The Wesleyan Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a press release officially launching its “One Faculty!” campaign on Monday, Feb. 27. The statement, which comes just over six months after the Wesleyan Chapter announced its re-launch, outlined the three main goals of the campaign’s proposal: extending tenure protections to contingent faculty, fully staffing all academic departments at the University, and lowering the rate at which the University hires contingent faculty.
Tenure, as defined by the AAUP, is a state of academic employment that can only end for justifiable cause or in extremely extenuating circumstances. Contingent faculty, also as defined by the AAUP, do not enjoy the same academic freedoms as their tenured colleagues.
The Wesleyan Chapter’s statement argues that the ongoing trend in higher education of universities hiring more contingent faculty coincides with a decline in the quality of labor conditions for professors and of learning environment for students. The AAUP posits that increasing tenure-line positions and opportunities for contingent faculty will promote healthier academic units.
“When universities rely more and more on hiring contingent faculty to reduce their expenditures on the ‘academic core’ and the expertise of teachers and scholars is sidelined by the intrusion of corporate interests, teaching and learning conditions at colleges and universities are compromised,” the statement read. “When institutions of higher learning treat large portions of their teaching staff as expendable, they no longer serve the common good—they undermine it.”
The statement specifically noted the high number of Wesleyan University faculty who are not on the tenure track. This, the Chapter explained, is in stark contrast to the unprecedented growth of the University’s endowment in the past decade.
“The number of Wesleyan’s teaching staff has grown alongside the rise of the university’s wealth, as measured in the size of its endowment,” the statement read. “But, there has been a steep decline in the university’s tenure density, which currently stands at 62%. Almost 40% of Wesleyan faculty are contingent employees with higher teaching loads, lower pay, and little job security. The conditions of their employment are uneven and arbitrary, subject to budgetary expediency and administrative fiat.”
AAUP Wesleyan Chapter Co-President and Associate Professor of Mathematics Christopher Rasmussen emphasized that the steady decline in tenure-track professors was a powerful impetus for this proposal.
“One primary source of concern comes from the fact that there are lots of ways in which academic freedom has been eroded over time at the institution,” Rasmussen said. “No matter the intentions of the institution, faculty sitting in contingent positions don’t enjoy academic freedom—they’re always operating in a system where they are at the mercy of the opinions of the University in terms of how they teach or how they pursue their scholarship…. And it shouldn’t be a situation where academic freedom is enjoyed only by some chunk of the faculty, it really isn’t right.”
AAUP Wesleyan Chapter Executive Committee Member-at-Large Associate Professor of Economics Melanie Khamis added that a crucial element in crafting the proposal was internal research the Wesleyan Chapter did on the University’s hiring practices, number of contingent professors, and general trends over time.
“This is based on a unity-based effort from many chapter members and an analysis of data that we were provided,” Khamis said. “Looking at those, the trends are very striking. There wasn’t any systematic study for Wesleyan itself. There’s a lot of work that the AAUP does generally, but for Wesleyan itself, we haven’t had a clear picture yet. And so when that came out, I think that sort of sustained the campaign.”
At the meeting of the Wesleyan Student Assembly on Sunday, Feb. 26, President Michael Roth ’78 was asked a question about academic freedoms for contingent professors. Roth answered that he wanted professors to feel empowered with academic freedom, but did not see the current status of contingent faculty as an issue.
“I think, on the whole, the faculty feel empowered to go into the sensitive areas of inquiry, knowing that their ability to guide that inquiry and to help move forward is part of the ethos of the university,” Roth said. “Some people have said, ‘Well, I feel I have to give everybody an A, because otherwise they may not like me on their course evaluations.’ Or if [students] get caught cheating, [they] still can evaluate the professor [that caught them], and that’s kind of weird. But I see no evidence that people with tenure grade more harshly.”
Roth emphasized that all professors at the University enjoy certain academic freedoms. He also noted that there have not been significant controversies regarding professors or students in relation to academic freedom which have challenged or affirmed these protections beyond the hypothetical.
Two contingent faculty members, who chose to remain anonymous and will be referred to in this article as A and B, spoke on their experience at the University as professors who aren’t eligible for the tenure track.
“Currently, our contingent faculty positions lack academic freedom in the classroom because we are on contracts that can be terminated if our position is no longer needed, or [our contract] can just not get renewed,” A said. “We really are reliant on strong student evaluations, and a lot of our curricular decisions are born out of a place of fear.”
Fear of repercussion among faculty indicates an additional challenge to the University’s application and evaluation of academic freedom protections. B explained that another part of the issue is the lack of input that contingent professors have on faculty governance.
“[In university-wide governance,] contingent faculty have voice and vote in faculty meetings but only one position on the compensation committee,” B wrote in an email to The Argus. “[All] other faculty-elected committees are exclusionary. All Tenured faculty are a part of the academic council which handles internal review.”
A consequence of this lack of representation, A elaborated, is the lack of input that contingent professors have on job security, promotions, and contract renewal.
“There is one adjunct faculty member and one professor of the practice on the compensation and benefits committee,” A said. “Every other faculty-elected committee excludes contingent faculty. It’s also important to note that all tenured faculty are part of Academic Council, and within Academic Council is the advisory committee that reviews all promotion cases and some contingent faculty reappointment cases, and there’s no contingent faculty representation in academic counsel or on the advisory.”
AAUP Wesleyan Chapter Secretary and Associate Professor of Anthropology Margot Weiss remarked that, on a departmental level, the high number of contingent faculty on campus creates an undue burden for professors with added administrative responsibilities.
“Inside of a department, we do more than just teach classes,” Weiss said. “There’s a lot of administrative work and other things that go into academic units. [This work] is unevenly distributed. So there are a lot of reasons why tenure for everyone makes sense on all levels.”
According to A, more contingent faculty could also influence the teacher-scholar model employed by the University. The teacher-scholar model, as defined by the University, is built on the premise that the best professors are also engaged in diligent research. A observed that, though this is not a part of contingent professors’ job descriptions, many continue to do so in bold new ways.
“We have almost 40% of the faculty who are not contracted to do scholarship in a traditional sense, but many of us still do, and many of us operate in the realm of the scholarship of teaching and learning, which is really important,” A said. “We are developing innovative teaching methods, publishing curricula and textbooks, and that is very important scholarship to be doing.”
Another piece of the tenure issue that is central to the proposal is the way that faculty working conditions can affect the student learning experience.
“Working conditions are student learning conditions,” Rasmussen said. “So every student on campus should be concerned with the level of academic freedom enjoyed by their professors.”
AAUP Wesleyan Chapter Treasurer and Professor of German Studies Ulrich Plass added that the negative impact of such a high share of contingent faculty extends not only to a student’s course load and instruction, but also to the guidance they receive through their time at the University. Part of this manifests in student-to-faculty ratios. According to the Wesleyan Chapter’s proposal, the ratio of students who have declared a major to tenure-track faculty can get as high as 17:1 in some departments, a far cry from the 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio advertised by the University.
“Students also have a stake in it because it impacts the quality of education, not just inside the classroom, but also outside the classroom in terms of advising and mentoring and other kinds of support,” Plass said. “And if you have faculty who are safely and permanently employed, you’re going to have a much better chance of actually getting that than if you have a revolving door employment model.”
Another major aspect of the proposal, emphasized by AAUP Wesleyan Chapter Co-President and Chair of the English Department Matthew Garrett, was the difference between academic freedom and freedom of speech, as well as the importance that the two not be confused.
“I think our point of view in the chapter is that…academic freedom is under threat in a lot of different ways [nationwide],” Garrett said. “Sometimes that battle is presented as one that’s simply over free speech, but it’s not. Actually, academic freedom…is only guaranteed by tenure, so when tenure is attacked, so is academic freedom.”
Plass emphasized how the AAUP’s statement aims to elicit a response from University faculty members, rather than the board of trustees or the president directly. Plass also signaled the importance of the faculty’s reaction in drawing attention to the domino effect that the budget for professor compensation and benefits, which the board of trustees approves, has on the faculty hiring processes.
“It’s an appeal to the faculty [to] come together and rethink our hiring practices,” Plass said. “In the end, our hiring practices do depend on the resources that [the Office of] Academic Affairs makes available to us. And the [Office of] Academic Affairs, in turn, depends on the resources that the treasurer of the University makes available to them. And the treasurer in turn, depends on whether the board of trustees will approve the budget that the treasurer builds.”
Beyond faculty action, the AAUP hopes that students will rise in support of the “One Faculty!” campaign, understanding their place in the issue at large.
“I do think it would be very helpful for students to understand the perspectives of contingent faculty,” Rasmussen said. “It’ll really help students understand the circumstances to hear from contingent or other vulnerable faculty as to why these are real issues and not just hypothetical ones.”
The AAUP’s statement highlights the crucial role which tenure practices of the University have on all aspects of University life, from pedagogical circumstances to quality of teaching to opportunities throughout students’ time at Wesleyan.
“There’s a huge role that students could play in understanding what it means for faculty to be contingent [and] what academic freedom really looks like, because that inhibits faculty from experimenting with the best kind of pedagogy, with really challenging students, with offering the kind of education that they may want to offer,” Weiss said. “So that’s for everyone’s best interest.”
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