Visions of Adjunct Tenure

At a meeting of advocates for those off the tenure track, two groups present ideas to improve job security, working conditions and pay.
August 16, 2010

QUEBEC CITY – Two groups released their visions for job security, academic freedom and better pay for adjuncts and contingent faculty here this weekend at a gathering of academic labor activists from across North America.

The biennial meeting of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor attracted adjuncts from the United States, Canada and Mexico who, despite coming from widely varied institutions and labor structures, were all pushing for tenure-like rights (if not tenure itself) for non-tenure-track faculty.

“The only goal worth fighting for is full justice for all who teach,” said Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, during a plenary session on Sunday at Université Laval. “The first fundamental step is to give people lifetime job security and then build from that.”

Nelson distributed “Tenure and Teaching Intensive Appointments,” a revised version of a draft released last fall by AAUP’s Committee on Contingency and the Profession, which is to be published in September, and outlines the association's objective of seeing adjunct positions converted to the tenure track. New Faculty Majority, an 18-month-old adjunct group, released its first public draft of “Program for Change,” a 20-year plan of action aimed at “normalizing” the entire academic workforce.

A 2007 AAUP study found that nearly 70 percent of faculty were neither tenured nor tenure-track. “The tenure track has not vanished, but it has ceased to be the norm,” the report says. “This means that the majority of faculty work in subprofessional conditions, often without basic protections for academic freedom.”

Moving ahead, AAUP’s report says, “the best practice for institutions of all types is to convert the status of faculty serving contingently to eligibility for tenure with only minor changes in job description.” The report calls for a transitional process for current adjuncts and for future tenure consideration to be available for those whose duties are primarily teaching based on teaching ability, not research.

This would represent a major shift in tenure practice at many institutions. At research institutions and many other institutions, research is a dominant factor in tenure decisions. And that has been a major roadblock to the conversion of adjunct slots to tenure-track jobs, even when adjuncts teach at the same institutions year after year, as those instructors are typically working on course loads that make it impossible for them to achieve research accomplishments of the sort that win tenure at those institutions.

For adjuncts who want to teach on a part-time basis, AAUP’s best practice recommendation is to create “fractional positions, including fully proportional pay, that are eligible for tenure and benefits, with proportional expectations for service and professional development.”

In all, these measures would amount to the elimination of the two-tiered tenure-track/non-tenure-track system, a position that Nelson and the AAUP have advocated in recent years.

AAUP’s document does not outline specific means for achieving its ultimate goals.

A preliminary plan

While AAUP’s vision is a statement of principle – that all faculty be assured tenure (meaning job security and academic freedom) -- New Faculty Majority’s “Program for Change” is intended to detail how adjuncts can go about getting the various rights and privileges that come along with tenure, and perhaps the title “tenure” itself.

In the long run, the introduction to the plan says, NFM aims at “the normalization of the academic profession and the abolition of the multi-tiered labor system.” Tenure might be the ultimate goal they're fighting for, but there are lots of incremental steps the NFM plan suggests along the way.

At a Saturday discussion of the plan, Matt Williams, NFM’s vice president, cautioned that it is “a draft very much in process” but nonetheless important to share at COCAL because it outlines “a series of very concrete goals and benchmarks” to be achieved in 5-year increments over the next 20 years.

(Williams also noted that though the plan was created by two NFM board members and will likely be adopted by the group following revisions, NFM “honestly cannot formally endorse any strategic plan until we’ve had the opportunity to hear from our membership whether they want us to do so.”)

The plan spans two decades because, the introduction says, “it is not realistic to suppose that the two-tier employment system, and the funding patterns which have evolved over decades to support it, can be fully transformed in a shorter time span than 20 years.” Full achievement of all the NFM goals would amount to equal pay, benefits, job security and academic freedom for the people who are today considered adjuncts, but whether a system as conservative as higher education can be so dramatically transformed in 20 years is difficult to say.

The plan lists 32 areas where NFM seeks change. Achieving some goals, like equal pay and benefits for contingent faculty, would come with significant institutional costs. Other measures – including academic freedom, the right to tenure and the option of status conversion – would have little to no direct cost associated with them, according to NFM.

Jack Longmate, an adjunct English instructor at Olympic College in Washington and member of the NFM board of directors -- and one of the plan’s two authors -- said that reaching goals in some of the areas would be “a way to maybe work ourselves out of this quagmire that is contingency.”

Under the plan, in the next 5 to 10 years, before contingent faculty are able to achieve some sort of stabilization or the entire academic work force is normalized, members would fight for equal participation in unions and associations for adjuncts, as well as a small percentage of group funding to advocate for adjunct interests. The plan also envisions pushing for state or federal legislation ensuring unemployment insurance and access to pensions for adjuncts – both in the next decade or so.

The plan does not propose to abolish tenure, which “can and should continue as the extraordinary level of job security and academic freedom that it is. However, we propose that eventually tenure be delinked from salary and time-status. This does not imply a reduction in compensation for currently tenured faculty or those on tenure track. In the future, however, tenure would be granted without significant cost impact.”

The idea, organizers said, is to remove the fear of administrators that awarding tenure to adjuncts would mean raising their pay levels to those of the currently tenured. Higher salaries would, though, be an eventual goal.

The plan's goal is for compensation in the next five years to reach at least 50 percent of the lowest tenure-track salary; in 10 years, at least 60 percent; in 15 years, at least 80 percent, and in 20 years, to equal tenured faculty. Adjuncts would be compensated for office hours, research and service.

Holly Clarke, a member of the City University of New York’s Professional Staff Congress, said that “eliminating the two-tier system from the bottom up is key” and that “true conversion rather than expansion of tenure-track positions” is preferable because it keeps contingents in their jobs, rather than opening positions to nationwide searches and new applicants.

But not all reactions were quite as positive. Suzanne Hudson, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the plan “seems to be the long way around” toward improving conditions for adjuncts. “Why not go for tenure? This doesn’t really eliminate the two-tiered system.”

A partial answer from Williams, suggesting that the plan amounted to tenure in all but name: “tenure is the new dirty word" in higher education and beyond.


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