Sunday, March 09, 2014

Ask the Administrator: A New Faculty Rank?

Thanks to the thoughtful readers who wrote in last week, concerned.  The major personal event was a good thing, not a crisis, but I appreciate the sentiments.

Meanwhile, a new correspondent wrote with a question:

I have a question/scenario that has come up at my college. The proposal has been made to add an Associate Instructor position. We currently have 4 levels of full-time faculty: instructor, and then assistant/associate/full professor. A faculty member moves up through the ranks by completing more graduate school and/or more years at the CC level. I believe that most early-career folks start out at instructor level. Functionally, there's no difference between what an inst. versus a prof. does. There's no tenure (we are all on 1, 3, or 5 year contracts); we all do student advising, committee/governance, and scholarship. We (most of us) teach 30 credit hours a year and have no summer duties unless we step into Asst Dean or other roles.

The Assoc. Inst. position that is being proposed, however, will be different. It will NOT have any non-teaching duties. They will have no assigned student advisees, and no on-paper expectation of committee or other college-wide work. They will teach "33 to 39 credit hours" and will be eligible for renewable contracts (unlike one-year restricted positions), and benefits. They must have the same minimum credentials as an instructor, but their pay will be less--the range minimum is about $9,000 less, the max about $15,000 less. Although not required by our state system, my college wishes to put the following additional restriction on the position, at least for the time being: they may only be hired to teach courses with a set syllabus and assessments, and only in areas with "demonstrable need." For us, for now, that largely means an Assoc. Inst. could be hired to teach ONLY developmental mathematics or development English (no higher-level classes). And they'd be teaching 16/17 to 19/20 credit hours per semester of, say, developmental math. (Which the math profs do NOT envy...) 

The final pertinent piece of information: our president has offered to provide supplemental funding to any campus that wishes to take an open instructor position and convert it into 2 assoc. inst. positions. 

The plan is being proposed as a way to convert adjunct-taught classes into classes taught by FT with benefits assoc. instructors. If this plan gives more PT employees access to secure employment and benefits, that's a wonderful thing. My concerns, though, are that we as a college will be institutionalizing the expectation (unwritten but not unspoken) that adjuncts and soon Assoc. Inst. advise students, serve on committees, and involve themselves in the non-teaching aspects of the college. In short, doing more than they are paid to do. If they do not, the alternative is that fewer FT faculty are advising MORE students, doing more governance, etc. 

I know that it might seem like a non-problem, and perhaps it is just a molehill that I'm making into a mountain. But I can't help but think of parallels to the nationwide conversation about the role of and our increasingly reliance on adjuncts, and wonder if this proposal isn't a step in a wrong direction? 

I'd very much like to know whether other community colleges have made a similar move, what the impacts have been on the other FT faculty/the institution more generally, and - most of all - what possible issues am I not thinking about? I'm sure there are many!

I’m guessing that the proposed new rank is a way to bring some stability to hiring, and to make the best of the coming Affordable Care Act mandate.  It basically splits the difference between traditional adjunct roles and traditional full-time roles, and offers the institution the ability to find some cost savings by trading off some non-teaching duties.  

Of course, that assumes that the trade-off actually occurs.  In reading the letter, I’m struck by the gap between the “on-paper” expectation of no duties beyond teaching, and the reference to “unwritten but not unspoken” expectations of advising and committee work, among other things.  To the extent that the latter are significant, then this isn’t so much a trade-off as a second tier of salary.  

“Tiered” contracts and employment arrangements aren’t new.  Many industries offer newer hires lower salaries, lesser pensions, or higher payroll deductions than earlier hires got when they started (controlling for inflation).  A “tiered” approach is a way to cut labor costs over the long term without antagonizing incumbent employees, which is why it has become so popular.  It’s a holding action. The folks who will pay the brunt of it aren’t at the table when the decision is made.

In this case, I’m guessing that the new rank amounts to tiering, with the exemption from advising and college service as a sort of fig leaf.  

In the short term, I don’t see much impact on the workloads of incumbent full-time faculty.  If these positions replace adjunct positions, and adjuncts weren’t required to advise or do service, then the impact should be quite small.  Over time, though, the new rank will probably take the place of what would have been new traditional hires.  (The president’s two-for-one deal seems designed to encourage exactly that.)  As that happens, the advising and service workload could fall more heavily on the remaining traditional faculty, by default.  

I’d also be concerned about the long-term implications for shared governance.  The line about restricting this rank to courses with prescribed content suggests some awareness of the difficulty of combining shared governance with a tiered system.  To the extent that the sphere of those eligible to participate in shared governance shrinks, the “shared” part becomes more questionable.  Shared governance is a time commitment -- as Oscar Wilde put it, he liked to keep his evenings free -- and increased teaching loads compete for that time.  

All of that said, though, the new rank is probably much more humane and appealing than the pure adjunct role it partly succeeds.  An adult salary, even a modest one, plus health insurance, beats most per-course rates, and offers more stability.  It may not be what a lot of people had in mind when they went to grad school, but then, neither was adjuncting.  Among actually existing options, there’s something to be said for it.

I’ve heard of variations on this at other places.  They’re sometimes called “professors of practice” or something similar.  I’m curious to hear from my wise and worldly readers who work in places with ranks like that about unanticipated outcomes. Folks who’ve worked in those settings -- is there something the rest of us should know?

Thanks for the note.  I suspect others are wrestling with similar issues.

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.