Faculty Leaders at American U. Seek Old-School Rights for a New Work Force

Brendan Hoffman for The Chronicle

American U.'s Faculty Senate (above) recently revised its faculty manual to include, among other changes, two well-defined career tracks for full-timers off the tenure track.
June 12, 2011

American University is like a lot of American universities in that it relies heavily on people off the tenure track to teach its courses. More than 40 percent of its nearly 1,300 faculty members are adjuncts who work part time, while over 20 percent are what the university refers to as "term" faculty members—full-timers working under either one-year or multiyear contracts.

What sets American University apart from many of the nation's other colleges is how aggressively it is adapting its governance structure and policies to today's academic work force.

As part of a broader overhaul of its governance, it has found ways to offer its term faculty members new career tracks, research opportunities, and more say in university affairs. Lacey T. Wootton, a full-time writing instructor who next year will hold a Faculty Senate seat newly reserved for a term faculty member, says she has seen "a remarkable increase in recognizing what we bring to the university and in listening to us and supporting us."

Although many of American's adjunct faculty members complain of feeling powerless and insecure in their jobs—and some have been driven by such frustrations to mount an effort to unionize—their situation shows signs of improving as well.

Faculty Senate leaders plan in the fall to establish a committee to review university policies governing part-timers, and recently adopted revisions to the faculty manual to give adjuncts who have taught there for at least six consecutive years the right to file grievances without fear of retaliation. In recent years, the university's administration has also made a concerted effort to convert adjunct positions into more secure, term faculty jobs and even, bucking national trends, full-time, tenure-track jobs.

"It is a fundamental shift we have had," says Scott A. Bass, American's provost.

Response to Crisis

Such changes are among many that have transformed a private institution that just five years ago was notorious for dysfunctional, top-down governance and unaccountable management, thanks largely to a headline-grabbing controversy surrounding the personal and travel expenses of its then-president, Benjamin Ladner, who ended up resigning under pressure. Things had gotten so bad that U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley was poised to ask Congress, which chartered American University, to take up legislation to overhaul the institution's governance.

The university's Board of Trustees responded to the crisis by overhauling itself. It added new voting members, created nonvoting seats for faculty representatives, and established new mechanisms for overseeing the university president's expenditures and performance. In the years since, the university's administration has taken a long list of steps intended to promote openness, decentralize governance, and leave faculty members feeling more empowered. Among them, it has sought to push most decision making down to the school or department level and let its Faculty Senate craft changes in the university's bylaws and faculty manual.

"The culture of governance has changed from deep suspicion to collective collaboration," says Anthony H. Ahrens, an associate professor of psychology who was the Faculty Senate's chairman during the 2005 governance crisis. "We are all trying to make this place a better place."

Where Things Are Going

The makeup of American University's faculty is fairly typical of four-year private colleges. Nationally, full-time, non-tenure-track faculty account for about 21 percent of faculty at such institutions, while part-time adjuncts account for about 45 percent, according to an analysis of 2009 Education Department data by the American Association of University Professors.

As much as many faculty advocates want the tenure-track work force to rebound as a share of college faculties, it appears unlikely to do so any time soon.

In a recent survey of college presidents conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with The Chronicle, less than a fourth of all college presidents said that, if given a choice, they would prefer to have faculties consisting mostly of tenured full-timers. Although few college presidents outside the for-profit sector welcomed having faculties consisting mostly of part-time adjuncts, about two-thirds of those at private four-year colleges said they would prefer to have faculties consisting mostly of the other chief segment of contingent academic labor: full-timers working on contract.

Despite their growing reliance on contingent faculty members, colleges generally approach shared governance and the protection of academic freedom much as they did decades ago, with policies that assume that only tenured or tenure-track professors want a voice in university affairs, assurances they can speak out without fear of retaliation, and the ability to appeal denials of promotion or disciplinary sanctions.

Non-tenure-track faculty have made some progress in gaining a voice in shared governance, according to the early results of a recent, informal survey of college faculty leaders conducted by an AAUP committee on contingent academic labor. Among the faculty leaders who responded to the survey—most of whom come from master's and doctoral-level institutions—about three-fourths afforded full-time, contract faculty members some representation on their faculty senates, usually by setting one or two seats aside for them. About a fourth said their faculty senates were open to part-time adjuncts, according to Lenore A. Beaky, a professor emerita of English at LaGuardia Community College and a member of the AAUP panel.

Nevertheless, Ms. Beaky says, even where contingent faculty members are represented on faculty senates, they are often precluded from having any role on the senates' executive committees or on committees dealing with tenure and promotion. And, she says, the AAUP, for its part, has yet to offer colleges much guidance in terms of how contingent faculty members should be represented.

Having a voice in shared governance doesn't mean much if faculty members run the risk of being punished for offering their views. Many of the college leaders responding to the AAUP's survey said their institutions assured contingent faculty members the same academic freedom as those who were tenured, but "without the protection of tenure, they don't actually have it," Ms. Beaky argues.

Promotion Without Tenure

The changes at American University go well beyond ensuring full-time, contingent faculty members representation on the Faculty Senate and seek to make the conditions of their employment more closely resemble those of faculty members on the tenure track.

The classification "term faculty member" is itself a creation of the process by which the manual was revised. Full-time, contract faculty members preferred it over alternatives such as "contingent" when the Faculty Senate solicited their views on the subject. Most American University faculty members called "term" teach six courses a year.

Before the Faculty Senate revised the manual, the university gave full-time, contract faculty members the title "instructor" if they lacked a terminal degree and "assistant professor" if they had one. Its policies dealing with such employees were scattered throughout the document.

The Faculty Senate began the process of overhauling the faculty manual in late 2008, eventually adopting two rounds of changes that were approved by the university's Board of Trustees this spring and last. The revised document pulls the policies governing term faculty members together in one place and confers upon such faculty members rights and privileges they never had before.

Most significantly as a bread-and-butter matter, the document establishes two separate career tracks for term faculty members. As a general rule, those who lack a terminal degree, or whose work involves mainly teaching, can progress through a three-stage "lecturer" track, with a new title and pay bump at each stage. Those who have a terminal degree, and whose work involves some combination of teaching and scholarship, can progress from "assistant professor" to "associate professor" to "full professor," although they will not get tenure along the way.

Term faculty members "ought to have a career here, and they ought to have a ladder," says Mr. Bass, the university's provost.

Under the revised manual, the university's schools and colleges have flexibility in determining the contractual obligations of term faculty members, and deans or department chairs can decide to have such faculty members teach fewer courses to free up time for them to conduct research or develop curricula. The Faculty Senate is expected to vote in September on an amendment to the manual that would give term faculty members working on multiyear contracts the right to file grievances if their contracts are not renewed.

Although American's term faculty members were previously eligible to run for at-large seats on the Faculty Senate, recent revisions in the faculty manual assure them at least one seat reserved for them, as well as designated seats on faculty committees.

"We have made huge progress for the term faculty," says Virginia (Lyn) Stallings, an associate professor of mathematics who has held several administrative posts and helped usher through many of the changes in the faculty manual as chair of the Faculty Senate during the 2009-10 academic year. She says the manual revisions will help the university attract and retain talent.

"We are treating term faculty like real people," says Mary W. Gray, a tenured professor of mathematics and statistics who has been at the university more than 40 years. "They may be second-class people, but at least they are real people, and we are treating them better than they are at other places."

The changes may do little to improve term faculty members' pay, says Sarah Menke-Fish, a term faculty member in the university's communications department who holds an at-large seat on the Faculty Senate, but will at least afford them "the opportunity to continue to grow professionally."

Larry G. Gerber, an emeritus professor of history at Auburn University and chairman of the American Association of University Professors' Committee on College and University Governance, applauds many of the changes at the university but is troubled by its creation of a class of faculty members who will never receive the tenure they might earn elsewhere. Faculty members who work full time at a university for seven years, he says, "are deserving of the security that goes with tenure."

Rumblings Below

American's Faculty Senate has made comparatively little progress in devising new policies for part-time, adjunct faculty members, who typically teach one course annually and are precluded from teaching more than three per year. The senate plans to rethink such policies down the road, and has created a mechanism for the most veteran among the adjunct faculty to challenge contract nonrenewals. But so far, part-time adjuncts have generally been off its radar screen.

Such an omission is partly a reflection of the distinct adjunct population that works here, in a metropolitan area populated by more than its share of professionals. Although some of American's part-time faculty members rely heavily on income from teaching, they are much more likely than those at other colleges to have well-paying, full-time jobs off campus. The university's administration is in the midst of a long-term effort to increase the share of faculty who are full time, out of a belief that doing so will improve its academic reputation, and thus is more focused on shrinking its part-time academic work force than adjusting to it.

"We have no job security," says one part-time faculty member, who spoke only on the condition that she remain anonymous because she feared losing her work at American if quoted by name. "We have no say in anything."

Such sentiments have inspired more than 100 of American University's part-time faculty members to sign petitions to form a collective-bargaining unit affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. There appears to be a good chance they will seek to contractually guarantee for themselves job protections and privileges not yet offered as a matter of policy.

James E. Girard, a tenured professor of chemistry who takes over as chairman of the Faculty Senate this week, says he has no worries about the unionization of part-time faculty members complicating the senate's efforts to improve conditions for non-tenure-track faculty. "We would work around it," he says. "I want our adjuncts to know that we respect and we value their work."

Who Teaches What at American U.

At American University, the type of faculty member likely to teach a class varies greatly by course level.

Introductory and general-education undergraduate courses
Adjunct faculty 33%
Full-time contingent faculty 43%
Tenured and tenure-track faculty 24%
Advanced undergraduate courses in students' majors or minors
Adjunct faculty 30%
Full-time contingent faculty 36%
Tenured and tenure-track faculty 34%
Master's-level courses open to qualified undergraduates
Adjunct faculty 42%
Full-time contingent faculty 16%
Tenured and tenure-track faculty 39%
Master's-level courses restricted to graduate students
Adjunct faculty 37%
Full-time contingent faculty 15%
Tenured and tenure-track faculty 45%
Note: Percentages do not add to 100 because of rounding.
Source: Analysis of fall 2010 university data by an American U. Faculty Senate committee on term faculty