Bearing Bad News

I’m writing with an issue that wouldn’t garner me sympathy from many of my faculty but nonetheless is a dilemma for me and, I suspect, many chairs. Like most universities, we’ve seen our tenure-track ranks reduced, with departures most frequently being replaced by more teaching-heavy non-tenure-track positions. The academic job market being what it is, those positions are being filled with high-performing individuals who in some cases are doing as much or more work in teaching and scholarship than some of my tenured faculty. While these NTT positions carry annual contracts and benefits (i.e. they’re not adjuncts in the strict sense), faculty members who occupy them are increasingly asking to be converted to the tenure track. For reasons of budget (not in my control) and department needs, such requests are highly unlikely to be approved. Delivering that message, however, results in—understandably—often painful conversations of disappointment, hurt, and anger. How can I best manage these conversations and their aftermath? Bearer of Bad News

Dear Bearer:

Coming from a department with many adjuncts and an institution that’s also investing in new NTT lines, I feel your pain. I think part of these faculty members’ desire to hold onto the aspiration towards the tenure track is that PhD candidates are not prepared by the institutions that train them that this is what much of the academic job market looks like now. It’s a truism that faculty at R1s think they’re reproducing themselves, but to a certain extent they don’t have the experience to do much else: they moved from the research university at which they did their graduate work to the research university at which they now work. They may have little sense of the ecosystem outside the R1 tenure track, and see anything that isn’t at the very least a professorial position in a four-year institution a step down, an attitude that their students internalize and judge themselves by.

I think there are two things you can do here. The first is prevention. I understand that the folks you’re hiring want to believe that somehow they’ll be able to write their way onto the tenure track and into a professorial position, but it’s clear that this is close to impossible. So when you’re interviewing and hiring these faculty you have to be as clear as possible that this is a teaching position that is off the tenure track, and that it is going to stay that way. The second is community- and morale-building. Often NTT faculty feel like (and are treated like) second-class citizens. Are there things you can to do change that?  If your faculty meets on a regular basis, NTT faculty have to be fully integrated into those meetings. Do full-time faculty members off the tenure track have the same decision-making and voting rights as their professorial-rank colleagues? If not, I’d strongly encourage your department to change that practice. If an increasing number of faculty are being hired as NTT, they need to be active members of the department and be able to vote on curriculum and other departmental policies. Do lecturers fill valuable roles in the department such as chairing important committees or advising students or coordinating programs? These are all ways for NTT faculty to occupy the same symbolic status as their tenure-track colleagues within the life of the department.

Finally, does your institution have “lecturer tenure”? Many public institutions have some form of job security for NTT faculty that they earn after a certain number of years, based on teaching and service. If your faculty is unionized and you don’t have long-term security for lecturers, I’d recommend that you bring this up to your local delegate or union leadership. If you’re not, it’s worth a serious conversation with chairs of other departments and with your administration. I’d imagine that part of your NTT faculty’s requests for conversion to the tenure track is that it relieves the acute anxiety around reappointment year after year.

This is not to condone the practice of evacuating out the tenure track. Indeed, the increasing division of faculty into worker bee lecturers and queen bee professors is nefarious, not least because it strikes at the collegial solidarity that holds us together. However, I have seen departments in which NTT faculty are significant figures among the faculty, even leaders, because the institution has structures by which they can occupy those roles. Try to make your department that kind of a place.

The Chair

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