• 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.


When You're Getting Screwed, Make a Fuss

OSU was about to do something bad to its NTT English faculty. Making a fuss helped gain a reprieve.

October 24, 2016

Whenever I write about the issues confronting contingent faculty, well-meaning tenured-track folks ask, “What can I do?”

The events surrounding the treatment of non-tenure-track lecturers in Ohio State’s English department that unfolded yesterday demonstrate one course of action: Make a fuss.

And not a little fuss, a big ass, nasty, noisy, stinky fuss, and take that fuss as far and wide as you can using all the tools at your disposal.

Some details of the situation are available from a personal blog post of Travis Neel, a graduate student at OSU, who describes the budgetary difficulties encountered when OSU switched from a quarter to a semester system, which reduced the teaching capacity of the existing graduate teaching instructors and required additional NTT lecturers.

At the time, the current provost promised the $500k necessary to cover the lecturers, but as provosts came and went, the mechanism for securing the funding devolved into a “cash request” from the English department to the dean.

This year, not all of the money arrived. As recounted by Neel, the hiring of “Associated Faculty” (what OSU calls NTT lecturers) was delayed until 10 days before the start of the semester, and was threatening midyear layoffs, despite those faculty having contracts through the entire 2016-17 academic year.

I am a skeptic of hashtag activism, believing that too many (including myself) use a tweet of solidarity in the place of meaningful action, but in this case, under the #contingentacademiclabor banner, word of the situation spread quickly, with many making note of Ohio State’s significant commitment to athletics ($150+ million budget), and growing reputation as a place particularly afflicted with administrative bloat which makes it by one measure, the “most unequal” public university in the country.

By late afternoon Monday, as reported by OSU student paper, The Lantern, the layoffs were “postponed.”[1]

Score one for making a fuss. In many ways, while the resolution was much more rapid, it reminds me of a similar situation in Arizona State’s English department last year, when unilateral administrative decisions were going to require NTT instructors to take on more work for less pay.

At the end of that episode, I discussed some “lessons learned” and one of the biggest ones is recognizing that even absent formal representation like a union, faculty can organize and advocate for themselves, and the most effective approach is to hit the institutions in their public relations soft spots.

In the case of ASU, they’ve been championing themselves as the “New American University,” and it’s hard to be  the new anything when your composition instructors are teaching more than double the maximum recommended student load. They’d also recently managed to cough up $500k of discretionary cash to the Clinton Foundation to hold an event that looks in hindsight like a glorified photo op.

While I tend to believe that these instructors already having contracts through the 2017 academic year may have proved dispositive in securing a reprieve. I think a good public shaming for the PR sensitive is a pretty good tool of leverage.

We should also recognize, however, that this isn’t over. The structural problem that bedevils OSU English is outlined in The Lantern: In 2015 the College of Arts, Sciences, and the Humanities had a $4.6 million and growing deficit.

Humanities majors have declined by 49% between 2010 and 2015, even as total enrollments have reached record levels. The English department deficit alone is $480k.

The wrangling over funding, where it goes, and who gets it, is likely only beginning, but at least a marker has been thrown down on behalf of the NTT faculty for future discussions.

And as the wrangling continues, we should acknowledge some other truths.

1. For sure, someone reading this is tempted to take the passing reference to the sizable budget for the OSU athletic department and point out that OSU sports (football) is a revenue generator for the school, and in fact, generated a $13 million surplus for 2014-15.

But let us also acknowledge that the first-year-writing course staffed by the instructors whose jobs are threatened also provide instruction at a surplus, costing much less than the amount of tuition received in return for the credit hours.

The math at ASU – a large research institution much like OSU – showed that the contingent English faculty generated a better than $14 million dollar surplus in tuition revenue over labor cost of instruction.

As is true at just about every big university, those contingent faculty are subsidizing academic activities (including research by tenured faculty) elsewhere in the institution.

2. First-year-writing is a tremendously important course anywhere, but especially at large universities like OSU. Not only is writing a foundational skill, but in many cases it may be the only small course that provides any sense of intimacy for a first-year student.

Any university that has a retention problem would be well-served to resource first-year writing, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts they see improved outcomes.

3. Solidarity and support from tenured faculty can be crucial. At ASU this support, if it was happening, was entirely behind the scenes, with much of their tenured faculty being at least publicly silent and the Director of Graduate Studies at the time declaring the problem “above my pay grade.”

I believe one of the reasons a resolution to the ASU issue was so protracted was because the NTT faculty were fighting almost entirely by themselves.

The response of the interim Department Chair at OSU is a little worrisome in her articulation of a “my hands are tied” stance to The Lantern, a common response that is likely true to a certain extent, but also suggests that the only route to resolution thus far has been trying to find a way to remove the budget item they can’t pay for (the lecturers themselves), rather than re-examining the assumptions under which departments are funded and valued.

(I would love to hear any testimony from people on the ground in Columbus regarding the role faculty of any stripe have played in this situation.)

Perhaps the OSU English department leadership can start arguing that first-year writing is the economic engine that makes the rest of the department, and in some cases programs beyond the department run.

If those whose job it is to advocate for the department or their colleagues feel that their hands are tied, as long as you’re not also gagged, you can make a lot of fuss, particularly when everyone is doing it together.

That’s one of the things tenure is supposed to be for.

[1] In the version of the article from The Lantern that I’m working from as I write, I believe there are some errors that may cause some confusion as the “associated faculty” lecturers are referred to several times as “associate professors.” To be clear, only NTT faculty (associated faculty) were threatened by the possible layoffs.


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