'Leave-Proofing' the Faculty

April 16, 2009

Tenure-track jobs are harder than ever to find, with the economic mess prompting many colleges to grow even more cautious about hiring anyone on the tenure track. Tenure-track openings are being put on hold. Searches are being called off every day. Many who worry that higher education has created a faculty of two tiers -- the privileged tenured class and the overused and abused adjuncts -- have been told that this year is simply not the year in which to promote change.

In this environment, Denison University might seem an unlikely institution to bolster the ranks of its tenure-track faculty. A liberal arts college in Ohio, Denison has never abandoned the centrality of tenure-track lines -- and typically uses adjuncts only to replace those professors who are on leave. But now Denison is embarking a plan that will replace many of those adjunct hires with permanent, tenure-track lines, and as a result will soon be conducting searches for 12 tenure-track jobs in liberal arts disciplines -- hiring that will lead to real faculty growth beyond the 200 tenure-track and tenured faculty members at the university today.

The idea is to "leave-proof" the faculty, so that in 12 departments with at least six faculty members each, the addition of a faculty line will mean that there will be enough professors to cover leaves without hiring anyone for short-term positions. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is providing funds to support the project, and while Denison couldn't afford to get this started without the foundation, university officials say that their analysis demonstrated that replacing adjunct lines with tenure-track lines is not impossible -- as many assume it to be.

Bradley Bateman, provost at Denison, said that the idea to focus on the issue came from student complaints. It's not that students didn't like the adjuncts teaching at Denison, he said. Rather, he said, the students did like the adjuncts. And the students assumed that this year's professor would be around next year, to offer another course, to talk to, to write a graduate school letter of recommendation. While students didn't necessarily talk about the issue in tenure-track/adjunct terms, students have expectations about professors that mirror what life is like for those on the tenure track.

Having heard these reactions, Bateman decided to price out a shift. If 12 departments added one tenure track appointment each, but stopped hiring adjuncts for sabbatical relief, how much more would it cost? The answer, over six years, is that it would cost about 20 percent more for Denison to have people on the tenure track than to hire adjuncts. That is based on Denison paying, in salary alone, roughly the same in the first year to a visiting instructor and an assistant professor. (Many colleges don't have anything close to such salary equity, and so it would cost them more to replace adjuncts with tenure-track professors.)

That calculation led Denison to think that it would be doable to convert the slots to tenure-track positions, if it could get some transition support. So the university sought and received $778,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and those funds will cover the first four years of the transition. During that time, Denison will raise money to cover the costs into the future.

Bateman has now asked departments to make plans for how they would use the additional position. In some cases, generalists will be hired so that the department can be assured of covering all courses, regardless of who is on sabbatical. Departments that want to expand "coverage," adding subdisciplines that they don't teach now, may do so provided they have a plan for handling any sabbatical. The finances won't work, he said, if departments gain the extra position and then request money for an adjunct.

Philip E. Lewis, vice president of the Mellon Foundation, said he viewed the grant to Denison as "among the most gratifying we've made of late" and said that the proposal was unique. While Mellon doesn't dictate approaches colleges should take with proposals, Lewis said that "we'll manage to find ways to convey to the colleges we work with our willingness to help them consolidate commitments to full-time, well supported faculty."



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