Seeking Tenure 'Conversion'

In discussions about the use and abuse of adjunct faculty members, "conversion" is a controversial topic. Typically it refers to a decision by a college or university to convert some number of adjunct positions into a number (typically a smaller number) of tenure-track positions. The idea of conversion has been key to the reform proposals of national faculty groups.

October 28, 2009

In discussions about the use and abuse of adjunct faculty members, "conversion" is a controversial topic. Typically it refers to a decision by a college or university to convert some number of adjunct positions into a number (typically a smaller number) of tenure-track positions. The idea of conversion has been key to the reform proposals of national faculty groups. Some colleges actually have bucked the trends and converted slots to the tenure track in various ways.

The American Association of University Professors on Tuesday entered the conversion debate in a significant way with a new draft policy on the treatment of adjunct faculty members.

A cursory look at the draft might suggest that it is just another statement from a faculty group calling for better treatment of adjuncts and the creation of more tenure-track lines. But it actually reflects an attempt to shift how conversion might take place -- by calling for a switch not of slots, but in the status of those currently working as adjuncts, whom the AAUP wants tenured (or converted).

Specifically, it calls for these faculty members to be considered for tenure based on their teaching contributions (assuming that like most adjuncts they focus on teaching), even if they are at research universities. Further, while the AAUP praises the tactic used by many academic unions and some individual colleges of providing adjuncts with more job security and better benefits and pay, the association goes on record as saying that anything short of tenure can't be viewed as a substitute.

"As faculty hired into contingent positions seek and obtain greater employment security, often through collective bargaining, it is becoming clear that academic tenure and employment security are not reducible to each other," the draft statement says. "A potentially crippling development in these arrangements is that many, while improving on the entirely insecure positions they replace, offer limited conceptions of academic citizenship and service, few protections for academic freedom, little opportunity for professional growth, and no professional peer scrutiny in hiring, evaluation, and promotion."

Many parts of the AAUP policy are likely to find favor with adjuncts and other faculty members, many of whom fear the impact of the shift at many colleges to reliance on adjuncts as opposed to those on the tenure track.

But parts of the draft could be controversial. For instance, the theory behind the draft is that anyone who has been teaching year after year at a college should be qualified for a tenure track job. At the vast majority of colleges that are teaching oriented, the AAUP can argue that the adjuncts are in fact performing the duties of faculty members just as those down the hall (with tenure) do.

But the issue is more complicated at research universities -- which led to some disagreements on the AAUP panel that drafted the report. Most research universities look for evidence of research potential when hiring for the tenure track, and most adjuncts -- by virtue of spending all of their time teaching, and much of it rushing from campus to campus, with little if any support for attending conferences and other research activities -- don't tend to have the same publication records as others.

So universities that in fact employ the same adjuncts year after year to teach freshman composition might never seriously consider those individuals for a tenure-track line in English. How would conversion take place there?

The AAUP draft isn't specific on the issue, because of the disagreements about what to do. One vision -- outlined by Marc Bousquet, co-chair of the committee that wrote the draft and a professor of English at Santa Clara University -- is to push for the creation of dual tenure track lines at research universities. Bousquet said that there is "a mistaken idea that tenure should be reserved for research-intensive" careers. "The foundation for academic freedom" that tenure provides is just as important for those teaching, so they should be offered tenure as teaching professors at research universities, he said. The bottom line, he said, is that anyone teaching at a college or university needs academic freedom that only comes with tenure.

While Bousquet acknowledged that there are concerns associated with having multiple tenure tracks at the same universities, he said that the most important thing was to provide full academic freedom protections to everyone, not just those who can get jobs based on their research. It would be problematic if research universities in such a system treated those on the research-oriented track better than those on the teaching-oriented track, he said, "but there are hierarchies now. They already exist." The difference is that those on the bottom of today's hierarchies don't have any tenure rights.

While many on the committee endorsed Bousquet's vision of dual tenure tracks to allow for the conversion of slots, one member who did not is Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP. Nelson said that a "two-tiered class structure" would be "incredibly destructive" to morale among research university faculty, and that he can't support such a measure. Nelson said that a majority of members of the committee that drafted the policy probably agree with Bousquet and that the issue would probably be addressed as the policy is refined.

At the same time, Nelson said that it is disingenuous for research universities to say that they can't hire adjuncts to the tenure track because of standards. "How can they say that about adjuncts they employ for 25 years?" he asked. So Nelson said that he would propose that research universities hire their adjuncts into tenure-track lines "as a stopgap measure, to get justice for the contingent faculty members," but then stop using contingent faculty members. So future hires would be on a common tenure track, with research and teaching obligations expected of all hires.

To permanently create separate tracks for teaching- and research-oriented faculty, he said, "would undermine the very nature of the research university."

While the AAUP draft doesn't explicitly endorse the two track system, it comes awfully close.

It says: "The best practice for institutions of all types is to convert the status of faculty serving contingently to eligible for tenure with only minor changes in job description. This means that faculty hired contingently with teaching as the major component of their workload will become tenure-eligible primarily on the basis of successful teaching. (Similarly, contingent faculty with research as the major component of their workload may become eligible for tenure primarily on the basis of successful research.) In the long run, however, a balance is desirable for most faculty. A tenure bid by a person in a teaching-intensive position is unlikely to be successful in the absence of campus citizenship and professional development, so even teaching-intensive tenure-eligible workloads should include service and appropriate forms of engagement in research or the scholarship of teaching."

Beyond recommending this course of action as a means to "stabilize" the faculty, the draft statement outlines various college policies that it endorses. And it offers reasons why the current system of increased use of non-tenure-track faculty members hurts the academic freedom of all professors.

"In short, tenure was framed to unite the faculty within a system of common professional values, standards, and mutual responsibilities," the draft says. "By 2007, however, almost 70 percent of faculty members were employed off the tenure track. Many institutions use contingent faculty appointments throughout their programs; some retain a tenurable faculty in their traditional or flagship programs while staffing others — such as branch campuses, online offerings, and overseas campuses — almost entirely with contingent faculty. Faculty serving contingently generally work at significantly lower wages, often without health coverage and other benefits, and in positions that do not incorporate all aspects of university life or the full range of faculty rights and responsibilities. The tenure track has not vanished, but it has ceased to be the norm for faculty."

While experts on the academic workforce have only started to look at the document, many offered praise and others were critical (for varying reasons). The American Federation of Teachers offered support, calling the draft "a welcome contribution to the cause shared by the two organizations." The AFT's Faculty and College Excellence project has as its twin goals the improvement of adjunct working conditions and the creation of more tenure-track positions. While the AFT has said that adjuncts deserve fair consideration for those positions, it has not suggested that the the individuals should be moved to the tenure track in the same way being suggested by the AAUP.

Maria Maisto, president of the Board of Directors of New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity, praised the AAUP draft, and she drew particular attention to the way the AAUP proposes to get adjuncts into the tenure track. "It's not just a question of creating more positions, but you have to take advantage and reinvest in the resources you already have," she said. "We're really pleased with that."

Maisto said that when colleges simply add tenure-track positions, adjuncts frequently lose jobs, unfairly. She noted, for example, that many colleges routinely hire those without Ph.D.'s to teach certain courses, but then -- after adding a tenure-track slot for the courses -- say that a doctorate is a requirement. "That's the kind of scenario that the report recognizes," she said. "We think the conversion of persons rather than positions is the way to go."

But for others, that's reason to question the AAUP draft. KC Johnson, a historian at Brooklyn College, spoke out against a conversion plan similar to what the AAUP is suggesting when the City University of New York faculty union sought one. (While the union didn't win the conversion plan as it proposed, CUNY did create numerous new tenure-track positions.)

Johnson said he opposed the AAUP draft for the same reasons he opposed the idea proposed by the CUNY union. "The AAUP statement is deeply troubling," he said. "Adjuncts are not hired through competitive, national searches, nor (with very, very rare exceptions) does an adjunct position contain any expectation of scholarly production. Converting them en masse to tenure-track faculty status would send a message to graduate students entering the field -- much less to state legislators, donors, and alumni -- that institutions no longer have any interest in ensuring that tenure-track positions result in the hire of the best candidate, drawn from a national pool to include consideration of the candidate's scholarly publications."

Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington State Part-Time Faculty Association, said that he thinks the AAUP draft is based on a presumption that tenure is the only way to protect faculty rights. Since Hoeller -- a long-term adjunct, who teaches at several colleges in the Seattle area -- believes that he and many others will work without tenure, he thinks that's the wrong approach. "I think the AAUP is trying to put their fingers in the holes of the dike, but they don't have enough fingers," he said.

Specifically, Hoeller said that the conversions envisioned by the AAUP draft will not take place at any kind of level to employ most adjuncts. "This would end up pitting adjunct against adjunct to compete for these new slots, and will leave the tenured faculty in control," he said. If research universities created the new track that Bousquet suggested for teaching-oriented faculty members, "they would be a little above the other adjuncts, but not at the same level of the tenured faculty," Hoeller said. "Adding more tracks is not going to solve the problem."

If the AAUP and other faculty groups cannot bring tenure-track options to everyone, Hoeller said, they should look for new ways to protect academic freedom. "There has to be a whole new look at the system," he said. "They need to think outside the box, but they can't. I'm not surprised that an association that's 90 percent tenured faculty would decide that the solution is more tenured faculty."


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