Academe may be trending away from tenure but Worcester Polytechnic Institute is adding 15 tenure-track faculty lines this academic year. It will add 15 more tenure-track lines during each of the of next two years, for a total of 45.
These aren't typical tenure-track lines, either: the slots are reserved for current WPI full-time, non-tenure-track instructors who specialize in teaching. Eventually the professors will be promoted with tenure, or not, primarily based on their teaching records.
Their chances already look good, as they were selected among their peers for the tenure track based on a combination of their existing records and seniority.
"Don't get me wrong, I felt appreciated before," said Rodica Neamtu, a non-tenure-track professor of computer science who has taught at WPI for four years and will return to campus this fall on the tenure track. "But I do feel like, for the first time now, the school has given a real, official sign of commitment. Loyalty, if you want, and a different kind of recognition."
There's a new sense of belonging, too, said Neamtu, who helped establish and co-directs WPI's project center in Bucharest, one of many international centers where WPI students partner with local organizations to research and solve real-world problems.
"Even though the majority of the faculty has always been inclusive and appreciative, there was always that feeling of not being a first-class citizen," Neamtu said. Now, "I feel not that I'm accepted but rather that I belong."
A teaching-intensive tenure track may make particular sense at WPI, where the curriculum centers on project-based learning and therefore demands innovative teaching methods -- methods that students don't always reward in their end-of-term evaluations of teaching. All WPI undergraduates complete Interactive Qualifying Projects, for instance, working in interdisciplinary teams to think through problems that involve science and society.
Neamtu, who supervises many of these projects, said she's never feared using new teaching strategies or pushing students out of their comfort zones. But she did describe feeling "uneasy" doing this all on a one- or two-year contract, as is common for non-tenure-track professors.
Mark Richman, an associate professor of aerospace engineering who has tenure and serves as secretary of the faculty, helped push WPI to make the change. One talking point was the discrepancy between WPI's emphasis on the curriculum and its treatment of those off the tenure track who deliver it, he said.
"Institutions often say one thing and then do something else," Richman continued said. "When we were fighting for this, what we talked about quite a bit was the mismatch between what we said we valued, and how we treated those who were critical to our educational mission. And it was a powerful argument."
At WPI, about 70 percent of full-time professors have tenure or are on the traditional tenure track, focused on research and teaching. Thirty percent are untenured. Under the new model, that 30 percent will be a mix of tenured, tenure-track and full-time, non tenure-track professors who all specialize in teaching.
Even if it's a good fit for WPI, the conversion-to-tenure-track model didn't originate there, and scholars at that campus and elsewhere hope it spreads.
Winston "Wole" Soboyejo, WPI's provost, said that in reading applications for the first 15 new lines, he "realized we have really some of the most amazing teachers. Really outstanding individuals. And what we're doing here is shining the spotlight on how we motivate and how we reward the very best teachers, who shape the graduates of our institutions in ways that determine the outcomes that these folks have on our society."
Soboyejo continued, "I hope that other institutions will consider this within the framework of their cultures. I really hope that this is going to become part of what gives the U.S. an edge as we reward the teachers that create the excellence that we want."
Scholars Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth proposed converting non-tenure-track professor jobs to teaching-based tenure-track lines in their 2015 book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments. In so doing, they wrote that the real crisis of the humanities is the mass, informal hiring of non-tenure-track professors into jobs with no security and no academic freedom.
Bérubé and Ruth argued that such a tenure track should run parallel to the existing, research-intensive tenure track, as is the case at WPI, which remains a research institution. Similar to the traditional tenure track, Berube and Ruth also said that the tenure process for teaching professors "would involve rigorous peer review, conducted by their tenured colleagues at the same institution, but would carry no expectations for research or creative activity," although service would still be required.
Bérubé's and Ruth's book generated a lot of buzz. But six years on, WPI is the only U.S. institution to put their conversion model into place, apart from some where collective bargaining agreements allow for long-serving professors to apply for tenure-track jobs.
It's "something neither Jennifer nor I managed to pull off at our own institutions," Bérubé said recently. He and Ruth met with faculty members at WPI over Zoom about the change.
WPI's own process took three years. Some details are still being worked out, such as how long the tenure track will take for professors with a demonstrated record of service. Soboyejo said some may only need three years to earn tenure.
Not all full-time, non-tenure-track professors at WPI will get a tenure-track job. Faculty advocates and WPI's administration ultimately agreed that 40 percent of full-time, non-tenure-track professors would have a shot, in the form of 45 slots introduced over three years.
Beyond adding tenure-track lines for non-tenure track professors, WPI is simultaneously lengthening contracts for non-tenure-track teaching professors who don't get tenure-track slots, making them new guarantees of academic freedom and allowing them to participate and vote in faculty governance. All of these changes, including the new tenure track, were unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees and by a large majority of the faculty.
Because WPI was concerned about the cost of such a change, all parties also agreed professors who get on the tenure track won't get an immediate pay increase.
"We went head to head with the administration and it took a long time for us to impress upon them that it wasn't going to cost them anything," Richman said. "The only difference is less turnover."
Soboyejo hopes the change, among others, will help bring down the annual turnover rate for non-tenure-track professors from 16 percent to a more manageable rate of 4.5 percent, inclusive of retirements.
In addition to cost, faculty members said that administrators were worried about a new tenure track limiting their flexibility. Indeed, the need to be flexible in terms of hiring or agile as an organization is a common argument against tenure in general.
Kristin Boudreau, a tenured professor of humanities, said she and other professors countered that flexibility can "mean different things."
"We sat down with the president and provost and said 'Look, you know, if things get bad and enrollment declines and you have to make cuts, don't get rid of people -- that's a permanent solution to what's probably a temporary crisis. You know you can furlough us, we can do temporary pay reductions, you can temporarily decrease your contribution to retirement. There are things that you can do that the faculty will go along with if they know it's a temporary way to get through this, and if they know they're doing it in order for you not to get rid of their non-tenure-track colleagues."
While the conversion model sets a precedent for U.S. academe and, per Soboyejo, has implications for our national competitiveness, it of course has major implications for the everyday lives of professors at WPI. Soboyejo said, for instance, said he's heard of at least one non-tenure-track professor who's planning to buy a home now, due to the increased job stability.
John Galante, an assistant teaching professor of history, international and global studies who will be on the tenure-track this fall, said he has deep family ties to Worcester, Mass., where WPI is located. In his case, WPI's commitment means that he can stay working in academe altogether, instead of finding more stable work to stay close to home.
The change also benefits WPI, Galante said, in that "it's going to allow the teaching faculty to do even more and to have an even greater impact at the at the school."
WPI "had provided a lot of support to full-time, non-tenure-track faculty relative to other places," he added. "And I feel like this is an extension of that, because the university is investing in us, in a way, by giving us the path to tenure and assisting our professional development."