More Rights for Adjuncts

AAUP suggests standards for treatment of part timers, some of whom see plan as progress; others worry about its time limits.
September 13, 2006

The American Association of University Professors has long had detailed guidelines on how colleges should evaluate tenure-track faculty members. In a move designed to provide more help to those who aren't on the tenure track, the association on Tuesday announced that it would be asking members to approve a detailed set of guidelines for adjunct instructors.

The proposed guidelines go much further than previous AAUP statements in outlining a path in which part timers could achieve, if not tenure, some measure of job security and due process rights. The proposal follows years of study of the issue. While most of the proposal seems likely to please adjuncts (if not necessarily administrators), one part of the plan is of concern to some adjunct leaders who fear that it may discourage some colleges from employing the same adjuncts for long periods of time.

The AAUP proposal has three main provisions:

  • All part timers would have the right to written terms of appointment and the right to a hearing in case of dismissal before the end of a term.
  • Those who have served for three or more terms within three years would be assured of notice of reappointment or non-reappointment no later than one month before the end of a term. They would also be entitled to written explanations for a non-reappointment and the right to appeal any such action "that appears to be discriminatory, based significantly on considerations violating academic freedom, or attributable to inadequate consideration."
  • Those who have served seven years during which they have taught at least 12 courses would be entitled to a "comprehensive review with a view toward (1) appointment with part-time tenure where such exists, (2) appointment with part-time continuing service, or (3) non-reappointment."

At its next annual meeting, the AAUP's members could adopt the policy as part of the association's Recommended Institutional Regulations. What colleges would do with these regulations is anyone's guess, and officials with several associations that represent colleges said that they couldn't comment on them Tuesday. The degree of protection for part timers outlined in the policy goes far beyond what most colleges offer. Many colleges historically have pledged themselves to abiding by the AAUP guidelines, and on some campuses, AAUP has worked through its collective bargaining chapters or faculty senates to bring policies into compliance with the rules.

Karen Thompson, a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University who was on the committee that drafted the proposal, said that it could provide "a lot of ammunition" in all kinds of situations -- to a union engaged in bargaining or trying to organize adjuncts, to faculty committees, and to "benevolent administrations" trying to do the right thing.

Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, called the proposal "historic" in the extent to which it could help "many of our most valuable colleagues."

Several adjunct leaders predicted that most of the policy would receive substantial praise from their fellow part timers, and their only question was whether administrations would carry it out.

"These rules would be an improvement for the vast, vast majority of contingent faculty," said Joe Berry, chair of the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, who teaches at the University of Illinois and Roosevelt University. "The fact that a national association like the AAUP has put this out shows that they are seriously grappling with issues of casualization of faculty and that's very good."

But Berry and other adjunct leaders -- some of whom asked not to be identified because they appreciate that the AAUP has taken on an adjunct issue in a serious way -- said that they were bothered by the suggestion that colleges should offer those teaching for more than seven years either substantially more job security or the door. It's not that these officials don't like the idea of having substantive reviews for part timers and a path toward the tenure track or meaningful job security. But many fear that -- given a choice between offering job security or just getting rid of faculty members after a set period of time -- colleges will select the latter option. After all, many colleges hire adjuncts in part for the flexibility that they provide.

The AAUP has -- long before the recent growth of the use of adjuncts -- advocated set time periods in which faculty members should be considered for tenure. The theory was that without strict limits, some colleges would take advantage of professors by letting them teach indefinitely without tenure. And the AAUP's traditional system is credited with making it possible for faculty members -- for decades -- to have tenure decisions in a reasonable amount of time. But as colleges have had fewer tenure-track positions to offer, academic employment patterns have changed. And at some colleges that embrace the idea of either giving tenure or getting rid of professors after set periods of time, there are few openings for tenure. In some cases, adjuncts lose positions over this issue -- regardless of how good a job they are doing.

Berry said that this was his concern about the AAUP proposal, which he very much likes except for the portion about those who have worked seven years. The AAUP is trying to create "some parallelism" between the adjunct track and the non-tenure track, said Berry, author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. In theory, that makes sense, he said. But with so many colleges unwilling to create permanent positions for adjuncts, he said, time limits become "a way to churn contingent faculty and to disempower contingent faculty," adding that "in this case, it doesn't make sense to line up with the full-timers."

Other groups that push for better treatment of adjunct rights have taken a slightly different approach than the one the AAUP is advocating. The American Federation of Teachers has a set of "Standards of Good Practice in the Employment of Full-Time, Non-Tenure Track Faculty." That document, like the AAUP proposal, advocates that those who have demonstrated their success should be given a "presumption of contract renewal." The AFT suggests that contract length should grow up to five years. But it goes on to oppose any "arbitrary number of years that a faculty member can serve in a non-tenure-track position."

Nelson of the AAUP said that association leaders "are sensitive to the political issues that surround this topic." And he said he understood the fears of some adjuncts that any time limit could encourage colleges to dump them rather than assure them of job security. But he also said that he heard from many adjuncts who believe that "their institutions had a certain interest in sustaining a stable, modestly paid work force, and in lots of communities, the pool of potential adjuncts is not so large that you can just keep recycling, so there seemed to be a lot of institutions that are already keeping people on because that's what they want to do." In that context, he said, colleges will be encouraged to do more for adjuncts, not less.

It is true, he said, that "some schools could be frightened by this policy and avoid giving people these rights."

But he said it would be wrong for the AAUP to hold back -- when the entire point of the new standards is to insist on equitable treatment for those off the tenure track.

"In the long run, we need part timers to have a degree of job protection and job security," Nelson said. "What's better? Hiding or taking a stand that is right and pushing the profession to adopt these principles? We're putting a principle out there and arguing for the principle."


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