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Promotion, While Off the Tenure Track

Scores of full-time, non-tenure-track instructors were promoted last year under a recognition and reward system at Penn State.

October 1, 2018
 

After a major overhaul of how it classifies and rewards the approximately 50 percent of its faculty members who teach full-time but off the tenure track, Pennsylvania State University is claiming success.

Central administrators told the Faculty Senate last week that in one year, 184 of such non-tenure-track faculty members have been promoted: forty to assistant teaching or research professor, 94 to associate teaching or research professor and 50 to full teaching or research professor.

Of those professors, 150 now hold multiyear contracts, with 115 securing contracts of three years or more. Thirty-five professors hold two-year contracts and the rest hold one-year contracts. These new contracts come with raises.

Penn State was unable to say exactly what share of full-timers were promoted, since the way instructors were classified prior to this shift across 24 campuses doesn’t make for an easy comparison. But the numbers are significant and meaningful to those on the ground.

Kevin Hagopian, a longtime lecturer who is now an associate teaching professor in media studies at University Park campus, said he thought the change reflects “a huge amount of mission creep at Penn State, where non-tenure-track faculty members are doing the kinds of work that it was long thought required the special set of brains that went along with the tenure track.” At Penn State, he added, non-tenure-track professors “are department heads and teaching on the graduate faculty, and this is a way of recognizing and regularizing all that.”

Beyond teaching and research, Hagopian said, “structurally and administratively and in a dozen other ways, we have become more essential to the operation of the university than we were a few decades or even a few years ago.”

Hagopian is on a five-year contract. In his case, he previously held these longer-term contracts with the expectation of being reappointed for strong service. But the expectations and terms for instructors across programs and campuses were all different, and the new path to promotion system does much to align them.

Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at State College and chair of the University Faculty Senate, credited his provost, Nick Jones, with making good on a promise to look into paths to promotion for non-tenure-track faculty members. Back in 2015, Bérubé published a book calling for a teaching-intensive tenure track for long-serving adjuncts and, especially, those with terminal degrees. He forwarded an article about the book to Jones, he said, and Jones responded that while Penn State wouldn’t proceed with such a conversion plan, it would look for other ways to stabilize the full-time, non-tenure-track faculty.

“He has agreed from the outset that there is no sense in having people teach here for 30 years on 30 one-year contracts,” Bérubé said. “And since our FT faculty are involved in governance at every level, including Senate, we want them to have as much job security as possible.”

So the senate took on the stabilization task, focusing on full-time, or “fixed-term,” promotion review committees made up of full-time peers, tiers of promotion, professorial titles and access to multiyear contracts. Under the new system, those without terminal degrees can be lecturers, and assistant and associate teaching or research professors. Those with terminal degrees may be assistant, associate or full teaching or research professors.

Penn State’s central administration, referred to on campus as Old Main, approved of most of the Senate’s recommendations but did not sign off on three- and five-year terms by rank, preferring instead to give chancellors and deans more say in reappointment decisions. And that’s one reason the high number of multiyear contracts “is encouraging,” Bérubé said, in that administrators are not using “flexibility” as an “excuse for more one-year contracts.”

Asked why he supported the initiative, Bérubé said it’s “the right thing to do, and the best outcome we could have gotten short of conversion to tenure.”

Did he have doubts it was possible? Yes, he said, “Oh, very much yes.” Plus, he added, ”We still have to monitor this whole thing very carefully, and of course units now have to figure out for themselves what the promotion criteria for non-tenure-track faculty should be.”

For example, he said, “changes in title are not changes in job description.” Teaching-Intensive faculty members can’t be expected to suddenly develop a research profile and vice versa.

Jones, the provost, referred a request for comment to Kathleen J. Bieschke, vice provost for faculty affairs. She said that professors who are non-tenure line are “vital members of the scholarly community at Penn State.” The new titles not only provide these instructors with a “more stable career progression” but also provide the institution the “opportunity to recognize and celebrate excellent performance.”

Bieschke was reluctant to guess whether the promotion numbers would increase substantially next year, too, however, since 85 percent of academic units adopted a promotion process last academic year. The rest are expected to do so this year.

So while it seems like the numbers would increase, she said, many units “fully embraced this first opportunity to recognize those colleagues who were deserving of a promotion.”

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