The Invisible Majority: Myths, Realities, and a Call for Action

Mary Elizabeth Perry, May 1995

An invisible majority holds 58 percent of all faculty appointments in American colleges and universities.[1] Essential as a low-cost means to grant leave to tenure-track faculty and increasingly numerous as colleges and universities look for ways to cut costs, non-tenure-track faculty are nevertheless invisible to administrators and other faculty members, who do not want to acknowledge the uncomfortable boundary that separates them or the disquieting questions that their presence raises.[2]

For example:

  • Why are some faculty members protected by tenure and others are not?
  • Why are some faculty members represented on academic governing boards while others are not?
  • Why are some faculty members paid five times as much as others for comparable work, and why do part-time faculty often earn only $1500 per course?[3]
  • How is faculty strength affected by the presence of non-tenure- track faculty? Are non-tenure-track employees a pool of possible strikebreakers, or an opening wedge against the tenure system?
  • What happens to students in institutions with revolving-door teachers and nonteaching research professors?
  • How does this exploitative two-tier system endanger our profession and undercut the logic of our entire academic system?

Rather than attempting to answer these difficult questions, we non-tenure-track faculty try to hide behind the affiliation printed on our name badges so others will assume that we have regular tenure-track positions. Our tenure-track colleagues also avoid the questions, too often looking right over us and rationalizing this invisibility with a whole series of myths that obscure the real issues. Let's look now at six of these myths and their realities and then go on to consider much-needed action.

Myths and Realities

According to the first myth, all non-tenure-track faculty are alike, and we don't really have to look at them. In reality, this nonrepresented, non-tenure-track faculty contains several diverse groups, each of which must be recognized. Some are part-time employees and others are usually full-time employees but in non-tenure-track positions. Graduate students often accept part-time positions to gain teaching experience and to support themselves as they complete their dissertations, and some junior scholars who have just completed their degrees and have not yet found a full-time tenure-track position accept non- tenure-track jobs. Both of these groups hope that their experience in the non-tenure-track will be brief. Others are long-term non-tenure-track faculty, some becoming the gypsy faculty that travels from campus to campus, taking two or more part-time positions. A significant number of non-tenure-track faculty choose for a variety of reasons to remain in non-tenure- track positions rather than to seek full-time places. A large proportion of these people are women with families who work within some restrictions of place and time. Others include academic administrators or professionals who hold nonacademic positions and enjoy teaching a course now and then. The latter are often paid on a much higher scale than other non-tenure-track faculty. Overlooking the diversity of interests and concerns of these many groups preserves the obscurity surrounding the real issues involved.

A second myth asserts that people who hold non-tenure-track positions are the dregs of the profession, those who are not "good enough" to get a full-time tenure-track position. As one who has spent 16 years in non-tenure-track positions, I take strong exception to this myth. Not only have I won a campus-wide distinguished teaching award at a major university and published four books (two of them prizewinners, one in translation) and seventeen articles and essays, I also know scores of part-time and adjunct faculty who are outstanding teachers, researchers, and writers. This myth of the substandard quality of non-tenure-track faculty is one of the most insidious falsehoods because it implies that we do not have to be concerned with this sector of our profession. Moreover, it facilitates the belief that nothing needs to be done for these people, that things are fine in the profession and the academic world. And it shames non-tenure-track faculty so that they do not speak out for themselves; they isolate themselves, and they become invisible even to one another.

A third myth insists that non-tenure-track faculty are mere dilettantes, not serious about the profession or the academic world. As a matter of fact, most non-tenure-track faculty members take the profession and academe so seriously that they are willing to accept a substandard job simply to do what they love to do and what they know that they do extremely well. Many continue to research and write at their own expense, with little or no help from an academic institution or from outside grants. Implicit in the myth of dilettantism is a belief that "real" professionals should give all of their time and energy to the practice of history, but this implies that there is only one way to be a professional historian-the time-honored male mode of the man with a wife to make his meals, care for his children, make a home, and interact with a larger family and community. Many of us do not have such a wife.

Closely connected to the myth of dilettantism is the fourth myth, that non-tenure-track faculty lower professional standards. Several years ago the Modern Language Association stated that the status of non-tenure-track faculty was of great professional concern because such faculty members were not regularly evaluated by peers and thus lowered standards of teaching and writing. Such an attitude encourages some students to express hostility to instructors they know are not in tenure-track appointments, and it discourages other students from connecting with these faculty members and benefiting from the long-term mentoring and personal support they could provide. Fortunately, professional organizations that now express concern about this sector of their membership no longer deny their quality but emphasize instead that the growth in this sector is a danger signal for the entire profession.[4]

Myth number five states that non-tenure-track faculty could easily cross over into full-time positions if they were smart and did not let themselves be exploited. This victim-blaming myth overlooks two realities: that of the academic job market, in the first place, and the stigmatization of accepting non-tenure-track positions for more than a year or two, in the second. [5] Graduate students, of course, do not suffer the same stigmatization, providing that it does not take them too long to finish the dissertation while teaching part time. But other non-tenure- track faculty too often cannot even get an interview for a full- time position once the search committee has seen a c.v. that shows that they have accepted a lesser position for two or more years.[6] Such an attitude precludes any easy crossover to full- time positions, and it shows how deeply ingrained are those myths about dilettantism and substandard quality. Not surprisingly, some of the angriest non-tenure-track faculty are those hired with the assurance that their job would "probably" or "possibly" become a tenure-track position in the near future.

According to myth number six, the poor working conditions and exploitation of non-tenure-track faculty are of no significance to the profession, except that they serve as a warning to our graduate students. In reality, students suffer in this system, for large numbers of them never have more than a single course from a tenure-track professor who is then reluctant to write letters of recommendation for them. Moreover, a faculty composed of two separate tiers directly endangers all members of the profession and erodes any meaningful basis for the entire academic system.[7] The upper tier, which is declining in number, receives the privileges of academic support, light teaching loads, and much greater compensation, including benefits. The growing lower tier carries out most of the teaching and has difficulty finding time for research or publication, so that the classical academic model of the scholar-teacher has become split and teaching suffers devaluation. Professional solidarity disappears between two groups with very different interests, and this is happening just at a time when economic realities require the strongest and most unified profession.

Call for Action

Let us be clear on this one point: the survival of our profession and of the academic system requires immediate action. For years both the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the National Education Association (NEA) have warned that the situation is deteriorating; the time to hear them is now.[8] We must begin by insisting that the AHA expose the gravity and complexity of this issue in its publications and meetings. We can applaud the AHA Council for endorsing the recommendations of the AAUP, which will be briefly discussed below with those of the NEA. It is extremely important that we take collective action through professional organizations that work together in order to bring non-tenure-track faculty out of isolation and out of invisibility. However, endorsement by a national organization means nothing without the active engagement of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty on every campus to bring about changes. No collective action will be effective without the active commitment of individuals, whether student, administrator, tenure-track employee, or non-tenure-track faculty. Action is the responsibility of each one of us.

Using the recommendations of the AAUP and the NEA, I call upon the AHA and I call upon you as an individual to take the following actions:

First, act to bring about structural changes in employment. More specifically, work to convert wherever possible non- tenure-track positions into regular tenure-track jobs, and to give fair consideration to part-time faculty presently filling the positions to be converted. Work toward limiting reliance on non-tenure-track faculty to no more than 15 percent of the total instructional staff of a college or university, and insist upon providing long-term contract stability and tenure for those non- tenure-track positions that an institution continues. Require every institution to provide pro rata compensation, including fringe benefits, for non-tenure-track faculty and to institute regular peer evaluation on the basis of standards appropriate to their work. Make certain that position descriptions for all faculty, both tenure track and nontenure track, specify professional duties required, which should be the basis for decisions on compensation, promotion, and tenure for each position. Demand that institutions give timely notice of nonreappointment and advance notice of course assignments for all faculty, whether tenure track or nontenure track.

Second, act to see that necessary basic working conditions are provided for all faculty, tenure track and nontenure track alike. This means designated office space with telephone and message-taking services, parking privileges, a library card, computer access, and photocopying services. It also means that new non-tenure-track faculty should be introduced to the department with as much care as new tenure-track faculty and given an orientation folder containing a calendar of the current term, a campus map, and information on audiovisual resources; the slide library; photocopying services; the location of maps; evaluation forms used by students at the end of term; the usual expectations of students in terms of reading, exams, and papers; departmental policies; and university policies on cheating, late enrollment, and withdrawal. These sound like simple common-sense practicalities, but too many departments completely overlook them for their non-tenure-track faculty and thus treat them as invisible and devalued.

Third, work for the actual integration of non-tenure-track faculty into academe. Each one of us should speak out to include such faculty in departmental social events and in all departmental meetings. We should require that every faculty governing body include representatives of non-tenure-track faculty, and that any faculty union or organization represent non-tenure-track faculty as well as their tenure-track colleagues.[9] What we must work toward is nothing less than a change in consciousness; what we must leave behind is the pretense of invisibility.

In the face of recent budget crises and pressures to "downsize," academic historians can no longer afford the luxury of a two- tiered faculty system in which they treat their non-tenure-track colleagues as invisible substandard victims who deserve to be exploited. This problem belongs not only to non-tenure-track faculty, but to all faculty members, to all administrators, and to all students. It cries for action that must begin now.

—Mary Elizabeth Perry is adjunct professor of history at Occidental College and research associate at the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She would like to acknowledge the generous assistance of countless colleagues and members of professional organizations who have discussed this topic with her.

Notes

1. These figures are from the American Association of University Professors, Committee G on Part-Time and Non- Tenure-Track Appointments. "Report: The Status of Non- Tenure-Track Faculty," Academe, July–August 1993, 39, indicates that part-time faculty hold 38 percent of faculty appointments and non-tenure-track full-time faculty hold 20 percent.

2. For the increasing demand for non-tenure-track faculty, see Barbara Alpern Engel, "Rising Enrollment a Challenge for the Future," Perspectives, November 1993, 13–14. Engel found that most colleges and universities are trying to meet the demands of rising enrollment with short-term and one-year appointments rather than with an increased number of tenured positions.

3. "Report: The Status of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty," 41.

4. See, for example, the resolution to endorse the AAUP non- tenure-track faculty recommendations presented in the American Anthropological Association Newsletter, November 1993, 3; and the Chronicle of Higher Education, February 16, 1994, A23, for a report entitled "The American Mathematical Society Has Condemned What It Calls the `Systematic Hiring' of Unemployed Ph.D.'s on a Part- Time Basis by Colleges."

5. For the current job market, see Paul Conkin, "Bleak Outlook for Academic History Jobs," Perspectives, April 1993, 1–ff; and Susan M. Socolow, "Analyzing Trends in the History Job Market," Perspectives, May-June 1993, 3–6. For stigmatization of non-tenure-track faculty, see American Association of University Professors, Committee G on Part-Time and Non-Tenure-Track Appointments, "Report: The Status of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty," Academe, November-December 1992, 45.

6. Nell Irvin Painter, "The Academic Marketplace and Affirmative Action," Perspectives, December 1993, 7–11, points out that "the lost generation" of Ph.D.'s who entered the job market during the "depression years" of the 1970s and early 1980s became "gypsy scholars" or non-tenure-track faculty and have suffered subsequent discrimination.

7. Karen Thompson, "Recognizing Mutual Interests," Academe, November-December 1992, 25–26; but note Kitty Berver, Don Kurtz, and Eliot Orton, "Off the Track, but in the Fold," Academe, November-December 1992, 27–29, which describes a coalition of faculty, students, and administrators at New Mexico State University and their decision to accept a two-tier system and to attempt to improve the status of the lower tier.

8. "Report: The Status of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty," 44–46; National Education Association, Standing Committee on Higher Education, Report and Recommendations on Part-time, Temporary and Nontenure Track Faculty Appointments, 1988, 1–15. The NEA report cites Howard R. Bowen and Jack H. Schuster, American Professors: A National Resource Imperiled (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), as estimating that part-time faculty increased from 82,000 in 1960 to 220,000 in 1980, n. 1.

9. Karen Thompson, "Piecework to Parity: Part-Timers in Action," Thought and Action 8, no. 1 (spring 1992): 29–37, describes the successful organizing of non-tenure-track faculty at Rutgers University; for a broader discussion, see Scott Heller, "Part-Time Teachers Turn to Unions to Alter Status as 'Academic Stepchildren'," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 28, 1987, 1.