The “Tenuous Track” (A Guest Post)

by Anonymous, Ph.D.

Given that the vast majority of faculty members now teach off the tenure track, landing one of these coveted positions feels like winning the academic lottery. Before accepting my current tenure track position, I was actually fortunate enough to have the choice between two positions.

Doing due diligence, I inquired about the financial health of the institution at which I ultimately accepted an assistant professorship. I was assured that the institution was financially sound…only to find out a few months later that the board of trustees was demanding that we reduce our faculty by more than ten percent.

While specific cuts have yet to be announced, it has been made clear that tenure-track positions may be eliminated as the administration tries to balance our budget.

My goal for this blog post is to outline some steps institutions might take to soften this devastating blow. While I realize, as I have heard muttered in the halls over the past few weeks, people in business get fired all the time, I am still of the mind that the tenure system implies a degree of mutual commitment between an individual and the institution.  Fortunately, a few administrators also still maintain vestiges of this arcane belief.

In devising this list, I asked myself what assistance would I find most helpful if I should find a pink slip in my mailbox next semester, and then began sharing these suggestions with various individuals at my institution.

Course Reduction: Considering that peer-reviewed publication is the most valued currency in the academic world, it is advisable for all junior faculty to maintain an active scholarly agenda. All too often, however, class preparation, advising, and committee responsibilities take precedence because of their immediacy. This may be especially true at teaching-focused institutions with relatively modest scholarship requirements. Thus a candidate returning to the market can find him or herself at a disadvantage precisely because he or she was doing the current job so well. To help the faculty members that will be cut be more successful in finding a new job, the institution could grant a course release during one or both semesters of the individual’s terminal year.  Some may balk at this suggestion, pointing out that they cannot afford this when already in a state of financial exigency. To this I would point out that the institution will soon have to do more with less anyways…and this might be an opportunity to phase in the curricular changes that will inevitably accompany downsizing.

Additional Travel Funds: Travel funding for conferences varies widely by institution. Some institutions only fund a faculty member if he or she is presenting at the conference while others provide funds regardless of one’s degree of participation. While anyone newly returning to the job market probably should be presenting at his or her conference, there may be valid reasons why that is not happening. Either way, because it is still the norm in many disciplines to conduct preliminary interviews at the national conference, job seekers cannot afford to miss these opportunities. If a faculty member is being dismissed through no fault of her own, it seems that the ethical thing to do is for the institution to help defray the costs of her being back on the market.

Institutional Recommendation Letter: Having served on academic search committees, I always wonder why someone several years into a tenure track appointment would be applying for an entry-level position. Was their 3-year review unsuccessful? Are they the kind of person who cannot get along with colleagues? The answer is probably no, but knowing that I have thought these things about others now makes me wonder how my own potential jump might be viewed. While Karen here at the Professor Is In has made suggestions about how to craft one’s cover letter in situations like these, I would also recommend that the highest ranking members of academic affairs (i.e. the dean, provost, and/or president depending on institutional type) draft a recommendation letter for the dismissed faculty member(s) indicating: (1) that this dismissal is in no way a reflection upon the applicant’s performance and (2) that the decision to terminate the applicant’s contract was based on financial exigency.

Job Market Consultation: An assistant professor’s job application materials are presumably less than six years old, but since the competitiveness of the market has been increasing at an exponential rate, these materials must be carefully revised. In many cases, the best advice for revisions will come from an objective third party. Readers of this blog are likely already familiar with the consultation services Karen provides. Administrators may not be. Ask them to pay for these services (After all, what’s the worst they can do to you–fire you?). Yes there will be an expense associated with this, but I imagine that will be less damaging to the institution than the potential bad press associated with dismissing a number of strong, early-career scholars who cannot find suitable employment.

Granted, this list is not exhaustive and there are certainly other things that an institution can do to help junior faculty who are being dismissed through no fault of their own. Principal among these is giving the soon-to-be dismissed faculty members notice of their status as early as possible. If notices aren’t made until December or later, many of the tenure-track searches for which a candidate could have applied will already be in the interview phase. And if you should find yourself ‘safe’ from these cuts, find ways to help your imperiled junior colleagues. When someone is trying to update their job application materials and increase their scholarly output on top of regular teaching duties, an offer to cover a few classes or even babysit for a few hours could make a world of difference.

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The “Tenuous Track” (A Guest Post) — 3 Comments

  1. Anonymous starts with “Given that the vast majority of faculty members now teach off the tenure track, landing one of these coveted positions feels like winning the academic lottery.”

    The last national figures I saw were that 48% of faculty were off the tenure track, which is not even a majority, let alone a vast majority. And considering that many of those faculty are physician, lawyers, and other professionals who offer occasional teaching services in return for a courtesy appointment, I am somewhat suspicious of the wilder claims.

    But more importantly, the second part of Anonymous’s statement is disconnected to the first. The number tenure-track positions in the U.S. increases every year according to various labor statistics reports, so the number of non-tenure-track positions shouldn’t leave Anonymous feeling that s/he won any lottery. While it is arguable that the explosion of adjunct positions in community colleges and for-profit colleges has meant that the expansion of TT positions has not been as great as it might have been, there are still more TT positions now than there were 30 or 40 years ago, when the failure to land one meant that a new PhD in social sciences or humanities would probably have to find another career altogether.

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