A Move to Bring Staff Scholars Out of the Shadows

How can academe recognize the contributions and needs of Ph.D.'s in nonfaculty jobs?

Brian Taylor

November 25, 2013

Three years ago, we wrote about our experiences as Ph.D.'s who had initially planned to become faculty members but instead found ourselves forging careers as professional staff members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In an academic culture that recognizes distinct groups of employees such as tenure-track faculty members, librarians, and adjuncts, we represent a new cadre: the growing numbers of "administrator-scholars" populating higher education in "alt-ac" positions. We are Ph.D.'s who were either locked out, or opted out, of a faculty career but still wanted to work in academe.

When we published our first column in The Chronicle in 2010, "Building a Corps of Administrator-Scholars," the term "alt-ac" was just gaining currency. It referred to Ph.D.-prepared staff members who—in addition to our full-time work—continued to do research, write, teach, and take part in other scholarly activities, as time allowed and even when those things were not formal parts of what we were hired to do.

In that article, we described our efforts to get our university to formally recognize and support this growing group of administrator-scholars. At the time, we prepared a detailed proposal of ways the university could make better use of our strengths and submitted it to a committee drafting the university's new academic plan. Our graduate training meant we could, for example, mentor graduate students, and our administrative skills meant we could connect scholarship to practical problems. Our proposal envisioned a flexible program that could accommodate administrator-scholars' varying levels of desire and ability to continue our scholarship and teaching, beyond our administrative work.

When the academic plan finally appeared, however, all that remained of our proposal was a vague statement that the university should "recognize and reward the staff's contributions to engagement," and that staff "who are academically prepared and professionally disposed to contribute to engaged scholarship and activities should be encouraged, recognized, and supported."

That was good, yet not quite the robust program we had hoped for. We weren't ready to give up. For the next couple of years, we held a series of "alt-ac coffee chats" to build contacts and support among this new cadre of employees. We spent time on social media talking about these ideas, and spoke on career panels at the annual conferences of the American Historical Association and Modern Language Association.

This year we decided to get a little less informal and a little more organized. We asked for specific modest support, and got some.

Our university's Institute for the Arts and Humanities has long served as a fertile hub for interdisciplinary projects. It has also employed some capable alt-acs. So last spring, we asked John McGowan, the institute's director, if the institute would underwrite a "working group" of alt-acs to spend the 2013-14 academic year developing a new proposal to create a coordinated yet flexible program of professional and leadership-development opportunities for this segment of employees.

Immediately enthusiastic, McGowan had us draft a formal request, and a few weeks later, our Altac Working Group—complete with a modest catering and speaker budget and the use of well-appointed meeting space at the institute—was born.

We invited a diverse group of 13 colleagues to join us for a year of focused conversations about alt-ac life at Chapel Hill. Our colleagues span the campus, including administrative-staff members from medicine, arts and sciences, student affairs, academic affairs, and information technology. People in our group hold Ph.D.'s in fields as different as chemistry, geology, political science, history, and English, and we are situated at all levels of the university administrative hierarchy.

Many of us hold secondary appointments as adjunct faculty members. Some of us teach, either in the classroom or through individual or small-group instruction in labs or advising settings. Several of us serve in local, regional, or national leadership positions in professional organizations. Our levels of job satisfaction range from relatively happy to restless.

We have scheduled 13 meetings through the year, during which we are talking with relevant campus administrators and other constituencies. Our goals are to bring attention to the alt-ac dilemma, explore the specific components that an imaginative and progressive alt-ac program could include, and consider practical and structural challenges that our proposal would raise.

We have started by looking at other campus groups whose issues seem most similar to ours, and who have solved similar problems: full-time, non-tenure-track faculty (known here as "fixed-term" faculty), and librarians. After some years of struggle—beginning in the 1970s and 1980s—both groups have attained three key benefits: a clear career ladder, faculty-governance voting rights, and professional-development support (travel, awards, research grants).

The stories of both groups demonstrate that, with consistent effort and creativity, university structures are flexible enough to accommodate new configurations of intellectual work.

However, conversations with leaders in both groups have pointed to critical differences between their constituencies and the alt-ac community. Librarians are all in the same general job-rank category, and subject to the same overall management environment. Thus, establishing a consistency of expectations within that system has been easier. And fixed-term, non-tenure-track instructors work full time as faculty although their job responsibilities are frequently heavier on teaching or clinical work than those of their tenure-track colleagues.

By contrast, those of us in the administrator-scholar corps often occupy little common ground beyond holding Ph.D.'s and sharing the same general "nonfaculty" job classification. The specific configurations of our work are determined by our various offices and departments, and by the prerogatives of our supervisors. In the mix of work we do, some of us look much more like faculty members—with a recognizable mix of service, teaching, and research—than other alt-acs do.

With some difficulty, we've identified approximately 130 administrator-scholars on our campus (77 women, 53 men). Although 32 of us are in arts and sciences (the largest concentration in a single school), over all we are situated in eight different HR subclassifications with dozens of distinct working titles across 23 different school-level administrative units in 78 individual departments—including the planetarium, academic advising, area-studies centers, career services, and the writing center.

Our salaries are all over the map. Eleven people (8 percent of the 130) make less than $50,000, while just over 40 (32 percent) make $50,000 to 75,000. Thirty-five (27 percent) are in the $75,000 to $100,000 range, and the final 45 (35 percent) exceed $100,000.

What generalizations might still be possible across such a diverse community?

To find out, we need to hear from our colleagues. To that end, we will soon survey the alt-ac community at Chapel Hill. We'll ask them about what role their Ph.D.'s and scholarly work continue to play in their current jobs, what support they currently enjoy, and what types of support they would most like to have. We'll also try to gauge how connected they are to the larger alt-ac conversation going on across academe.

Our other near-term project is to inventory existing professional-development, grant, and award programs at the university to assess how accessible they are to alt-ac employees. For instance, many of those programs are currently open to adjunct faculty members—a secondary status that about 43 of our 130 alt-acs do have. We may find that some of the kinds of support we would like to see available for administrator-scholars could be accomplished with relatively modest changes in the eligibility requirements.

In the future we'll be meeting with HR staff members, with the university's new provost, with the dean of the graduate school, and with our new chancellor. In those conversations we hope to consider how the alt-ac conversation can inform evolving discourse on the societal value of the humanities and liberal arts, and the feasibility of an "alt-ac internship program" by which we might mentor graduate students about careers in campus administration. We recognize that there are many issues yet to be faced: workload management, advancement paths, funding, governance. But at the conclusion of the year, we hope to present a doable, formal proposal to senior administrators.

We continue to believe that, with a few policy changes, some cultural shift, and relatively modest amounts of money, our university could develop an innovative, flexible alt-ac support program. In doing so, Chapel Hill could join efforts under way at other institutions to reform doctoral education and confront the Ph.D. employment crisis.

Most important, by improving the quality of the workplace for administrator-scholars, the university could improve prospects for long-term retention of this vital, highly capable contingent of its professional work force. We are people who, by virtue of our training as scholars, are especially well suited to advance our university's mission and advocate for higher education.

Donna M. Bickford is associate director of the office for undergraduate research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an adjunct faculty member in English and comparative literature. Anne Mitchell Whisnant is deputy secretary of the faculty for the university's Office of Faculty Governance and an adjunct faculty member in history and American studies.