Shrinking Job Security

After the State College of Florida replaced a tenure-like system with three-year contracts for all new faculty members, some complained. So the board shifted to one-year contracts.

June 23, 2016
 

The Board of Trustees of the State College of Florida voted Tuesday to institute one-year contracts for all new faculty members, rescinding a prior motion for three-year contracts. The move has heightened faculty concerns about academic freedom and job security that first arose last fall, when the college eliminated its tenure-like system of continuous contracts.

The Board of Trustees voted 4 to 2 in favor of the motion for one-year contracts. Of the two board members who voted against the motion, Craig Trigueiro emerged as a vocal critic of introducing one-year contracts at a time when faculty members already resent the Board of Trustees for eliminating continuous contracts.

“We need a period of tranquillity at this college, a period of healing between the board and faculty before we throw gas on the fire,” Trigueiro said at the meeting. “Let’s see what happens in a year or two, but to do it now so precipitously is unwise.”

Under the terms of the motion approved Tuesday, faculty members will have their contracts renewed one year at a time for the first five years of employment, according to minutes of the Board of Trustees meeting obtained by Inside Higher Ed. After five consecutive years of meeting certain performance expectations, faculty will be able to apply for a three-year contract.

Eric Robinson, a member of the Board of Trustees, said he introduced the motion to rescind the three-year contracts after reading some faculty members’ concerns about multiyear contracts in the local newspaper, The Herald-Tribune. “It was widely reported that they wanted that rescinded, so I listened to their concerns,” he said.

But faculty members said this was a distortion of what they had said, and that they disliked the three-year contracts because they were not as close to tenure as the continuous contracts. Moving to one-year contracts, as the board did, was not what professors desired.

Robyn Bell, director of instrumental studies and former president of the Faculty Senate at SCF, said she believes Robinson was acting on concerns from a small minority of the faculty. The majority of the faculty supports the three-year contracts as a compromise for the continuing contracts that were abolished, she wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

“It is my belief that the majority of the faculty members do not feel this way and we are disappointed at Trustee Robinson's knee-jerk reaction to a vocal minority,” Bell wrote. “We had taken one step forward, but Trustee Robinson, and those that voted with him to rescind the three-year contract policy, has made us take two steps back.”

When the Board of Trustees voted last fall to eliminate the system of continuous contracts, the full-time faculty voted no confidence in the board by a margin of 118 to 2. Some faculty members expressed concerns that SCF would no longer be able to recruit high-quality professors as Florida’s only state college not to offer continuing contracts. Others feared that SCF was moving away from its commitment to academic freedom, since the continuous contracts protected professors who made potentially offensive statements from being fired after one year.

Tuesday’s vote served to amplify these faculty concerns from last fall, said Del Jacobs, associate professor of film and media studies at SCF. “This all goes back to the elimination of continuous contracts, which most of the faculty loudly opposed,” he said. “That resentment is still fermenting.”

The one-year contracts will leave new faculty members with little job security, undermining their potential for long-term engagement with the institution, Jacobs said. “A one-year renewable contract for everyone is essentially at-will employment,” he said.

Elizabeth Smith, president of the Faculty Senate at SCF, said the one-year contracts may also deter faculty members from applying for positions at SCF. “If I were someone looking for a job and all of the other 27 community and state colleges in this state offered continuing contracts, why would I even send an application here?” she said. “There’s no incentive. Even if someone had family in the area, there are other colleges in the area that they could work for.”

Barry Puett, chair of the department of social and behavioral sciences at SCF, said she believes less qualified faculty will be hired under the one-year contracts. “They’re going to replace professors who are experts in their fields with people who are not as knowledgeable,” she said. “They will not have as high a level of skill or expertise as before, because the salary expectations will be insecure and short-term. It’s really a very scary thing.”

The one-year contracts may also undermine academic freedom, since professors who express troublesome views could see their employment terminated after just one year, Puett said. “If someone is causing trouble or disagreeing with the board, they’ll just get rid of them,” she said.

The Board of Trustees vote could influence more faculty members to join an ongoing unionization effort, Puett said. At least 80 faculty members began this effort in February by submitting signed union cards to the state’s Public Employees Relations Committee. The cards were delivered by officials from the United Faculty of Florida, a statewide union for faculty members of public colleges and universities.

The faculty is set to vote on unionization in August via mailed ballots. If the unionization effort proves successful, the one-year contracts could become a subject of collective bargaining.

“It was a shortsighted move, because if there were any faculty sitting on the fence about a union, they’ll probably vote for it now,” Puett said. The 80 faculty members who submitted union cards already constitute a majority of the college’s 125 total faculty members, some of whom are ineligible to vote, she said.

The Board of Trustees vote may ultimately reflect the larger political climate in Florida. All seven members of the Board of Trustees were appointed by Republican Governor Rick Scott, who has repeatedly clashed with faculty unions.

The members of the Board of Trustees are “doing what they think the governor wants them to do to make the higher education system cheaper,” Pruett said.

“These people were appointed by the governor for a reason,” wrote Courtney Ruffner Grieneisen, chair of the department of language and literature at SCF, in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “This newest decision shows that several of the Board of Trustees are putting their own bias … above the best interest of the college.”

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