Whose woods these are I think I know.

Earlier this year, I posted about my own small efforts at tending to my own backyard.  My thinking was, let’s take one small step toward faculty equality in matters of departmental governance.  By the end of this post, you may see these efforts as pretty small-scale, largely symbolic, and not terribly helpful in the face of the larger problem.  However, I hope that’s not the case.  I hope to show why this is an important first step.  No, it’s not going to put more food on the table for anyone.  But if it helps to change the way people think, and helps to change the culture at the university, then perhaps it’s a very good first step.


Anyway, before now, non-tenure track faculty were not allowed to vote on personnel issues in my department.  This meant that, among other things, they were not allowed to vote on their own reappointment, the reappointment of those with similar contracts, or the election of the department chair.*  This, in my opinion, was outrageous.  Because all faculty are subject to the authority of the department chair, all faculty should be able to vote on the election of that chair.  It’s that simple.  Similarly, faculty teaching the lion’s share of freshman-level courses** should be able to vote on the reappointment of those with the same teaching duties; those faculty are the ones who best understand the pressures of the job, and are therefore the most qualified to judge the merits of their peers.


So in September, I circulated a memo asking my colleagues to consider granting full voting membership to all department faculty, regardless of rank or contract status.  In response to this memo, an ad-hoc committee was formed to (among other things) consider this proposal and make a recommendation to the department.  Sparing you the details of the sausage-making, at the last department meeting of the year the committee presented the department with two options for the expansion of voting rights, one of which we accepted and will be written into our department by-laws.  This provision allows all faculty, regardless of rank or contract status, to vote on all matters before the department, including personnel matters.


The one caveat is that non-tenure track faculty will only be able to vote on personnel issues after they have worked for at least 6 semesters over a 5-year period (and those semesters need not be consecutive).  On the one hand, I find this caveat to be rather insulting to adjunct faculty, essentially asking them to demonstrate loyalty to the department before being allowed to vote on personnel matters, where no such fealty is asked of tenure track faculty.***  On the other hand, this will quickly become meaningless in my department because most of our non-tenure track faculty have long since met that requirement.  (This includes, but is not limited to, the longest-serving member of my department, an adjunct who has been teaching in the department for 23 years.)  Further, because we are not located in an urban area and do not have a large pool of potential part-time faculty to draw from, our adjuncts tend to stay working in the department for several years.  In fact, in the 7 years I’ve been in this department, we have had more tenure track faculty leave for other jobs than adjuncts.  In my time here, our adjunct work force has been more stable than our tenure track work force.


And it’s here that I should note a few things about my department.  Because of our location, we don’t have a large pool of adjuncts to draw from.  Nor do we have a PhD program that would give us a rotating crop of graduate students.  My department has, as I noted above, a stable population of dedicated adjuncts, some of whom I have turned to for the benefit of their long experience in the department.  As one adjunct noted in a wonderful statement that I wish I could post here, many adjuncts in my department have been working with students, working with faculty, and working with other departments for decades; these adjuncts have been serving on committees, advising students, and participating in a variety of scholarly and creative endeavors.  This population of faculty have the experience, the institutional memory, and the training to participate fully in all department matters.^  But most importantly, this group of faculty should not be defined by the limitations of their contract status.


So, at the end of the day, I can live with the fealty clause in the new department by-laws, because I know that the non-tenure track faculty in my department have either already demonstrated the commitment that some believe should determine full voting rights, or are on their way to doing so.^^  And by the end of what became the longest department meeting I have ever attended, my department voted – by a 2/3 majority – to extend full voting rights to all department faculty.


But why is this important?, some might ask.  This does not provide job security, nor does it increase pay or benefits.  What, in other words, is the larger importance of this move?


One of my colleagues – someone who has spent his time at my university raising awareness for a variety of equal rights issues and pushing for various kinds of social change – noted at the end of the meeting that our very next obligation to adjuncts is financial.  He noted that we are limited to the contracts available to us by the SUNY system and the union, but there is still much we as a department can do.^^^  This was the first time in my 7 years at SUNY Potsdam that a tenure track (in this case, tenured) colleague asked the department to make such a commitment to our contingent faculty.  It’s not, let me make clear, the first time this colleague has made such comments, but those comments have often been made in casual conversation.  This colleague noted that we could, and should, do better by our contingent faculty, and that we can start doing better next year.  In other words, once we take the first step, we can start to build momentum.


The first thing we need to do is change how we think about adjunct faculty.  We cannot make substantive changes while we still, in our minds, hold to a two-tier division of faculty.  No change to the material conditions of adjunct labor is possible while we still accept that contract status determines the comparative worth of our colleagues.


Now, based on the comments of at least a couple of my non-tenure track colleagues, full voting rights is no mere symbolic gesture.  To them, this move is a first step in recognizing the value of their contributions to the department and university.  That at least 2/3 of my colleagues agree is a positive sign, and may suggest even more advancement on this issue.  These colleagues will now be able to vote on their own reappointment actions, the election of department chair, and other personnel actions that help shape the department and its continued development, just as they have always been able to vote on curricular (and other) matters.  (Oddly, adjuncts have always been able to vote on revisions to the department by-laws, giving them a voice in some matters of governance, just not those related to personnel.  Because this oversight has been corrected, I will limit my speculations regarding this matter to the following: it’s not uncommon for tenure track faculty to become uneasy when putting their own careers in the hands of adjuncts.  That the majority of my colleagues do not hold this bias is encouraging.)  


I’ll admit that, in the grand scheme of the academic universe, working to extend full voting rights to all faculty members in one department at one university may appear to be a small move.^^^^  But it’s an important first step for my department.  Ideally, this can become a model for other departments, perhaps even leading to a university-wide change regarding the treatment of adjuncts.  Certainly, I can now spend my time talking with other departments, particularly those that increasingly rely on adjunct labor.  But I firmly believe that it’s an important first step for my own backyard, the place where I work, and the colleagues who share my vision for the department.  One lesson that I have learned is that we have to start at home.  


But this is just a start.


I still have miles to go before I sleep.


*I know that in many departments, faculty do not vote on their own personnel actions.  At SUNY Potsdam, tenure track faculty are allowed to vote on their own personnel actions.  So of course, non-tenure track faculty should have the same opportunity.  The question is not whether or not faculty should vote on their own personnel actions; the question is whether or not all faculty should have the same rights, whatever those rights are.

**In my department, that includes Survey of Human Communication, Basic Principles of Speech, Writing and Critical Thinking, and Introduction to Literature.

***In fact, I find it incredibly insulting to offer faculty short-term contracts, and then tell those faculty that their short-term contracts are proof of their lack of loyalty to the department.  This, by the way, is part of the insidiousness of the two-tier faculty system: that contract status in some way reflects value or worth.

^One argument that is often made by those who wish to preserve a two-tier faculty system is that adjuncts do not have the same qualifications as tenure track faculty.  This, of course, is simply not true, as a larger and larger number of PhDs find themselves in non-tenure track positions.  In my own department, two of our non-tenure track faculty hold PhDs in their respective disciplines.

^^Honestly, while I can understand the argument that faculty should have some experience in the department before voting on personnel matters, there’s no reason why this limitation should only be imposed on adjunct faculty.  If my department wanted to require some length of service from all faculty members, at least that would be equitable.  But I will never be convinced that somehow the parameters of a contract make some faculty more qualified to contribute to the department.  Also, and perhaps much more importantly, universities should extend contracts to adjuncts that reflect the kind of commitment they desire in return.  But it’s absolutely absurd to refuse to provide any job security to adjuncts, and then demand commitment in return.  That many adjuncts are committed to their various departments despite the limitations of their contracts is something that universities continue to exploit.

^^^Because of the nature of the contracts, some of the potential advancement – such as from semester-to-semester contracts to 3-year renewable contracts (with guaranteed courses) – is based on the number credits taught within a specific time frame.  So it’s not at all uncommon for department chairs and/or upper administration to restrict the number of credit hours an adjunct can work, to make sure that adjunct does not qualify for the renewable contract.  This means that one thing we can do as a department is to offer our adjuncts enough work (and with freshman-level classes, there is always enough work) to qualify for contracts that offer more job security.  We might not be able to change the system, but we can work within that system to the benefit of all faculty.

^^^^And I don’t want to suggest I did this alone.  Many of my colleagues have spent time talking to other colleagues, explaining the value of this revision to the by-laws and encouraging others to support it.  And, at the end of the day, 2/3 of my colleagues supported it.  If nothing else, this demonstrates that all changes must be made by the group.  We need to work together, and that means all of us, with no division made by rank or contract status.  We are all part of this department; we are all responsible to and for each other.



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4 responses to “Whose woods these are I think I know.

  1. Joaquin

    I believe it was a pig who pointed out something along the lines that “All animals are part of the department, but some animals are more part of the department than others.”

  2. “Several of them would have protested if they could have found the right arguments.”

  3. Joaquin

    “We are all, professionally, aware of the fact that not all interpretations are equal.”

    It’s like he reads your blog, Jim.

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