Serving Time: the 6-Year Rule
A professor off the tenure track sees the pain and irrationality created by a regulation that made sense 60 years ago.
When she interviewed at the university, my friend Jill asked very few questions. During the first year, she found a mentor and worked on improving her teaching techniques. She received excellent reviews from the chair, her peers and even her students. Frequently described as "thoughtful" and "amusing," a number of students followed her throughout the English sequence.
Inspired by her ability to take even dry subjects and make them seem lively and relevant, the chair began asking her to teach other courses in the humanities. By her fourth year, Jill was teaching a graduate course each semester, in addition to the "nuts and bolts" English courses in which she was an expert. Confident that she would be teaching at this Midwestern university for some time, Jill bought a house. Although it was no mansion, this duplex would allow her to keep her two dogs downstairs while she had a paying tenant upstairs. She loved the old-fashioned trim dividing the walls, the creaky wooden stairs, the octagon shaped window in the front room. She imagined that she would grow old here.
She had found her paradise. She had a job she loved, a campus that valued her, students that would stop her outside the Buehler’s Buy-Low to say hello, canine companionship and a group of close-knit friends. She belonged.
What happened in the sixth year of her employment was a shock. The chair of her department told her that although she had excellent reviews and the campus had no complaint about her work, she was being let go. Her initial three-year contract had lapsed into a yearly renewal; after this coming year, she would have no job. She had sat there, hands trembling, refusing to cry. She asked what had happened. The chair had said dryly, "Haven’t you heard of the six-year rule?" At home she found her faculty handbook and flipped to tenure. Buried on the fourth page of that section were the terms that would now crush her future:
"Tenure… is acquired de facto in the seventh year of a faculty member’s full-time service in the tenure-accumulating ranks, unless the faculty member receives notice during the sixth year that the seventh year of employment will be 'terminal.' Tenure de facto is automatic. It is conferred without a tenure review solely by reason of the faculty member’s appointment."
Because Jill did not have a Ph.D., she was not eligible for tenure; indeed, she had never hoped for tenure. With this rule, she saw that the campus had never intended to keep her for any time; it was one thing to be renewed every year -- it was another to find that for the administration she was a temporary employee, bound to be terminated.
She felt angry. She felt betrayed. She had built her life around her teaching schedule there. She had invested her time, her energy and her heart. Her reward was six years of paid work and a notice not to return.
Bitterly, she was moved to action, readying her résumé and making phone calls. By the time she had packed her office, she had a part-time job with another local university preparing high-schoolers for college. She ate at home every day, packing a thin sandwich to carry in her eight-year old car when she worked during the day. When her health insurance ran out, she simply prayed not to get sick. After her tenant upstairs moved out, she walked the floor, realizing that she did not even have six dollars to replace the ruined baseboard by the front door. The house where she had hoped to retire had suddenly become a luxury that she would surely lose.
I met Jill at the coffee shop she used to frequent. Although she sat in front of the bookshelves that day, there was no colorful ceramic mug of coffee on the wobbly table next to her chair. When I offered to buy her a cup of tea, she adamantly refused. Proud, she would rather sit thirsty than accept charity from another. We talked for hours. I could see how students and faculty would be drawn to her. She was unpretentious, thoughtful -- even funny as she reflected on the process that has left her pocketbook empty and her soul disappointed.
I never felt awkward around her -- even though I could see that, in effect, I was the enemy. The Midwestern university that had been her home for her formative teaching years was to be my newfound employer. In two months time, I would be walking those same halls, talking to the same faculty members, teaching the same population and answering to the same department chair.
Like her, I was hired as a non-tenure track instructor. Like her, I have only an M.A., and no Ph.D. Like her, I was not told of this limitation that would result in my shortened career there. If I thought this was bad, the worse news is that this "six-year" rule is enforced at universities all over the United States. Not only had Jill and I unwittingly become fixed-term instructors, but tens of thousands of non-tenured instructors all over the United States will find themselves on the street at the seven-year mark.
Initially I had been thrilled about the offer, and thought of this town as a place to retire. One of the reasons I had accepted a job there was not only because of the prestige of working for a university, but because the department chair and dean had gone out of their way to treat me with kindness before and during the interview.
Months later when they made me an offer, I had presented them with an awkward situation -- I had already accepted an interview with a community college on the East coast. Both the dean and department chair told me that if I did decide in favor of their university, they would simply reimburse the other campus for any expenses already paid out. At the time, I was impressed. These administrators didn’t even know the folks at this small community college. Yet, they were taking the high road. Considering the impact of my decision on another, they had sought to make it right. It was a heady moment for this applicant. It made my decision very easy. Go with the campus that takes care of their own.
Now, I feel cautious. Yes, even though I have been asked on no less than 13 other interviews since I signed a three-year contract with the Midwestern university, I have decided to stick with my original decision. In August, 2005, I will be there, working to teach freshmen- and sophomore-level English composition.
Before I found out about the "six-year rule," I'll admit that my attitude was noticeably different. I had planned to decorate my shared office: posters for the walls, a rug for the floor, a bookcase for my favorite texts. I had also surfed the house-for-sale sites online, frequently printing out "zero percent down for first homebuyers" and "low down for first-time qualifiers" advertisements. I had investigated the town with a fervor that I had never felt for my own town. I had three historic books on the area and loads of sites bookmarked that described the small zoo, the combination science and art museum, the used book store, the mall, the weather -- everything.
I really thought of this move as my last in education. After six years of adjuncting in California, I was finally going to make a home in the Midwest. With the terrific reviews I had always received, I was convinced that I would be renewed until retirement; this stability would allow me to develop as an instructor and really work at retaining students year after year. The idea of a place to really contribute (and to retire) made me smile.
Now I think of this university as a place that I will park myself for three years. I have been forewarned by colleagues not to wait until the axe falls to move on -- but to start looking at the end of each academic year. To turn down no offers to interview, to take every chance to make my résumé look good, but not to stick my neck out for the campus that will provide me with only a limited chance to teach.
It’s a sad turn of events. Yes, I will teach as well as I can, but I will not be thinking of aligning myself with a particular pedagogy, with a carefully chosen mentor, with one lucky student population. In effect, I will be an adjunct again -- gauging time spent on each project or assignment, time spent with each student during an office hour, minimizing preparation time when I can, and most importantly, always thinking of where I will work next. The rolling contract system has ensured that knowledgeable, qualified (even inspired) instructors such as my friend Jill and myself will not find a home in the university system.
I understand that in 1940, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges were thinking of keeping instructors from being strung along when the associations adopted the policy that set up six-year rules. In a superficial way, I understand that non-tenured instructors would be judged on merit at the end of their probationary period (although my friend was given no such review). I applaud the concept of tenure; someday, too, I will have the security, the freedom to teach as I see fit, to interject the controversial opinion now and then, to really give all that I have to one campus, knowing that I will be rewarded with a career lifespan of support.
Of course, this will not happen for me in the university system proper; instead, I will be shopping at community colleges for a long-term position. Should I be able to afford a Ph.D. at some time, I may consider the university system again; perhaps not.
Some have suggested that the tenure system be abolished. I don't agree. But "de facto tenure" was created 60 years ago to protect contract employees from abuse. The idea was to force the university system to actually give tenure to long-term instructors who had served good time and produced viable results. Now, with a bulging market of a hundred applicants (even thousands) for each full-time teaching position, universities no longer hire on contract with the idea of giving tenure later. Instead, they lure desperate non-Ph.D.s with an initial three-year contract with the vague promise of renewal year after year.
Part of my argument is with the university administrators who allow this "six-year term" information to be buried in 157-page documents rather than having it clearly stipulated in the job description. I know from experience that there are a few faculty members on hiring committees who feel poorly about deceiving inexperienced university candidates. In an online forum, one departmental secretary confessed that she felt "like part of a conspiracy" when the chair specifically told her not to inform potential candidates of this term limit.
A staff member I know in Human Resources confided that she "could almost feel an audible exhale" when she lifted stacks of six-year term faculty from the "active" file cabinets to the archives. She says that she feels badly, but knows there is nothing she can do. "These are people, you know," she told the student assistant whose job was to load files into cardboard boxes to be filed in an almost-abandoned building a mile away.
Information breeds responsibility. But then, I’m an instructor who withholds nothing in my syllabus. On the first day of class, students know exactly what is expected of them and how to earn a winning grade. They even know how many minutes into the class hour constitutes a tardy, as well as a bi-monthly accounting spelling out what their in-class grade is and how they achieved that. It’s also clear to my students how the essays count -- exactly how they count -- into their final grade. Although I may parcel out assignments in English composition, I do not hold back on information about how my students are expected to perform. Though it means lots of thought, working and reworking of syllabi (and an extra sheet of paper), I believe that assisting adults in making solid decisions involves informing them rather than letting them stumble across the information when it is too late to do anything to influence the outcome. But then, that’s just how I work.
Flawless reviews and gushing letters of recommendation may suggest that others find my techniques (and underlying belief system) appropriate for higher education. The good news is that this budding file-folder will ensure that I continue to work in academia -- wherever I am valued.
Perhaps I am naive in my evaluation. But I know there is a heart out there somewhere. In tapping it, I ask that the American Association of University Professors consider abolishing or rewriting the "six-year rule." Let's stop the creation of a roaming, transient "third-class" of full-time adjuncts and return to the meaning of "de facto tenure" -- protecting our professors rather than allowing them to be abused.
Shari Wilson is the pseudonym of an adjunct at several colleges in California. In the fall, she will join the ranks of untenured full-time instructors at a university in the Midwest where she will stay, of course, no more than six years.
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