to her. Her plan prevailed, and, while the five affected faculty members were informed by their chair late in the fall semester that they were losing their jobs, the faculty as a whole was not informed of the terminations until the spring semester.

In January 2009, President Brown held a “town meeting” with the university community to express his concern about the impact of the economic downturn not only on the university’s endowment and access to grants but also on the projected numbers of incoming students. Pledging not to cut faculty positions, he explained that nonfaculty openings were frozen and would be subject to additional scrutiny before being filled. At that town-hall meeting, a tenured faculty member in the College of General Studies challenged Brown, asking him to explain how the layoffs of five nontenured science faculty members in the college could be anything other than a reduction in faculty positions. His response was that the college had experienced a reduction in enrollments in 2008–09 that necessitated such cuts—an explanation that exaggerated the situation, since enrollment had dropped by only about seventy students. The entire faculty had already learned, mostly through the grapevine, that the limited decline in enrollment would result in the elimination of one team of sophomore-level instructors (one each from natural science, humanities, and social science). The elimination of five more natural science positions, proposed by the dean at that time and approved by the president and provost, was in addition to these known cuts. Wells, after receiving administrative approval for her curriculum change, proposed a mechanism whereby those five affected science faculty members could be retained by redesigning the sophomore-level science curriculum so that science faculty would teach fewer students but meet with them for lectures, labs, and discussion sessions, much as faculty in humanities and social science did. The administration rejected this plan, reneging on Brown’s pledge to not cut faculty lines.

Title Change

But this was not the end of the administration’s actions. The final episode in the saga occurred conveniently after the end of classes, when Boston University’s board of trustees met over commencement weekend. During end-of-year evaluation sessions with non-tenure-track faculty in the social science and humanities divisions, department chairs informed the nontenured faculty that, beginning in fall 2009, one-year contracts would carry the rank of lecturer rather than assistant professor. Although this change was to be accompanied by a modest increase in base pay, a considerable number of non-tenure-track faculty members were incensed by their unheralded demotion in rank.

At an ad hoc meeting held to explain this change a week after it had first been announced, Wells affirmed that the change in title was nonnegotiable. She asserted, moreover, that it did not represent a demotion in rank, despite the fact that at Boston University the lecturer title had previously applied only to faculty members who did not hold PhDs. She held up the examples of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wellesley College, where the titles of lecturer, senior lecturer, and master lecturer have been used for non-tenure-track faculty for many years. She said that one of her priorities had been to bring faculty salaries in the College of General Studies in line with salaries at other colleges in the university and that the money for an increase in base pay was made possible by the “curriculum change”— that is, the termination of faculty positions—in science. She also claimed that she had discussed the title change with the tenured faculty earlier in the year, although several tenured faculty members who attended those meetings report that non-tenure-track titles were discussed only in passing, without a concrete proposal being made.

Prior to Wells’s term as dean, the ranks of tenured faculty were held down by attrition, and as a result, roughly half of the courses at the College of General Studies were taught by tenure-track faculty members with fewer than three years of experience who were teaching fourfour loads while working on their tenure dossiers. Many of these faculty members were unable to publish with the frequency of faculty in other colleges and consequently would either leave the college prior to achieving tenure or fail in their tenure bids and receive terminal contracts. Wells reasoned that adding the non-tenure-track option would enable the college to retain good teachers and stabilize the faculty ranks, reducing the time spent each summer on new faculty appointments.

Full-time non-tenure-track teaching faculty offer advantages to institutions. In fact, Wells credits the creation of a contracted non-tenuretrack faculty line with improvements in the quality of teaching at the college, since poor instructors could be eliminated rapidly while excellent ones could be retained year after year at lower salary levels than tenure-track faculty. In the dean’s account, because the college is driven by enrollments, it cannot afford to grant tenure to more than half its faculty, and non-tenure-track faculty provide the flexibility needed to eliminate (or add) positions rapidly in response to enrollment changes.

At the same time, the sizable nontenure-track faculty at the college presented institutional challenges to BU as a whole. Because non-tenuretrack faculty members held the title of assistant professor, their salaries (which are $15,000 to $20,000 lower than assistant professors at the other colleges) brought down the university’s average salary for assistant professors. When BU began publishing average faculty salaries by college and rank, the administration became concerned that the use of the assistant professor title for nontenure- track faculty diluted the meaning of the rank in terms of research expectations and the faculty career path.

Perversely, the title change was implemented just prior to the release of the report of a university-wide committee consisting of administrators and faculty that had been established in fall 2008 to study non-tenure-track faculty issues. The committee’s findings were due in September 2009. At the ad hoc meeting of non-tenure-track faculty, several faculty members questioned why Wells had proceeded with the change without waiting for the university committee’s report. She stated that the matter of salary disparity had priority: faculty layoffs had freed funding for raises that might not be available in the following year. As she had done for the science faculty and the sophomore faculty, she offered to write letters of support for those who would be looking for other positions; she would explain that the title change was a policy decision not based on individual performance. But, at the same time, she said that job seekers might not want a letter that highlighted the change in title—a comment that indirectly acknowledged the significance of the demotion in rank.

One advantage of the new title, according to the dean, is that it will allow for the creation of a career path for non-tenure-track faculty. However, Wells offered no substantive details about this track beyond listing the titles and announcing that three long-standing non-tenuretrack faculty members were being immediately promoted to senior lecturer, without any promotion process in place, because of their time at the college and their service to the university. She promised that a promotion process would be developed at some time in the future.

One thing is clear: the BU administration chose to bring tenure-track faculty salaries at the College of General Studies in line with those at the other schools at BU not by raising salaries to the full amount required but by redefining nontenure- track faculty. Yet the college’s faculty (tenured and nontenured alike) undertake higher teaching loads with more contact hours than their peers at other BU schools, including the College of Arts and Sciences, while receiving fewer perks, such as graders and graduate student assistants. At BU, as at many other institutions, the exploitation of non-tenure-track faculty is being enabled by an institutional philosophy that views them as easily replaceable.

Because the latest events transpired after the regular academic year was over, only a few tenured faculty members were available to comment. Some talked with nontenured faculty privately over the summer about the situation. The university committee charged with suggesting a non-tenure-track policy for the entire university has included the experience of faculty at the College of General Studies in its report. Nevertheless, as one of the college’s tenured professors noted, “The Faculty Council [BU’s faculty governing body] can’t make anything happen, and they can’t keep anything from happening either.” In other words, while on the surface it appears that the new administration was giving faculty a significant voice in governance, faculty governance at Boston University continues to be a mere facade. Like the previous administration, which was openly hostile toward faculty, this new administration has forgotten that the faculty is the institution.

Recommendations for Faculty and Administrators at Other Institutions

Based on our experience at BU, we suggest the following “Dos and Don’ts” for faculty and administrators at other institutions as they face economic uncertainty and take the fate of their faculty colleagues into their hands.

  • Do recognize the important contribution that non-tenure-track faculty make to a university and treat them with the same respect as tenure-track faculty. Non-tenure-track faculty often teach heavier loads while being invested in research projects and serving the university and the community. They should be well paid and have a voice in governance. Administrations should review cuts to such faculty positions with the same due consideration that they would give to tenure-track positions.
  •  Do treat faculty governance bodies and committees with respect and let them report their findings and recommendations prior to making policy changes. When major changes that will affect faculty salaries, tenure lines, titles, or other important professional matters are being considered, all faculty members (or their representatives) should participate in that discussion. If major decisions regarding faculty are made at administrative levels without collaboration or even notification of faculty and their representatives, the morale and reputation of the institution is bound to suffer.
  • Don’t implement title changes haphazardly without consideration of the institution’s history and without considering the negative impact on long-term nontenured faculty members. Remember that words may be cheap to the institution but often are quite valuable to the individual: if a change of title is deemed necessary, involve the affected faculty members in the process of choosing the new title.
  • Don’t hide policy changes and spring them on faculty long after the job-hunting season has ended. This simply breeds distrust and contempt because it locks faculty members into their positions for another academic year, during which resentment will continue to build and morale will be low.
  • Do communicate information about faculty reductions clearly  and directly, not through rumors and word of mouth. Stating that there will be no reductions when reductions are looming or have already occurred gives the appearance of a hidden agenda and a lack of administrative honesty.
  • Do make the promotion process for non-tenure-track faculty clear, with specific expectations and timelines that have been fully discussed and then are published in the faculty handbook.
  • Do recognize the contributions of non-tenure-track faculty who have not been renewed. Provide career assistance and support formally and informally.