• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


ASU English: Lessons Learned from a Good Outcome

The non-tenure-track instructors at Arizona State organized to fight back against an unreasonable contract. They won.

June 22, 2015

There is some good news regarding the situation of Arizona State University’s non-tenure-track writing instructors.

As reported on their “asugainst55” website, in a meeting with a vice provost, they were promised base salaries of either $36,000 for a 4/4 course load or $40,000 for a 5/5 course load.

Both choices come without any specific service duties.

This is a marked improvement over the initial proposal from last December of $32,000 for a 5/5 load.

Instructors went from a potential effective pay cut of 25% to an $8000 raise. As their site says, “this is the first significant pay increase for the rank in 28 years.”

The best news from my perspective is that, fingers crossed, I can go many moons without writing about Arizona State.

Watching the process unfold as closely as possible while being on the outside, I think there’s some things we can take away.

1. Even absent formal representation like a union, banding together and advocating for the group is the only chance of pushing back against changes brought by administrative fiat. It took a lot of courage for these instructors to do this, but in the end, it was necessary, and it worked.

2. Administrators are not monsters (but they are administrators). For those of us on the outside, it is easy to see administrators as the enemy, but it’s not as though administrators are actively plotting the demise of faculty or exploiting contingent labor out of some kind of perverse joy. Administrators are as invested in the success of the institution as any faculty member.

The rub is that administrators and faculty are looking at the institution through different lenses, are responding to different needs, and administrators may likely be lacking important information about the ramifications of their decisions, information that if they had it, may change their minds[1].

3. You must find an administrator empowered to make the kind of decision you’re seeking. The ASU instructors needed to get to a vice provost before a remedy was found, only after moving through the department and dean levels. It seems as though the underlayers of administration were empowered to deflect, rather than decide.

4. All institutions have sensitive spots and in negotiation, you should make use of them. Arizona State is in the process of trying to brand itself as the “New American University.” Good public relations are part of this effort, and assigning instructors student loads double disciplinary maximums while cutting their pay is incompatible with that brand. That they recently paid the Clinton Foundation $500,000 (more than the cost of the increased instructor pay) to host an event looks bad in this context.

A “Senior Director for Media Relations & Strategic Communications” said in a comment on a previous blog post about this issue, “While recommended class loads fit the ideals of academic associations, they are a luxury ill-afforded by a university trying to educate a growing population and workforce of tomorrow.”

And yet, when pressed, and when something important to them was threatened (reputation) the university managed to find a little more money to pay for this “luxury.”

5. Faculty are the guardians of the curriculum and student learning. The most compelling argument for all faculty when their ability to do their work is threatened is emphasizing what is necessary to provide the kind of quality instruction the institution claims to offer.

6. It is necessary now, more than ever, for tenured faculty and non-tenured faculty to work in solidarity. At the same time, this needs to start with tenured faculty who maintain privilege and position not available to the non-tenurable. This solidarity should be rooted in the above shared belief that they are the guardians of the curriculum and learning.

The pushback against the administrative decision should have started with the department chair clearly articulating that such loads for such pay are incompatible with student learning and success. That this did not happen is, in my opinion, a significant failure of leadership. I cannot imagine a similar silence if the budget cuts were going to force changes in tenured faculty workload.

For sure, deans and provosts are more important than department chairs, but department leaders have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of all of their faculty[2]. I have seen first hand the kind of difference this makes in terms of morale and quality of instruction at two of my stops.

I also have witnessed the opposite. Yes, chairs can be caught in the middle, but their loyalties to the faculty should be clear. In ASU’s case, the instructors were cut adrift, even as the end result proves there was a compelling argument to be made. The most vulnerable shouldn’t be required to make it. That non-tenurable faculty had to carry this fight largely without the public assistance of the tenured should be a source of shame.

7. This isn’t over. Instructors are still handling more students than they should. The pay is still too low. Because they have no protections, retaliation and termination could come at any time. The forces that are causing these crises have been with us for decades and are now coming to a head all over the country. With a state legislature intent on zeroing-out their contributions to public higher education, ASU is more imperiled than most.

8. We always have choices. “My hands are tied[3]” is not an acceptable substitute for discussion and collaboration. The ASU instructors successfully argued that different choices should be made, and working with the vice provost, a resolution was quickly found.

They, and more importantly, their students will benefit. I’m counting that as a win.

For now.

[1] Regarding the present situation, I imagine there are many administrators who are not really aware of what teaching first year writing entails, and why five sections of composition and five sections of math may not be equivalent.

[2] It strikes me that for tenured faculty, the department chair is ideally seen as a “leader,” but not a “boss.” In the productive situations where I’ve worked (including my present one), that relationship as “leader” is extended to the non-tenurable. In the bad situations, for contingent faculty, the chair is much closer to “boss.” People respond to leaders. Hardly anyone likes their boss. In those bad situations, hindsight tells me that those bosses were not bad people, but had absorbed the ethos of the institution, where contingent faculty were something to be “managed.”

[3] ASU English Department Chair Mark Lussier said, back in December when the initial change was announced, “This does not make me happy, but given the budgetary constraints under which we operate this change (which has already arrived in most locations across the university) will quite likely become necessary.” 


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