Off the Tenure Track and at the Helm: Adjuncts Now Lead Some Faculty Senates

June 02, 2014

Even as more and more adjuncts are working on campus, they are still often fighting to gain a voice in faculty governance. Some aren’t even allowed to vote at faculty meetings. Others are barred from taking part in academic senates at all.

But, at some universities, instructors who work off the tenure track are gaining new platforms and power. They aren’t just advocating for representation on governing bodies; they’re leading them.

Ginger Clark, an associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California, is among the latest to be elected to a leadership post. The university announced at the end of May that she had been elected to lead USC’s Academic Senate, becoming the first non-tenure-track faculty member to serve in that role. Ms. Clark will first become vice president, a position that automatically becomes president after one year.

Advocates for adjuncts at USC and elsewhere praised her election as a major step forward and as a sign that higher education was starting to do more to adapt to its changing work force. In 1975 nearly half of professors were either tenured or on the tenure track. By 2009, the latest year for which national figures are available, that proportion had dropped to less than a quarter.

Ms. Clark’s election is progress for the representation of nontenured faculty members, but it’s slow progress, said Maria C. Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, which advocates for faculty members who work off the tenure track.

"It’s never going fast enough, but at least it’s moving in the right direction," Ms. Maisto said.

"What I would hope is the faculty all recognizes that they all have common interests regardless of the status of the leader of the faculty senate," she added. "The more the faculty can think as one professional sector as opposed to all of these different categories, the better off everyone will be."

Increased Involvement

Whether adjuncts and other instructors who work off the tenure track should have a voice and a vote in campus affairs is sometimes a contentious issue. Some full-time professors worry that their powers could be weakened and their voices muffled if shared governance were shared more broadly, and they say that adjuncts’ concerns are often different from their own.

On some campuses the two groups of professors—those on and off the tenure track—work more closely together.

At American University, all types of faculty members are encouraged to participate in campus governance, said Glenn W. Moomau, a lecturer in the literature department at the university, in Washington, D.C.

"A lot of terms are set by the leaders—as the chief academic officers of the university, they’ve set the tone and they’ve set a tone of collegiality," said Mr. Moomau, who serves in the Faculty Senate. "That’s not to say that the faculty are 100 percent happy, but the faculty who are reasonable see that the Senate is a place that successfully works out faculties’ concerns."

At American, too, the Faculty Senate has, for the first time, selected a non-tenure-track faculty member, Lacey Wootton, as its leader. She was appointed vice chair for the coming academic year, to be followed by a term as chair.

At USC, Ms. Clark said the campus and its Academic Senate had traditionally been welcoming environments for non-tenure-track faculty members.

Her new position reinforces that mind-set to the faculty her organization represents, which totals 3,600 full-time members, including those on and off the tenure track.

"I’m eager because I have some ideas to get things done on campus, but I am anxious because, for the first time, there is a non-tenured member in this position, so there will be a lot of eyes on this process," Ms. Clark said. "It puts a lot of pressure to be effective in the position."

Elsewhere, Walter C. Daugherity just finished a term leading the Faculty Senate at Texas A&M University at College Station as a faculty member working off the tenure track. Next year, another non-tenure-track faculty member will also lead the Senate.

Mr. Daugherity, a senior lecturer in computer science and engineering, said his heavy course load had made it difficult to juggle the position with his classroom commitments.

He anticipated that problem and asked his department chair to reduce his course load by one, to two, which the chair agreed to do. However, he added, "in hindsight, I should’ve asked for two courses off."

The number of courses non-tenure-track faculty members teach can make it challenging to lead a governing body, Mr. Daugherity said, but it’s an important task for them to handle.

"There’s the thought that nontenured faculty are second-class citizens or not real faculty," he said. "So I think the increased involvement and engagement in non-tenure-track faculty in the governance of the university is a positive step toward being recognized as colleagues who do complementary work."