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Conversion Experience

December 12, 2006

When groups of professors issue reports or launch campaigns to shift more part-time faculty jobs to full-time positions, as several organizations have done recently, many in academe are skeptical. Sure, they say, that should happen, but is any university going to do that these days, when part-timers cost so much less and can be added or removed with such ease? The Harvards and Stanfords of the world can go on faculty hiring sprees at will, but can the kinds of institutions that employ most professors -- public institutions without billions in their endowments -- convert part-time positions to full-time jobs?

The experience of Georgia State University suggests that they can. In 1999, the university announced that it was creating 95 new full-time faculty jobs, filling most of them with part-timers who had worked at the university. The number of people working part time at the university dropped by about 100, as the creation of new full-time slots lessened the need for adjuncts.

Seven years later -- in a period in which the university has experienced enrollment growth and both good and not so good budgets from the state -- the university has held to its goal, and the number of full-time positions is much higher than prior to the shift. People in the positions say that they value the better pay, the health insurance, the offices and the career paths that they have in the full-time positions. But most of those new, full-time positions also don't have tenure and they don't pay as well as positions on the tenure track.

Educators at Georgia State -- one-time adjuncts as well as senior administrators -- agree that the new system is better for all involved than having so many people working part time at the university, and struggling to make ends meet by looking for other academic work around Atlanta. But they say that their experience shows that creating full-time jobs isn't easy, and doesn't come without some compromises.

Nationally, the last decade has seen a steady erosion of tenure-track jobs and the greatest growth in part-time faculty jobs. At Georgia State, the opposite is true:

Faculty Status at Georgia State, Headcount

Job Category 1999 2006
Tenured and tenure track 710 755
Full time, non-tenure track 160 303
Part time 306 180

Ron Henry, the provost at Georgia State, said Monday that he wishes more of the positions created could have been tenure track, but he's still convinced that the move has improved the quality of education for students. "You have to ask yourself the question: How can we best serve students? And if the person in front of the classroom has a reasonable level of financial support and job security, that faculty member is going to do a better job involving students in active learning."

At the department levels, the changes were dramatic. Carol Winkler was chair of the communications department when Georgia State shifted its hiring philosophy. She went from having more than 80 part-time faculty members to just over 20. For all kinds of reasons, she said that the quality has improved. "When you are trying to fill 80, you are are trying to cover the sections," she said. When you are filling 20 slots, there is more of an emphasis on quality. And those who are selected can do much more.

"It was a radical shift. I had people teaching one or two courses a semester for me, and they were going down the street to teach two more, and then going somewhere else to teach two more, teaching up to eight a semester to make ends meet," said Winkler, now associate dean of arts and sciences. "So they came and taught classes and turned in their grades," but they couldn't meet regularly with students or help plan the curriculum.

Most of the new slots at Georgia State are lecturers, who meet with students all the time. While pay varies somewhat by department, the lecturers are clearly much better compensated than part-timers -- and less well compensated than those on the tenure track. Part-time pay averages about $3,000 a course and part-timers don't receive health insurance. Lecturers start at around $35,000 (with insurance) for a nine-month contract, about $10,000 less than an assistant professor might earn at the beginning of a rise on the tenure track.

In terms of duties, the lecturers generally teach 4 courses each semester, compared to a 3-2 or 2-2 schedule for an assistant professor, although lecturers can reduce their teaching load by taking on various departmental duties. While adjuncts frequently have to worry semester to semester about where they will teach, full-time lecturers at Georgia State are notified months in advance of the needs for the following year. Lecturers interviewed recently not only had their contracts for the rest of this academic year, but had already been notified that they had jobs for 2007-8. After five years, lecturers may apply for "senior lecturer" status, which earns them more money and seniority rights, although not tenure.

So what's life like on the full-time lecturer track? Interviews with lecturers -- promised anonymity to encourage frank responses from those who, after all, don't have tenure -- featured more comments like "I love my job" than one typically hears talking to those on the tenure track at many institutions. Many said that they liked the teaching orientation of their positions and felt valued by their colleagues. While many part-timers complain nationally that they are overlooked when tenure-track positions open up at their institutions, at Georgia State, lecturers said it was common for someone to start off teaching one or two courses, and then to move into a full-time lecturer slot.

None of those interviewed said that they had any reason to fear for their academic freedom -- and one lecturer who taught controversial material in her class and had a student complain said that the administration had backed her 100 percent, "right up to the president." Without exception, those interviewed praised the approach Georgia State has taken, and said that they couldn't imagine the "freeway flyer" life of many adjuncts. But several also said that they felt like their tenure-track colleagues "get more money for less work."

The lecturer who was backed by the administration when her subject matter offended a student is so supportive of the job status she has that she has twice turned down overtures from her department to apply for tenure-track jobs there. She came to Georgia State from a university in a relatively remote area, where she was about to earn tenure, but it felt "like a ball and chain" as she didn't want to make her life there. "I've always preferred teaching to research, and I liked the idea of being at a research institution, with research active colleagues," she said. "So this works very well for me."

While she took a pay cut moving to Georgia State, she said that her department has pushed for her to receive "great raises" and celebrated her promotion to senior lecturer in the same kind of way that professors have their tenure awards honored.

Several lecturers mentioned factors about Georgia State that might make it particularly suited to the lecturer model. The university has grown in recent years -- its enrollment is over 26,000, up more than 10 percent since 2000. Some lecturers said that in this environment, good work is rewarded and department heads and lecturers both have incentives to have a stable teaching pool.

The university's Atlanta location also helps. Several lecturers said that, all things being equal, they might be applying for tenure-track jobs elsewhere. But with spouses at other colleges or employers of the kind found in Atlanta (but not every college town), their families want to stay put. One lecturer who once imagined himself earning tenure said that his wife has a high-powered business job so he has "done what in academe doesn't make you upwardly mobile -- I've decided I can't look at jobs in the boondocks."

That lecturer also stressed what was for him a big positive in the Georgia State lecturership: teaching. "There are a lot of people who don't want to do the things you need to do in a tenure-track position," he said. "The academic work I do isn't publication intensive, but has to do with alternate forms of academic expression, of working with students and finding new ways to help students."

Such work has been praised at Georgia State -- and rewarded with reduced teaching loads and positive evaluations -- but "wouldn't count" if he was on the tenure track, he said. Several others said that in working at other institutions, they had to almost apologize for wanting to focus on students, but that in the lecturer positions, their interests are affirmed.

There is a flip side to the teaching emphasis, however, in the hierarchy between lecturers (who focus on teaching) and tenure-track faculty members (who balance research and teaching, for more money). "There's a real risk of people getting taken advantage of," said one lecturer. He said that he has seen fellow lecturers in other departments have too much teaching and related administrative duties dumped on them. Having teaching-oriented faculty and research-oriented faculty makes sense, he said, but if the latter have better pay and tenure, that sends a message. At the same time, however, he added that he personally "didn't feel exploited."

Others said that some departments "still are figuring out what to do with us." For example, one lecturer said that he was invited by a master's level student to sit on his thesis committee, and that after much discussion, it was decided that he could sit on the committee, but not chair it.

Henry, the provost at Georgia State, said that as he looks at the university's progress since it decided to create more full-time positions, he regrets that there is a sense of "a tiered faculty." He said he would like to see the salary gap narrowed or closed between the two groups, and that he wants to encourage faculty members to make full use of lecturers. Based on the background of various lecturers, he said, there should be no reason that serving on a master's committee isn't routine for many.

Over time, and if state support is solid, Henry also said he would like to see more of the full-time positions become tenure track. But he noted that the university's number of tenure-track positions had been in decline for 20 years prior to the start of the 1999 shift. So even if most of the new full-time jobs are off the tenure track, the university has added 45  tenured slots as well. If faculty advocates pushing for the conversion of part-time jobs to full-time jobs nationally insist on their being tenured, Henry predicted that they would be disappointed. "From a purist's point of view, I understand that's what they want, but you have to look at the financial realities," he said.

Administrators are willing to pay the added costs for full-time slots, he said, but "also want the flexibility" that they gain by not making all those positions tenure track.

Among those generally impressed by Georgia State's approach is Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, which this week released a new report on the status of part-time faculty members and which is a strong supporter of tenure-track positions. Bowen said that when he was president of the State University of New York at New Paltz, he also converted some part-time positions to non-tenured full-time positions, so he understands Georgia State's approach.

"The trend line there appears to be positive," said Bowen, noting that lecturers have more money, benefits and rights than they did as part-timers. "In my judgment, they are to be commended." But Bowen said part of his analysis was based on the idea that Georgia State had increased the number of tenure-track positions at the same time. It is possible to "understand fiscal realities on the ground," while also viewing tenure-track positions as the best possible kind, he said. And while Georgia State may not have academic freedom problems, Bowen said that there is no substitute for the guarantee provided by tenure and truly collegial governance.

If Bowen sees both sides of the issue from the perspective of a national advocate, those on the ground at Georgia State see both sides, too. One lecturer who has worked part time at several other colleges said of the lecturer positions, "they aren't perfect, but they are much better than what most others are doing."

Another lecturer described himself as generally happy, but said that the realization that tenure-track professors in his department "make more money and work less really pisses me off." He added that he also realized he had it great compared to those in the adjunct system of cobbling together a few courses at a time, without any security or benefits. "That would totally suck."

 

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