The Adjunctification of Antioch

Shutdown of college will leave all of university's other campuses without tenure. What does that shift mean?
June 26, 2007

Much of the discussion of the planned shutdown of Antioch College at the end of the coming academic year has focused on the unique qualities of the education offered there.

Another shift will also take place with the shutdown -- a shift that many professors at the college find sad and ironic. Antioch University -- known because of the original undergraduate college as an institution with a strong faculty -- will become an institution with five campuses, not one of which will have a tenured faculty member or a tenure system.

In an era when much of the growth in faculty jobs comes in adjunct positions, the shift at Antioch could be telling, some say. Some at the campuses without tenure -- including some faculty leaders -- say that they have been able to apply principles of shared governance and academic freedom without tenure.

But other signs are disturbing to many at Antioch. Layoffs at the Seattle campus last year -- in which some of those who lost their jobs complained that they were denied basic rights to hearings or appeals -- demonstrate the fragility of life without tenure protections.

The American Association of University Professors negotiated with Antioch about the dismissals, and won additional severance for those who lost their jobs, but it has yet to win the sorts of protections that might prevent similar disputes. At Antioch's distance education campus, efforts were started last year to organize an AAUP chapter -- and those efforts died when the organizers lost their jobs. The university says that was because there wasn't demand for their programs, but those involved disagree.

On some campuses -- Antioch's Los Angeles branch in particular -- faculty leaders speak highly of administrators and don't express any need for tenure. But there appears to be a high degree of fear among some other Antioch faculty members; several responded to inquiries for this article by saying that they wanted to help but were afraid for their jobs and had been told by their bosses not to talk to reporters. Even some ex-professors and adjuncts at Antioch said that they were afraid to talk because the market in their fields is so tight that they don't want to offend their former supervisors.

"Why is Antioch of all places setting up a for-profit style university nationwide, with all these adjuncts and no place for tenure?" said one former adjunct at an Antioch regional campus who is now working elsewhere in higher education. "The problem is that there is a contradiction between the Antioch [College] values and the job insecurity, and it comes up on an almost daily basis, such that adjuncts can be and often are let go without due process, because of a student complaint or a faculty complaint, and there is no way to help them."

Antioch's regional campuses have been seen by the university's leaders as the institution's financial lifeline, and as a result, the campuses pride themselves on being "student centered," to a degree that adjuncts say strips them of authority. Said the former adjunct: "You can be subject to any kind of gossip or innuendo, and because it's very student-centered, the adjuncts have even less clout to fight back."

Comparing the faculty patterns at Antioch College -- the liberal arts institution being eliminated -- and the regional campuses is striking. The following data are from a study last year by the AAUP, which was based on statistics gathered by the U.S. Education Department.

Faculty Status at Antioch Campuses

Campus Full-Time Tenured Full-Time Tenure Track Full-Time Non-Tenure Track Part-Time
Antioch College 26 13 7 0
Los Angeles 0 0 18 5
McGregor (distance education) 0 0 27 57
New England 0 0 43 92
Santa Barbara 0 0 7 57
Seattle 0 0 36 79

Antioch College faculty members have noted these patterns with some dismay, and their allies fear that the university's board is intentionally trying to remove tenure. Officially, Antioch College could be reborn in some new form in 2012, after shutting down in 2008, and that four-year gap has people speculating about an underlying opposition to tenure. Under AAUP guidelines, an institution that eliminates tenured positions after declaring financial exigency has an obligation to offer any new jobs back to tenured professors who lost positions -- but that obligation lasts for only three years.

"There is a lot of irony in the situation right now," said Dimi Reber, a retired professor at the college who has been acting as a spokeswoman for other faculty members who are afraid to speak out. Professors at the regional campuses "don't have tenure and can be fired. They work at campuses that have a progressive agenda in their educational plan, but the administrative structure is regressive."

Antioch University officials say that the development of campuses without tenure was not sinister or even necessarily planned.

"Tenure has never been available, and it's never been thought of when those campuses were created," said Laurien Alexandre, vice chancellor for academic affairs of the university system. The "early vision" of the campuses was that they were "satellites of the college," and need not be "fully vested in tenure and academic culture," she said.

The campuses have gradually grown in size and importance over time -- such that they now each have their own presidents. While precise arrangements vary from campus to campus, some faculty members are hired on a strictly part-time basis, course by course. Some others are considered "core faculty" and work full time or close to that, working up in some cases to contracts of a few years at a time.

Alexandre said that she has not heard of faculty members complaining about the lack of tenure. She said that she has heard from faculty members who want to strengthen contracts, create more long-term contracts, and to improve other conditions, and Alexandre said that she strongly supports such efforts. "If you talk to faculty, they will tell you that they are concerned about improving their contracts," she said.

At Antioch McGregor (the university's distance education campus), Dan Reyes said he wished a tenure system existed when he worked there. Reyes taught courses in the arts and cultural studies. In 2005, he helped organize a fledgling chapter of the AAUP. "We were noticing that the administration was making restructuring moves, making decisions that faculty should be involved in," he said. The next year, Reyes was told that his position was no longer needed, and that he was out of a job -- even though, he says, his advising and teaching schedules were full.

Reyes said that his experience demonstrated the value of a tenure system. "When push comes to shove, faculty members have very little protection," he said, in a system without tenure. Working at Antioch McGregor has been "disastrous" for him, he said. A year after losing his job, he's still looking for academic work.

Barbara Gellman-Danley, president at McGregor, has a very different take on events there. She said that she never heard of an AAUP chapter being formed or of any concerns about faculty governance. She said that she could not discuss why individuals lost jobs, but she said that the only reasons generally for losing jobs are poor performance or a program not attracting enough students.

Gellman-Danley said that because the college offers very specific programs, "you can't just move people around" if enrollment falls. And she said Antioch needed to focus on areas -- such as teacher education, which is growing -- with strong student demand.

"I think in a moving, responsive environment such as adult higher education, we have to stay on top of the market," she said.

The layoffs in Seattle have also been attracting much concern about Antioch professors. Ormond Smythe, academic dean there, confirmed that "about a half dozen" faculty members lost their jobs last year, as a result of declines in enrollment in education programs. Smythe said that the grievances by some of the faculty members -- who could not be identified or reached -- concerned the way they were selected and the severance they received. He acknowledged that with a tenure system, "it's not clear" that the university could have eliminated the positions that it did.

Smythe said that there are strong protections in place for faculty members. At the Seattle campus, once people have been around for two years, they are placed on a cycle of in-depth reviews every five years, although their contracts are renewed annually. Those reviews are largely conducted by fellow faculty members, he said. In the case of a full-time faculty member on contract, about whom a complaint is lodged, the review cycle would be moved up, but would still take place.

Unlike many Antioch administrators, Smythe supports tenure. "I personally favor it. I've been at institutions with it and without it, and I believe it's in the institution's interest to have it, not just the faculty's interest," he said (noting that he was speaking for himself and that he was aware that the university did not endorse that view). He said that in some cases, it is more difficult to recruit faculty talent without tenure, although he said he is impressed with the talent at the campus.

Tenure, Smythe said, "tends to stabilize an institution. It tends to permit the faculty to work in a climate in which they have greater dignity and protection and academic freedom."

Cynthia McDermott is among those Antioch professors not worried about a lack of tenure. McDermott teaches education at the Los Angeles campus and is head of the Faculty Assembly there -- a body created last year, more than 30 years after the university started operating in the area.

McDermott spent most of her career at California State University at Dominguez Hills, where she earned tenure, but she doesn't miss it. "I think tenure has value and it also can be a problem because senior faculty establish themselves in positions that their enthusiasm for the work can wane," she said. At Antioch Los Angeles, "we function in a collaborative, committed social justice perspective," she said. The "moral fabric" of the faculty is so strong that tenure isn't needed, she said.

Relations with the administration are "fabulous," and nobody is afraid to voice opinions. "If you came to a community meeting, you'd see us all sitting in a circle sharing our thoughts -- faculty, staff, students," McDermott said. "Is it perfect? No, nothing's perfect, but it's a good attempt to put democracy in action."

Neil King, the president at Antioch Los Angeles, said he understands the arguments some make for tenure, but that it's not necessary at an institution like his. Antioch has "long-serving faculty" who have never faced problems because of their views, he said. "There's no 'say the wrong thing and you are gone' kind of environment." If anyone ever lost a job for expressing views, he said, "in the best Antioch tradition, I'd be at the barricades with everyone else."

When he was in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, he had "amazing professors" but also professors who "brought in their notes from the 1920s," and the latter suggest problems with tenure. Tenure doesn't have "accountability to maintain standards" and "people can use it as a cushion."

He said that without tenure, the university can do more. "We need to retain financial agility to improve quality for students," he said.

To Cary Nelson, such arguments are empty. President of the AAUP and an Antioch alum, he has been in constant contact with faculty members there, and he said that many feel "deep anguish" at the lack of job security and academic freedom that now exists.

It's not about protecting faculty members from hard work, he stressed. Nelson said he always believed that Antioch was "the best possible place to be a student," but quite a difficult place to be a professor "because of all of the demands placed on you there." But the pride people express in Antioch, he said, is about long-term connections with professors, who teach and shape an institution. "These are the people who become the living incarnation of a college's history," he said. "You cannot get that kind of depth out of contingent labor."

As for all the statements from Antioch about academic freedom at campuses -- and soon the entire university -- without tenure, Nelson isn't buying. "Academic freedom depends on job security," he said. "If they can fire you tomorrow, you really don't have academic freedom."


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