Non-tenure track faculty organize and win

An anonymous non-tenure track instructor describes how he and his colleagues successfully pushed back against their university administration’s attempt to strip them of job security in light of the pandemic. Image © Don Harder, via Flickr.

At my university, like many others, about a third of the full-time faculty is non-tenure track (NTT). Those NTT faculty teach just under half of the credits in a given year and staff critical programs at the core of the university’s mission. Many of these faculty have been at the university for a long time and over the last ten years or so, the university has made improvements in job security, benefits, and pay for this group. It has increased pay for full-time NTT faculty, instituted multi-year, rolling contracts instead of one-year contracts, and created a promotion process so that faculty in these jobs can be promoted through the ranks and get regular raises and such. Though those multi-year contracts are still at-will contracts, many folks feel quite secure in their positions. There remain problems of course: there are hierarchies on campus, NTT faculty do not have a vote in the faculty governance structure, among other issues, but there has also been a years-long effort to remedy some of those things and bring even more security and equity among faculty.

As the Spring semester unfolded in the midst of the pandemic, however, what NTT folks had assumed to be relatively secure jobs began to feel much less so. As we watched NTT faculty and adjunct faculty across other campuses get laid off, we began to worry. Normally, faculty reappointments for the upcoming year are rolled out in early Spring, but the university telegraphed that they were holding off on sending those letters out while the budget offices reassessed the university’s budgets in the face of lost revenue. We were told that the university was “doing everything it could” to keep everyone on the payroll. A few weeks after the usual time reappointment letters would normally be sent out, there was silence about what would happen to full-time NTT faculty. Supervisors said the letters were coming but no one knew when.

Almost two months later, we were just a few weeks from the end of our existing contracts, still working on ongoing committees, teaching summer courses, and planning for the fall for classes we were slated to teach. Finally, we received reappointment emails. Most of us were reappointed – very few were not. But the reappointments were sent without a renewal of existing multi-year contracts; instead we all received one-year appointments.

There are NTT faculty who have been on our campus for more than 10 years (some even longer) and who have not been on one-year contracts for a very long time. Many of these faculty serve on ongoing committees and are generally involved in work beyond teaching on campus that presumes generally unending employment (one of these faculty members was even overseeing a reaccreditation process for their department). Everyone was shocked and demoralized by these late reappointments and the across-the-board reduction to one-year contracts.

The administration acted as though we should be happy that they saved our jobs. No one felt happy.

There had been very little organization among this group of faculty before this, but a few got together and started talking about what could be done. We decided that we needed to respond and needed to do so quickly. So we drafted a letter and decided to call a meeting of all NTTs to try to get a sense of how others were feeling and see if we could organize folks to sign a letter asking for redress. (As we have come to know since, we were not the only group of NTT faculty at a campus that had done this. NTT faculty at a few other schools have, or are actively working on similar initiatives.) We focused the letter on our contributions on campus above and beyond simply teaching our classes, as we see this labor as both underappreciated and also not necessarily known by the administration. This involved getting to know more about what kinds of things people do in terms of service to programs, departments, and the larger university that go beyond teaching. We had surveyed folks about this in the past for another initiative and so were able to pull information from that for this. In our letter, we talked about those service tasks that make us integral to the running of the university above and beyond our teaching: serving on committees, advising students, being the workforce that has higher teaching loads so that the tenured and tenure-track faculty are able to teach less and fulfill their research missions.

Importantly, we talked about how, having been reduced to one-year contracts, we were now forced to pull back on much of this extra work beyond teaching. Any extra time we had would now have to be put into the task of thinking about new jobs and careers because we could not be sure that we’d be reappointed the following year — and we made sure to point out that academic job market cycles start in the fall, so the impacts would be felt almost immediately this year. Moreover, a number of NTT faculty pulled out of this extra work right away. I, for instance, pulled out of two program-oriented committees and one university-organized research group upon having my contract reduced to one year, and others did similar things citing the need to use that time to consider other career options.    

We asked that the university take steps to remedy their mistakes so we could continue to work and dedicate ourselves as before. Specifically, we asked for an immediate reinstatement of our multi-year rolling contracts and a commitment to end the at-will nature of those contracts along with a few other steps that would further secure our employment into the future.

After putting a draft of the letter together, we held a live online meeting of all NTT faculty.  We shared the draft and asked folks not to line edit, or worry too much about the specifics of the letter, but say whether they could commit to the spirit of the letter. There was broad support for that if not the letter itself. It was decided at that first meeting that we would send out a survey to see who would be willing to sign, and ask if there were any major problems with the letter itself (we stressed here we only wanted to hear about major concerns, not minor ones, as we were working on a short timeline). The hope was that any major concerns would be similar across folks who felt they couldn’t yet support the letter, and that we could edit it so as to bring those folks on board.

After receiving the survey results, we made a few adjustments to the letter and then presented it to all NTT faculty once more in a second meeting. The revised version was supported by almost everyone (so this process did bring others on board as we had hoped). It was also decided that it would be signed anonymously as many folks were concerned with reprisals. We decided that signatures on the letter itself would be individual so the recipients would feel the impact of each individual signature that read “Anonymous Teaching Faculty”. We also reported the percentage of all full-time NTT faculty that signed and supported the letter (more than 90% of those who responded to the survey and almost 75% of the total population of full-time NTT faculty).

The letter went to a selection of administrators, trustees, and TT faculty on our faculty governance committees. There was immediate support from the TT faculty for the letter and a public statement to that effect. Not long after, we received a commitment to honor all of our demands from the administration. The multi-year rolling contracts were reinstated within a week. These are still the at-will contracts that we had before, but the administration has committed to and is working on for-cause contracts, along with a recommitment to some of the other initiatives that will secure us even more. The for-cause contracts were not something that was being widely discussed before this, so this is a big win.

This action has also given us a voice on campus in ways that we did not have before. Governance has already begun to include us in discussions that we were not really a part of before, and we also are continuing to organize ourselves and connect with one another in ways that should have lasting beneficial effects.

The lesson here is pretty clear. Though non-tenure track faculty tend to be seen (and see themselves) as somehow less central to the mission of the university, the fact that universities have come to rely on our labor — not just our teaching labor, but all of the other things that we do, including committee work, advising, bringing prestige through our teaching and scholarship, and also being the labor that allows the tenured and tenure-track faculty to do the levels of scholarship that they do, we have more power than we think. And reminding folks about the necessity of our roles on campus can put us in a position to advocate for ourselves in ways that can win us gains and also put our tenured and tenure-track colleagues in a position to act in solidarity with us. Building that kind of solidarity across types of academic labor is certainly needed. But we can only do that if we organize ourselves.