Testimony Regarding Fisher Legislation as provided to the House Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs, Colorado General Assembly, on February 15, 2012
Below is written testimony submitted by Dr. Sue Doe of Colorado State University regarding the Colorado General Assembly’s hearing on House Bill 12-1144, sponsored by Rep. Randy Fischer and others, concerning authorizing institutions of higher education to enter into employment contracts for non-tenure track classroom teachers.
By Dr. Sue Doe, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Colorado State University
Thank you for the opportunity to testify to this committee. My name is Sue Doe and, while I am an assistant professor of English at Colorado State University, I am not acting on behalf of Colorado State University in making this testimony, nor representing the university’s position in any of my comments. Rather, I am writing first as a scholar whose research focuses on academic labor, specifically the rhetorics surrounding academic labor, and second as someone who has served both in non tenure-track and tenure track faculty positions across the country.
Please consider the language I just used to describe myself. I am a “tenure-track” faculty member, which means that for the time being I am “probationary” and hence to some greater or lesser extent, a “contingent” faculty member myself. However, while I am contingent, my longevity depends on my productivity; in contrast, for the category of faculty known as non tenure-track or contingent faculty, their contingency is a compulsory facet of their work and is not alterable or improvable due to performance. Unlike them, because I am coming up for tenure in the next year or so, I have an actual opportunity for genuine job stability. Thus, I am not nearly as contingent as my non tenure-track colleagues.
Still, I do know something about contingency because I came to my current position late in my career, after teaching off the tenure-track for over 25 years. How does such a thing happen? In my case it was because my husband was an active duty career Army officer, we moved a lot, and I took adjunct positions everywhere we were stationed until he retired from the military. However my story is just one of thousands, and others’ stories are as varied as the people themselves. In my case, I applied for and obtained my first tenurable faculty position at the age of 49, but it should be understood that I am among a very small percentage of faculty–perhaps less that 1% –who are ever able to make such a transition. Indeed the very notion of conversion—and there’s another fraught word–from the nontenurable to the tenured ranks is extremely uncommon. Indeed, once a person has worn the Scarlet A for Adjunct for even two or three years, it becomes increasingly difficult to have any opportunity for a different kind of appointment. And yet, because faculty are often led to believe that there might be opportunities down the road, they generally stay too long, like frogs trapped in an increasingly hot and eventually boiling pot of hot water. Once they realize their circumstances, it’s often too late to hop out.
There are many things that could be said about the destructive effect of contingency on faculty work, but I would like to call your attention today to the potentially deleterious effects contingency has, specifically, on teaching and learning and suggest why Representative Fischer’s bill could make a positive change. I would like to point out before I begin, however, that it is a remarkable feature of the people who do college teaching off the tenure-track that more often than not, they perform extremely well in spite of their circumstances, rather than because of them. Hence I will be describing the logical outcomes of contingency rather than the ones that generally occur, and this is due simply to the extremely high level of professionalism that most non tenure-track faculty bring to the job.
In bolstering contingency among faculty, however, we construct a context in which teachers might well be:
–here today, gone tomorrow. This means little continuity for student access, mentoring, and practical things such as letters of recommendation.
–half present teachers. It is likely that there will be overextension as teachers cobble together several appointments and spend more time on the road as so-called “freeway flyers” than in the classroom
–incentivized toward grade inflation and other compromises to teaching. When teaching involves a popularity contest or is done for the sake of “keeping one’s job” or maintaining a popular status via official course evaluations or via rankyourprofessor.com we can begin to see that contingent teachers’ career longevity, as undertaken in an “at-will” environment, works at cross-purposes to the educational enterprise. This is rather different than the contingent nature of employment in other walks of life; here the decider of your fate may well be the very person you are presumably responsible for teaching and challenging to new levels of understanding. Hence, a teacher is actually put in peril by doing what is right and rigorous.
–subject to “just in time” hiring. The late ordering, arrival, and use of textbooks when teachers are hired “just in time” drives up the cost of books, and that cost is passed along to students. Additionally, just-in-time hiring leads to classes that are prepared too quickly, rather than with the methodical care they deserve
–disallowed professional development opportunities due to the investment it requires. An absence of professional development over time undermines faculty ability to stay on the cutting edge of disciplinary knowledge and pedagogy.
–subjected to the inefficient use of time/labor for reapplication. When a teacher must reapply every year and then, in turn, tenure line faculty or administrators must evaluate these packets, time is unnecessarily and seriously displaced. As we all know, time is money.
–disinvited/disallowed from curriculum development. The inability of non tenure-track teachers to become involved in deep, extended discussions around the development of curriculum has a negative long-term impact on the quality of the curriculum itself and its deployment into actual classrooms.
–discouraged from enacting academic freedom, the cornerstone of higher education. A material absence of academic freedom is implicit to at-will status since a person can be let go for any reason or for no reason at all … Students are thus likely denied the free exchange of ideas in one of the few locations in our culture where ideas can be entertained without necessarily being accepted
—burdened by heavy teaching loads with a commensurate increased service load/burden carried by tenure-track faculty. Contingent faculty often teach more courses than is desirable in order to piece together a living. Meanwhile, tenure-line numbers are being decimated with conversions actually going in the reverse direction of what I described earlier. Nationally, as tenured faculty retire, they are not being replaced by other tenured faculty; instead the savings associated with shifting one tenure line into two or more contingent positions is a seductive accounting procedure (and yet a false economy) that is widely used. Not only are we losing senior scholars in this deal, we are losing the possibility of ever having another senior scholar in each retiring scholar’s place. It’s like cutting down a tree and not planting a new one.
—made part of a deeper negative lesson or meta-curriculum that is conveyed to students. We must ask ourselves what lesson students are taking about the value of the educational enterprise itself when teachers are not deemed worthy of a basic modicum of occupational respect, the employment contract, and when students see that this is what an advanced degree will get you. In what ways are we inadvertently contributing to an increasingly skeptical populace that will see less and less value in education generally and higher education in particular?
How does Representative Fischer’s bill help? Quite simply, this legislation takes an important step toward building increasing levels of certainty for contingent faculty, which in turn makes possible the converse of many, if not most, of the items I just described. Of course, I would like to see this state invest in more tenure lines and convert 80% of the non tenure-track faculty to tenurable positions; that approach would be the highest demonstration of a commitment to fair compensation, sustainable education and research, and the future of our Colorado young people. But short of that, we can at least bolster the educational enterprise by creating circumstances that support a teacher’s commitment to his or her students. It may also be important to point out that because this legislation involves a voluntary action, units are not compelled to participate but may in time see the benefits that derive as their neighbors across campus take the plunge, make a five-year commitment, and reap the benefits of a more secure teaching faculty.
Again, I do not speak for Colorado State University, but I am proud to say that since 2004, under the excellent leadership of President Tony Frank, first as Provost and more recently as President, our university has made some very serious improvements in recognition, compensation, and integration of contingent faculty into the fold and fabric of the university. I hope that the legislature can now do its part and make this important commitment to teaching and learning.