Groundhog Day: Being Off the Tenure Track

(Disclaimer: This is an honest post. I expect to be criticized because I am complaining.

May 5, 2011

(Disclaimer: This is an honest post. I expect to be criticized because I am complaining. While I am grateful for my current position, with 75% of current faculty teaching off the tenure-track, we need to start speaking out about all the reasons this trend is both wrongheaded and destructive. We are the majority, and we can’t be fighting amongst ourselves or silenced because of fear or shame. This post is in honor of Antonio Calvo.)

I came to a depressing conclusion about my career recently: I have reached the pinnacle of my job. Not even a year in, and I have smacked up against the glass ceiling of working as contingent faculty. There are no performance raises or promotions. No (or few) upper-division courses. No university committees or curricular administrative duties. This past year will closely resemble every upcoming year until I retire or leave my current university. But even if I do leave, being off the tenure-track (and a trailing spouse) means that it will be a new school, but an almost identical situation, unless I quit teaching and move into an administrative position.

I read my fellow UVenus bloggers talking about how challenging (and ultimately rewarding) their jobs are, or how much intellectual variety they encounter in their position, and I am envious. I remind myself that “the grass is always greener” and that I chose to be in the position I am in, but it butts up against my ambition. That’s right, I am ambitious and that leads to restlessness. I want to move upward, or at least forward, and be in positions that offer new challenges. And, yes, one of my interests is university administration and leadership. Where I currently sit, that path is closed off, or at least very limited.

Wait, you must be saying, aren’t you the same person who wrote that the tenure-track position isnt all its cut out to be? Indeed, I am, but I think the larger issue is how out of balance working in academia has become; those who are on the tenure-track are doing more and more administrative work because there are fewer and fewer people to perform those duties. And I, for one, would be willing to take on some of those duties, if it were properly compensated.

I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles that contingent faculty faces: constantly being undervalued and under-appreciated. We have the requisite talents, skills, and ideas, just not a position that uses them. The myth that the contingent faculty ranks are filled with under-qualified, failed scholars is just that, a myth. And, if it isn’t a myth, a 75% “failure” rate for academics is pretty dismal. Being repeatedly told we should just be grateful for our jobs and shut up only allows for the myth to perpetuate itself. We are failed scholars because we allow others to define us as such.

There is also the larger question of the ever-shrinking pool of leadership candidates in higher education, or at least candidates who are actually academics. This is especially acute when you consider that a majority of those off the tenure-track are women and visible minorities. In ten, twenty years, who will be leading our colleges and universities? I understand that few academics have any interest in leadership positions, but I would think that the number would significantly increase if we looked in that pool that makes up the 75% majority of faculty members working today. Many have already displayed leadership qualities by redesigning programs, starting student groups and community outreach programs, etc, usually with no compensation or recognition. Others have been busy leading union chapters and negotiations, starting groups such as the New Faculty Majority, and speaking out about contingent issues. Aren’t those skills what we are looking for in higher education leadership?

(No, you don’t need to point out that the corporate university has no room in their leadership slate for those whose experience is union-centered; this is part of the problem, no?)

Tenure is important not just because of academic freedom and job security (oh, and student success), but also because it opens the door to other opportunities, opportunities that are unavailable to those who are not on the tenure-track. We are not “failed scholars,” nor are we all simply satisfied with teaching, with no interest in research or administration/leadership. There is talent and ambition just waiting for an opportunity. The university that finally realizes this and acts on it will be in the forefront in reinventing higher education moving forward

So, what are you waiting for?

Kentucky in the USA

Lee Elaine Skallerup has a PhD from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a regular contributor at University of Venus.


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