UCR study explores mentality of non-tenure faculty

Courtesy of UCR Newsroom

There is a growing dissatisfaction among full-time non-tenure track (FTNT) faculty members at colleges and universities, according to a recent study co-authored by UC Riverside Graduate School of Education Professor John S. Levin. The concerns regarding a lack of employment protection and roles in departmental decision-making has left FTNT instructors viewing themselves as foreigners and detached members of their university.

The study’s findings, namely those regarding an instructor’s perceived loss of autonomy and diminished professional identity, may hold important implications for the hiring practices of educational institutions. “Right now, they have become like serfs—a labor force for tenure-track faculty. That needs to change. Institutions need to take responsibility for these employees,” stated Levin in an interview with UCR Today.Levin, who is the Bank of America Professor of Education Leadership, addressed these issues in the recently published paper, “The Hybrid and Dualistic Identity of Full-Time Non-Tenure-Track Faculty.” Along with co-author Genevieve G. Shaker (Indiana University-Purdue), the two researchers observed disturbing common ground between 18 interviewed FTNT faculty members. The faculty, who are associated with English departments across three American universities, expressed fluctuating self-determination due to their indefinite position and identities.The economic benefits of hiring FTNT faculty members, which includes lowered costs for their employer, have become significantly more attractive in the midst of a struggling economy. As noted in a report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “Many institutions increasingly [depend] upon non-tenure-track faculty as a way to staff classes without having to make long-range commitments to faculty.” These individuals may also be heavily relied on to teach lower-division courses, thereby allowing tenured faculty members to spend more time on research.

John Briggs, the Director of the University Writing Program and a UC Riverside Professor of English, noted that the increased reliance upon non-tenure-track hires to fill teaching positions is not a positive trend. “It is driven mainly by a shortage or a shrinkage of assured funds for tenure lines, particularly in state-funded institutions. In many places, the non-tenurable lines are highly unstable and rely upon part-time appointments,” stated Briggs in an interview with the Highlander. “At UCR and at other UCs, many lecturers have been let go during the current recession.  Many good people leave the profession as a result.  These are not good conditions for hiring the best possible faculty.”

This relationship that FTNT track faculty members share with their employers and tenured peers, however, is a major cause behind the fractured identities that many of them experience. FTNT track faculty members have their professions split into two spheres: the classroom and the professional realm. In the classroom, their identity is not under scrutiny because their status as non-tenure faculty has little to no importance to the students. The situation is altered when these faculty members interact with tenured professors of their departments; this poses a separate sphere in which the later form the rules and effectively exclude the former. The study noted that their interactions involving tenured professors and their university or college administration often left them feeling as if their position was more of an occupation than a profession. “One consequence is that they are as unlikely to commit to their institution as their institution is unlikely to commit to them. As a result, the majority move through their days with short-term occupational perspectives—often one year at a time or aligned with their contract duration,” stated the authors.

The study concluded that these faculty members are strained by the label and restrictions that accompany their job title—an inescapable identity that ultimately detracts from their sense of accomplishment and serves to restrict their ambitions. “FTNT faculty are without sufficient autonomy for professionals—they are limited in their development by their inability to control their own destiny—and their principal work, teaching, is undervalued by the academy,” stated the study.

The study authors recommended a variety of methods to combat this negative trend, including the reformation of how salaries are determined and the use of more respectful terminology iin contracts. “Salaries that are modeled on a pro rata scheme, contracts that suggest more than a temporary relationship and equitable promotion and recognition structures would close the gap that separates FTNT faculty from their tenure-track colleagues,” the study stated.
The recommendation that FTNT faculty members have more control of their curriculum stood out as one that would directly influence the learning experience of students. This sentiment was shared by the AAUP report, which stated, “The quality of education is at risk when the curriculum, advising and instruction are not in the control of faculty.”

Briggs offered some insight into the UC hiring practices, saying, “In the UC system, non-tenure-track hires are handled relatively well.  They are protected by a contract with the university that requires regular review, sets out the specific conditions under which layoffs might take place and provides a means for the best non-tenure faculty to pass an ‘Excellence Review’, leading to three-year renewable contracts.”

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