Blogs > Cliopatria > Suffrage in Academia

May 2, 2005 6:51 am

Suffrage in Academia

As a member of the NEA through my faculty union, I get the NEA Higher Education Advocate, a goofy little monthly newsletter left over from the heyday of desktop publishing, which features mostly really short clips of news about academic economics and highly predictable, rarely applicable, career advice. The only part of this thing that's actually worth reading is"The Dialogue," a pro/con column featuring -- in highly abbreviated form -- both sides of a burning question about academic institutions and practices. And, if you remember what the question is from last month, there's a few very short responses from readers in the letters column on the back page.

This month's question is"Should untenured faculty vote on tenure and promotion?" and both respondents manage to raise decent issues, but without actually making strong points. Frankly, I haven't been so entertained by this publication in the two years I've been getting it.

Robert Sanford's"No" raises the question of the risks which participating in the process would pose for junior faculty (most of us would accept those risks, by the way; describing it as"no-win" presumes the worst possible result), but concludes with hoary old platitudes about tenured faculty as"the guardians of university culture and department values" (are things going so well that we could say they're doing a good job, overall?) and untenured faculty as"unproven" (well, you hired us) and"not yet in a position to vet the qualifications of others" (but we sit on hiring committees all the time!) and lacking the"experience and authority" to participate in these grown-up decisions (though junior faculty are often better versed in the current literature and disciplinary standards than senior faculty). It's the most unapologetic public defense of the medieval guild nature of the profession I've seen in a while.

The"Yes" from Paula Pedersen lands a bit closer to the mark, but completely ignores the issue of untenured tenure-track faculty (as well as the specific issues of tenure and promotion votes) to focus on the issue of non-tenure track instructors' (which she calls" contract faculty"; I've got a contract, too, but OK) integration with departmental decision-making. She points out, correctly, that non-tenure track instructors are often quite productive and integral to departmental operations and that they have stakes in the department and institution which are no less than that held by tenured and tenure-track faculty. Particularly in the case of departments which are, as she describes her own, fully one-third staffed by adjuncts (probably more, if you count student hours or even just classes, since most full-time adjuncts don't get the"research release" and teach more sections/courses than tenure/tenure-track faculty). She invokes and rejects"separate but equal" at the beginning of the piece and concludes with a jarring reference to Dr. Seuss's"Star-Belly Sneetches" and while I sympathize with her need to find shorthands and shortcuts in a short piece, neither of these really help her much.

(I'm not holding the misspellings in the headline against her personally ["star-bellied sneeches"], but the implications of applying that story to academia as a metaphor boggle the imagination: I didn't get my Ph.D. from Sylvester McMonkey McBean, if you know what I mean. Feel free to use the comments section to discuss which Seuss story is the best metaphor for academic life: I'm leaning towards"The Zax" myself).

My answer to the question? Why not? It's tenure-track junior faculty who have the highest stake in tenure decisions: we're going to be working with these people for a long, long time. I'm very sympathetic to Pedersen's argument about including non-tenure-track instructors in departmental matters, but since many departments use ABDs or MA holders as adjunct faculty, I'm less sanguine about a blanket endorsement of including them on hiring, tenure and promotion committees. I'm not a huge fan of guild-master Sanford's satisfaction with things as they currently sit, however, and I think including untenured faculty in these decisions might considerably improve mentorship and other working conditions under which junior faculty labor. I'm on record supporting greater accountability for tenured faculty, and widening the decision-making pool would, I think, lessen the"generation gap" problem and bring more of the rigor we're increasingly applying to graduate programs and hiring to the internal workings of the departments and universities themselves.

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David Lion Salmanson - 5/2/2005

Funny, I was thinking more along the lines of Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book.

Alan Baumler - 5/2/2005

Zax works well for typical departmental arguments, but there is so much more to academia than that. If I Ran the Zoo works well for the battle between rich schools for elite scholars. (At least I assume it does, I’m not usually involved in those battles.) Every campus has somebody who thinks he’s The Lorax. The liberal oligarchy’s brutal jackbooted oppression of Republican/Libertarian thought is clearly the model for Horton Hears a Who* If you cut out the last pages where he cleans everything up, Derrida makes a good Cat in the Hat. (Nominations being accepted for the positions of Thing One and Two). Anyone who has ever come back from break and found their mailbox filled with memos from administrators will appreciate Bartholomew and the Ooblick. Anyone who has ever tried to get students to read a book will understand Green Eggs and Ham And of course everyone wants to write the perfect book Fox in Socks.

*Well, sort of. Horton is willing to go to the wall to help those who can’t help themselves, which makes him sort of a liberal himself.

Robert KC Johnson - 5/1/2005

Interesting. I'd be skeptical about having non-tenure track faculty involved partly for the reasons Oscar mentioned, and partly because of conflict-of-interest issues: denial of tenure could open up a tenure-track slot for which non-tenure track applicants could conceivably apply.

As for voting by untenured tenure-track faculty, I'm torn. On the one hand, especially at non-elite institutions, they often have a closer contact to the current state of the profession than at least some tenured faculty, and so are in a better position to evaluate scholarship--both in terms of expectations and in terms of quality. On the other hand, as I know too well, the threat of retaliation for any personnel decision is very, very real, especially if the untenured faculty votes against the preference of the department chair. The approach that Sherman's department follows might be a good one, though I'm not sure that even this would prevent against retaliation in a closely divided or ideologically contentious department.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/1/2005

While I think it is good to allow "contract faculty" to participate in much governance, some of the language used in this discussion suggests they should be required to do so.

At least where I am, part of the justification for the lower salary is that we, the annual contractors, don't have to do governance. Most of us accept that and don't. It's about the only thing our tenured colleagues envy us for.

A few "annuals" (as opposed to "perennials?"), generally those who have been around for a while, do a bit of committee work, largely in the spirit of enlightened self-interest.

The one thing none of us want is to find ourselves having to do governance while still not being paid for it.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 5/1/2005

Whether nontenured faculty's voting in tenure decisions is a great idea (I have my doubts, which I'll explain later), I think it's absolutely essential for nontenured faculty to be involved in some way in peer evaluation processes. My department was mired in a rut of senior faculty dynamics among program coordinators until we opened up the process by voting for peer committee spots and making sure two nonvoting spots were for nontenured faculty.

We chose to have the nontenured faculty as nonvoting members of the peer evaluation committee to protect them from potential retaliation for decisions. But even if the two nontenured reps don't say a thing, they're observing the discussion, which eliminates a lot of the ****.

For similar reasons (the potential for retaliation), I am very hesitant to agree that nontenured faculty should vote on tenure decisions. But it would probably be salutary for all faculty who have been on campus for a certain minimum time (maybe two years?) to participate by being able to provide comments as a reality check for deans and provosts.

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