Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Adjuncts and Faculty Governance

A returning correspondent writes:

Should adjuncts attempt to participate at any level in the
administrative governance of their college or university? In many
cases they probably aren't even allowed to do so, since they are often
regarded as lower-status part-time employees that are deliberately
excluded from institutional governance. In other situations, they are
probably so busy manipulating multiple gigs that they just don't have
the time or energy to get involved in committee work. Nevertheless,
should an ambitious adjunct with a few good ideas and some extra time
on their hands take the plunge and attempt to get involved in academic
committee work at their college or university?

Since adjuncts can be fired (or, rather, "not renewed") for making
only the slightest waves, maybe it is a mistake for them to try and
get involved in controversial academic politics or contentious issues
such as the creation of new degree programs, making curriculum
changes, or introducing new courses. After all, these issues will
just eat up your time, you will invariably offend at least some of the
full-time faculty, you will probably antagonize the dean or the
department head, and people will wonder about your motives and will
think that you are acting above your station. As an ever-vulnerable
adjunct, the last thing you need is for faculty members or
administrators to be suspicious of you.

As an adjunct instructor, I have given some thought about this issue,
and have actually made a few tentative moves in the direction of
getting involved in working with academic committees at my school and
have even suggested the introduction of some new courses. However, I
have generally been rebuffed by the administration. Maybe it's
because my ideas aren't very good, but I suspect that the fact that I
am merely an adjunct may have something to do with it.

What do you and your readers think about this?

Nope, no can of worms here!

The letter raises several issues at varying levels of 'meta.'

I'll confess upfront that I'm not a big fan of 'faculty governance,' mostly because I have a hard time distinguishing it from 'conflict of interest.' The idea that people with lifetime tenure – that is, people without accountability – should have the power to feather their own nests in the name of a higher morality strikes me as absurd on its face. To my mind, with power should come accountability. If you want to have the power to make decisions, you should be accountable for the ones that go bad. That means, for example, losing your job if a major call goes wrong.

Also, if faculty governance actually means something, then faculty unionization makes no sense. You're either management or labor; not both. If you really run the place, then you're management. If you claim to run the place and you unionize to negotiate against it, I'd call that 'self-dealing.' It's a flagrant ethical violation, and of dubious legality. You can't have it both ways.

(For the record, my preferred approach would be to have a unionized faculty, and to let managers manage. There are other ways, and I'm not wedded to this point of view. But I do believe strongly that there's some pretty egregious role confusion in the current system, leading to some pretty egregious abuses of power. At least if a manager screws up, she can be fired.)

Your mention of the fear of giving offense is to the point, since it gives the lie to the usual “academic freedom” argument. If you have to hold your tongue for fear of offending those with tenure, I don't see much academic freedom there. As a smart woman once said, freedom is freedom for the one who thinks differently. Serious policy debate requires giving offense, at least some of the time. (Sometimes it even involves saying 'no.') If tenure means that everybody is stuck playing in the same sandbox forever, then the cost of giving offense may outweigh the good done by honest questioning, at least in the short term, so I'd expect to see honest questioning replaced by kabuki rituals of ego-stroking. Which is pretty much what happens.

(In fiscal terms, if faculty can set policy but aren't responsible for budgets, I'd expect to see staggeringly inefficient decisions made that would result in decades of higher-than-inflation tuition increases to feed the beast. Oh, wait...)

It gets even worse with tenure decisions. If tenured faculty have the first vote on tenure cases, which is the case at most four-year schools as far as I know, then we're vesting hiring decisions with people who aren't held to account for bad decisions. (That's before we even talk about inbred departments, sexism and racism, personality conflicts, and the other various mores of the shop.) The decision-makers – the tenured faculty – are essentially immune from consequence for their decisions, so they can do pretty much whatever they want (with a few basic legal exceptions). To my mind, hiring and firing are very basic management tasks. Let them rest with people who will be held accountable for them. Yes, some decisions would be arbitrary, but do we seriously believe that isn't true now? At least in my preferred system, the decision-maker would be accountable. The only thing worse than power is unaccountable power.

Harumph. Rant over, back to the question.

There are really two questions here. Is it in the best interests of a given adjunct to make waves in faculty governance, and should adjuncts be included? I'd say 'probably not' and 'probably,' respectively, and just acknowledge the contradiction. (It's one of those “you first” dilemmas. My favorite example of that was an article in The Onion a while back – the headline was something like “95% of Americans favor the increased use of mass transit by other people.” The article was filled with quotes like “if other people would take the train, the traffic on my commute would be a lot lighter.” While in principle it would be only fair to include adjuncts, the first adjuncts to step up would bear tremendous risk.)

If you're going to have faculty governance, based on the presumed special centrality of faculty to the academic enterprise, then I'd say adjuncts ought to be included. After all, adjuncts do a significant percentage (at some colleges, a majority) of the actual teaching; to exclude the majority of the workforce in the name of empowering the workers strikes me as self-defeating. If the claim by faculty to special powers does not rest on curricular expertise and/or student contact, I'd like to know what it is based on.

(I could imagine a claim based on being uniquely place-bound. Since faculty are the most likely to stick around forever, the argument might go, they should have the most say in how things are run. Again, the line between that and 'conflict of interest,' or even 'landed aristocracy,' is a bit thin. The reason they're the most likely to stick around is precisely that they're not accountable. Hell, if I can vote for the governor of a state after 30 days, and have it count as much as the vote of someone who has lived there for 30 years, I have a hard time seeing what makes senior tenured faculty special.)

If we take the existence of 'faculty governance' as given, then I'd say adjuncts should have a place at the table. (Alternately, in my preferred model, they'd have membership in the faculty union.) You're certainly right that many would choose to skip it, simply because of competing demands on their time (I'm reminded of Oscar Wilde's line about socialism: “I would have been a socialist, but I like to keep my evenings free”), but they should at least have the opportunity.

I'm almost afraid to ask, but...any thoughts on this one?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

IMO, one of the biggest (and most obvious) reasons for faculty governance is that faculty, by and large, have the most amount of vested long-term interest in the institution. Administrators come and go, and I've seen and heard of more than a few administrators not care about the decisions they make (especially as they apply for jobs elsewhere).
Good to see the ole "take away tenure", business model of administration, aka the "Maggies Farm" approach still has supporters!

As Deans, Presidents, and Provosts rotate through to other positions on a 2-4 year time scale, and given that they get no brownie points for making the previous person's plan work, we are constantly deluged with new "visions". Yep! I want folks not fully vested in the institution to have absolute power. Of course! Dump mandates on me when you have free time between mailing resumes, its only the administrators who can see clearly.

Y'all are the deciders!
DD sez: "(In fiscal terms, if faculty can set policy but aren't responsible for budgets, I'd expect to see staggeringly inefficient decisions made that would result in decades of higher-than-inflation tuition increases to feed the beast. Oh, wait...)"

Hm. Boards of directors specify policy; implementation, including budget work, is the job of the executive. Is there a structural difference between higher ed and industry here? (A structural difference in the governance scheme, I mean.)
But before we get too high on the tenured and tenure track's investment in the institution, most tenureds that I know don't give two shi*s for the institution per se. Most of their "governance" actions are about ensuring, or boosting their status.

As a lifer adjunct, one thing I've learned is that the tenured class is really no friend to the adjunct class.

This brings me to the prospect of a combined full-time and part-time union. It wouldn't work. Why? Because the interests of these two groups are opposed. A joint or combined union would amount to a collective conflict of interest.
Of the two universities with which I am most familiar, one had adjunct/pt representatives on some organizational group (I forget what it was exactly, as I never got involved both because of time constraints and a slight amount of fear of rocking the boat). In my current institution, pt and ft/tt faculty are part of the same union -- and from what I've heard/seen the adjuncts/part timers have a decent amount of power within it.

There are some things I did as an adjunct -- like create new courses, supervise independent studies, and advise research projects. These weren't to my advantage in a lot of ways (financially, time wise, etc.), but they made me feel more involved and engaged and I enjoyed them, which made me happier about what I was doing. So, my advice to the reader is to get involved in some things (and the person suggested new courses as a possibility), if he/she is so inclined and has the time, but avoid the more contentious/political issues (at least until he/she feels some confidence it wouldn't jeopardize his/her job). And, try to find out what the institutional culture is at this particular school.
Well, as an adjunct I created a new course, supervised a master thesis, did independent study classes (for peanuts) and yes, for a while they did make me feel more engaged with the university, more useful, more like faculty, but in the end I was serving the school's interests not my own. I was creating value for them but not for myself. Yes, those things are all on my CV but the taint of adjunct surrounds them, and yes, I did get cross-wise with some assistant deans and yes, winning teaching awards and getting stellar teaching evaluations can make full-timers grumpy not supportive.

I'd suggest taking your extra time and energy and ideas and figuring out what you can do to get out of adjunct-land!! Forget volunteering for "faculty governance" vlolunteer for something that will create value for yourself!!
At least if a manager screws up, she can be fired.

It's harder to get rid of a dean or similar academic administrator than a tenured faculty member, if only because they revert to tenured faculty status if they lose their deanship at every university I've seen. Perhaps CCs are different, but the research universities I've attended or worked for have all been that way.

The corporate world where I've spent most of my career isn't much better. At a large corporation, it typically takes years to remove managers. It takes a long time for enough complaints to accumulate, then you reorg them to a place where they can't do any damage, and then you try to convince then to leave on their own while you accumulate data that will require HR to terminate them. That can take a long time. I saw plenty of managers who had zero people report to them hang around for years in that state, and this was at a company whose products you're directly or indirectly using to read this message.
At most places, adjuncts are excluded from facultu governance, although there are local variations.

If you want to make a diference, what yo might try is this. Find a faculty member with whom you are comfortable both personally and professionally. Run your ideas by this colleague, both to avoid floating proposals that will go nowhere and to induce your colleague to sponsor your ideas. (I've done this with colleagues, and when it looks like the idea is a winner, I say something like, "Well, so-and-so suggested this, and I thought it was a really good idea.") Best may be to develop this sort of a relationship with more than one faculty member.

I'm going to stay away from the tenure issue, because we've thrashed that out here before, and because it's not really all that germane to the question on the table.
I don't think people are being clear enough.

Do you like your job? Then don't get involved. It's pretty much that simple -- if you get involved or make any kind of waves, you don't have the support to survive.

Do you want to make things better at the University? Organize an adjunct union. Since you're already excluded from governance, you are clearly employees, and y'all need some grievance representation and collective bargaining. If dangerous political work is your passion, this is the way you can engage in it with at least a nonzero chance of total loss.

But what folks upstream said about spending your precious time and energy getting out of adjunct status is pretty much the beginning and ending of the discussion. Service won't get you moved to tenure-track, and it will never be appreciated, so don't engage in it.
It's sad that the most salient advice is to get out of adjuncting because whatever constructive actions you might undertake or offer will not be appreciated; or worse, will backfire and thus hurt your possibilities of further employment. And yet, short of an unstated commitment to a bruising political battle that has little to no chance of succeeding, this is indeed the most salient advice. Leave academe to stew in its own fetid corpse.

If you can't get out because of age, or lack of trasnferable skills, or both (my story), then shut-up is indeed the best advice. Shut-up and teach your classes quietly and go about your business. Be invisible, as a once famous but now defunt blog intoned.

Sometimes I wonder what the tenured class thinks when they read these bits of advice. I wonder if any of this registers? Maybe they just just don't care. They're set for life and can do as they wish.
DD, pick one: (1) nt faculty will not feel free to give advice because of fear of giving offense that will put their future in jeopardy (2) t faculty will not feel free to give advice out of fear of having a permanent job. I don't think you can have it both ways, at least until you explain why your statements about those human beings without tenure do not also apply to the human beings in management.

As for your overall view that managers should make all of the decisions, you forgot to explain exactly how much administrative bloat would be required if management wrote every one of the detailed master syllabi and daily course pacings for the college, picked the books, and generally turned colleges into K-12-like organizations (with the exception that management would be fully responsible for the outcomes) with faculty as mere wage slaves. I don't think you would manage to even read, let alone develop, all of that before your 2-4 years are up!

[Side note: I write this as someone working in a system where the content of our courses is set by managers in the State bureaucracy, sometimes in surprising detail.]

I don't understand why you would be so concerned about hiring quality professionals if you don't intend to ask them to act as such.
CCPhysicist -- I have no intention of selecting books, constructing syllabi, or elaborating "daily course pacings" for anything. That's the faculty's job.

The governance of which I speak involves decisions about resource allocations, starting or ending programs, and prioritizing program A over program B. (It also involves hiring and firing.) Course content has to be the province of the faculty, precisely because that's the faculty's area of expertise.

The only syllabus I've adjusted in my time here has been my own.

sjt -- yes, there is a tremendous structural difference with industry. Our structures are much murkier and more contested, and are constantly changing.
1) in terms of the general notion of tenured faculty being invested in the institution, I've know way too many who are invested but only in the sense of "the college should run the way I see fit, but I'm not going to make the effort to do anything about it because it won't make a difference (I tried once, so I know". Those people are every college big and small that I've seen. That said whoever said firing management is not easy is dead right. Even in the business world it often takes years of mismanagement before it happens (and even then it's often only when lawsuits are likely that the trigger is pulled).

2) as far as adjuncts on committees goes I'm all for it if the college allows it. Yes, the college will likely see you as free labor and it will add only a modest amount to your resume, but it can really help people be connected. You probably won't get any long term projects since adjuncts can and often are dropped at the last minute depending on enrollment vagaries, but you can still contribute and feel part of the institution while also bumping yourself to the top of the "adjuncts we HAVE TO find classes for" list.

Following the much better paid wife across the country has landed me at a nice sized for profit college (full-time) where we work hard to involve adjunct. It helps keep people on the same page in terms of student expectations and also helps prevent the weird, counter productive inbreeding that happens when full time only discuss issues with full time.

Find out from the full timers what the overall attitude towards adjuncts is and the decide whether to commit. Where I am, full-timers try to be protective of adjuncts because it's pretty easy to imagine the situation they're in. Even as we recognize there's no great material reward for the committee work, we do appreciate it and the new ideas. Don't do it thinking you'll get full time though. Sure, it'll make you look good, but often times there simply isn't anyway to push through another full time position.
Maybe your advice seeking adjunct should come to work for my community college. My office is just down the hall from the faculty governance office and our senate president can be frequently seen in said hallway actively encouraging all faculty to participate in governance committees. It’s sort of like watching a carney at a fair trying to get kids to play skeeball-- “step right up folks! Just a few hours of your time will give you the respect and love of your senate president and another illustration that you’re committed to service at our college!”

In any case, having been an adjunct and a full time faculty member at my current institution I feel strongly that our institution supports adjunct involvement in faculty governance. That said, as an adjunct I would (and did!) make sure to involve myself in fairly innocuous activities that are not too contentious. In fact, at my institution many committees *need* to have a part timer as a member to provide the perspective of part time faculty. In many cases they are somewhat financially compensated for these duties. With a bit of research and asking around I think it’s frequently possible to figure out what sorts of opportunities are non-controversial and that don’t take up too much of your time. Do your due diligence and ask people that you trust about possible committee options. Likewise, why not focus on trying to get involved in a committee where you like and respect the chair and/or members. If you have a trustworthy, tenured, honest leader then why not, optimistically, assume that they will try their best to protect you if you do ruffle any feathers? I say go for it, but don’t bite off more than you can chew and that will help you financially or to help you meet your career goals.
Good luck!
DD, you did not answer my question, but you did, at least answer your own. You wrote If you're going to have faculty governance, based on the presumed special centrality of faculty to the academic enterprise, .... Your comment about faculty having the primary expertise in the area of course content, which *is* the academic enterprise, says their centrality is more than a presumption.

I find it odd that you accept a dominant faculty role in what I would consider 90% of faculty governance, yet reject it out of hand when it comes to the resources that make it possible to carry out the central role. Our Dean sets budget priorities with a great deal of input from the faculty, who then help him make the case for those priorities within the context of the institutions resources and other needs.

I don't know of any institution, including ones with a very strong governance structure, where faculty make (or ask to make) the final decision on budgets. But I do know of institutions where the people who do make those decisions have not been held accountable for spectacular management failures.

Can you spell Golden Parachute?
I've been adjunct and am now tenured.

My best advise is to not make waves unless you have tenure. Even being on the tenure track isn't enough... sadly.

If you want to get involved, do so for your OWN good. That good can be on a variety of levels, especially if you want to be connected and doing some important service, so they'll find you classes :).

I've seen several people do service as adjuncts, and mostly that service was to help someone tenured in your department with their service projects. This means that the tenured person gets the blame and most of the credit, but -- if you do a good job that person will fight for you to get a full-time job.
DD sez: "yes, there is a tremendous structural difference with industry. Our structures are much murkier and more contested, and are constantly changing."

I'm missing something, I think. I thought that, in the remark I quoted before, you were attributing long-term tuition increase to the structural separation of policy responsibility from budget responsibility. I was puzzled because it seems to me (perhaps wrongly) that this is a pretty normal state of affairs in organizations, so such a theory would predict long-term higher-than-inflation price increases in industry too.

Does the murkiness and mutability of governance structures relate to this?
How does your view of faculty governance change in light of an institution that does not have tenure? None. For any. All faculty on term contracts renewed each year. Making them no more stable than adjuncts. Oh wait, they are on a semester contract. Big difference.
Here at Proprietary Art School we do not have a tenure system at all. Like most for-profit educational institutions, all faculty members here (both full-time and part-time) are employed under yearly or term contracts which can be renewed or not at the administration’s whim.

Is tenure a good or bad system? Let me admit from the outset that my personal experience with tenure is rather negative—I was denied tenure at Research Technical Institute back in the late 1970s and ended up taking a job at Big Telecommunications Corporation. After being more or less forced to take early retirement because of the Dot-Com bust, I ended up as an adjunct here at Proprietary Art School.

In spite of all this, I am of two minds on the question of tenure.

First the down side. It is certainly true that tenure is infinitely abusable, with many examples of such abuse having been documented here. The system can allow professors, once tenured, to effectively retire on the job, reasoning that their jobs are relatively secure no matter what they do. The rigidity and inflexibility of the tenure system makes it difficult to manage a college or university effectively—a recurrent administrator’s dream is to wake up one glorious morning to find that the tenure system has been miraculously abolished overnight. The cost and hassle of removing a tenured professor who has abused their position is often so great that administrations choose simply to wait out the obnoxious professor and hope that they will soon retire or quit. One of the causes of the rapidly rising cost of higher education is the presence of so many expensive professors who can’t be replaced by less-expensive faculty because of tenure. Tenured professors often act as a restrictive medieval guild, a secret society, an exclusive and elite fraternity, one that deliberately limits its membership and promotes its own selfish economic interests at the expense of other. Tenured faculty often act as petty tyrants, who gang up and conspire to dictate campus policies that turn their institutions into bastions of waste and inefficiency. Tenured faculty steadily drive the standards for the granting of tenure higher and higher, making it more and more difficult for new members to join their exalted ranks. Many departments are “tenured-in”, with too many tenured faculty already on staff and no room for any more, making it nearly impossible for anybody to obtain tenure, no matter how good they are. Since tenure is an up-or-out process, the university is forced to fire even the best and brightest of their faculty, because it is fearful of offering them the long-term financial commitment that tenure entails. Finally, the rigidity and inflexibility of the tenure system has as an unpleasant side effect the emergence of a large scholarly underclass of adjunct part-time faculty who teach on a semester or quarterly contract basis for relatively low wages and no benefits.

And yet, with all of the down sides of tenure, I wish that I had it. It would be nice if I had access to the job protection that tenure offers, that I had a reasonable expectation that I would be able to make a lifetime career out of my chosen profession. It would be nice to know that I could not be fired without cause, that I could not be dismissed for openly disagreeing with the administration on academic policies, that I could not be let go if the dean didn’t like what I was teaching in my classes, that I couldn’t be kicked out because I insisted on high standards in the classroom. It must be pleasant to know that my job can’t be eliminated at the whim of a bean-counting administrator, that I can’t be replaced by cheap labor. With tenure, I would no longer be vulnerable to capricious administrators, budget-cutting deans, tyrannical department heads, spiteful colleagues, or vengeful students. Since I would no longer have to worry about job security, I could take a longer and broader view in my research and my teaching—I could start working on those daring and far-reaching projects that I have always wanted to pursue but dared not attempt for fear that they might not pay off quickly enough so that I could get tenure.
There must be an increase in personal self-esteem and confidence once tenure is granted—knowing my colleagues and my institution have made a commitment to me and I now have a voice in how my institution is managed and run. I would have achieved full citizenship in the academic world.

College: A society of scholars incorporated within, or in connexion with, a University, or otherwise formed for purposes of study or instruction: a. esp. An independent self-governing corporation or society (usually founded for the maintenance of poor students) in a University, as the College of the Sorbonne in the ancient University of Paris, and the ancient colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. b. A foundation of the same kind, outside a University. (Often combining, in its original character, the functions of a local charity for the aged and of eleemosynary education for the young.)
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