Every academic institution must decide what percentage of its faculty will be tenured and tenure-track. Having made that decision, each school must then figure out a way to staff the courses that remain. Most make use of non-tenure track faculty (NTT), and St. Olaf is no different. Like many other schools, St. Olaf is debating the role of NTT faculty in the curriculum and assessing the treatment they receive from the college. Over the past academic year, this debate has become increasingly heated.
NTT positions are designed to fill short-term needs. The college often hires professors on one year contracts to replace a professor on sabbatical or to accommodate changing enrollment.
“Sometimes a program has particular needs that are best filled by people who don’t necessarily even want, or are necessarily in a position to hold, a tenure-track appointment,” President David Anderson ’74 said. “Another reason some places do it is to preserve institutional financial flexibility and in case something happens that requires you to rethink your expenses, you are unable to do that because you’ve made permanent commitments to everybody who is working there.”
No college can do without some degree of flexibility in staffing. The number of courses offered must track the number of students enrolled, and enrollments can vary. Likewise, the number of employed faculty must track the size of the annual budget, and budget size depends on fluctuations in enrollments, financial donations and the endowment. But many professors believe that the realities of non-tenure-track staffing at St. Olaf are often unfair and potentially exploitative.
“My impression is that NTT faculty are asked to take on a lot of responsibilities that would typically be given to or expected of tenure track or tenured faculty,” Associate Professor of History Anna Kuxhausen said. “And yet these NTT faculty are not compensated or rewarded with the commitment that is commensurate with the work they are doing.”
St. Olaf has become increasingly dependent on NTT faculty over the past several decades, consistent with a nationwide trend. In 1993, 50 percent of faculty in American higher education were NTT. Today, 76 percent hold term or terminal appointments.
According to the Modern Language Association’s Academic Workforce Data Center, 35 percent of St. Olaf faculty were NTTs in 1995, whereas in 2009 the number rose to 47 percent. This year, 49 percent of St. Olaf faculty is NTT and NTT faculty teach 38 percent of academic courses.
Faculty at some of St. Olaf’s peer institutions have protested this trend. In 2014, adjuncts and students at Macalester College demonstrated for better pay and more job security for its contingent faculty. They received national attention. That same year, Hamline University adjuncts voted to unionize in the face of administrative opposition.
St. Olaf does not employ adjuncts, whose pay rate can come to less than minimum wage even teaching full-time, depending on the institution. Comparatively, NTT at St. Olaf are treated well. They receive health insurance, retirement options and many of the same professional opportunities as tenured and tenure-track professors.
NTT positions can be valuable, especially for younger professors in need of teaching experience. Keir Fogarty taught at St. Olaf as a non-tenure-track chemistry professor and now holds a tenure-track position at High Point University.
“I was essentially treated as other tenure-track professors and given opportunities for both leadership and research that I would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere,” Fogarty said. “I went in viewing the visiting prof position as a training opportunity that I hoped would be a springboard for me to obtain a tenure-track position. By that measure, the visiting position was exactly what I wanted and allowed me to achieve my professional goals.”
But issues surface when it comes to long-term NTT professors. The faculty manual states that NTT contracts are renewable for no more than six years. In practice, many St. Olaf NTT faculty remain far past the six year threshold, always on one-year or short-term contracts. For example, Associate Professor of History Eric Fure-Slocum has taught here 16 years as an NTT professor, and Associate Professor of Dance Sheryl Saterstrom has been employed by St. Olaf since 1987 strictly on one-year contracts.
The faculty manual offers no guidance on how to handle these long-term NTT faculty. In response to this ambiguity, contingent faculty are pushing for multi-year contracts. As of the 2015-16 academic year, 90 percent of St. Olaf NTT faculty had one-year contracts.
For more on this debate, see the article on A7 about competing policy proposals regarding NTT faculty in the Faculty Governance Committee.
“[An NTT contract] isn’t a commitment of the sort that would enable someone to really relax into being here,” Kuxhausen said. “They still have to be thinking about the next year, the year after, the year beyond that, so the administration is asking people to be committed to St. Olaf and to these programs that benefit students and yet that faculty person has to always have their eye on the job market, and always be thinking ‘What if I don’t have a full slate of courses, then what am I going to do?’ I see that as problematic.”
On the surface, it can be hard to distinguish NTT professors. They teach full course loads, conduct research, contribute to faculty committees and extracurricular programs and serve as student advisors. Yet their contract status does not match their workload. A former St. Olaf NTT faculty member, whose current job requires that they remain anonymous, reflected on the trend of over commitment among NTT faculty.
“I think as a NTT faculty member, you’re always second-rank faculty and this was true at St. Olaf,” the former professor said. “You’re expected to know how to advise students on career paths and what courses to take, yet you are not part of curriculum development or have a voice at the table when decisions are being made.”
Kuxhausen, a tenured professor, tries to ensure that her NTT colleagues aren’t assigned too much extra work.
“I recognize that I am in a position of power as a tenured faculty member and if I ask someone who is here on contract to take on some extra work, that person is not exactly empowered to say no to me,” she said. “They’re hoping their contract is going to be renewed. They have to say yes. So it’s a situation that is very ripe for exploitation.”
Beyond the teaching load, NTT faculty feel that they must produce academic research if they want a tenure position, either at St. Olaf or elsewhere. However, availability of research opportunities often depends on tenure status.
“At St. Olaf, I didn’t receive the type of support a tenure-track faculty member would in terms of funding for research, conferences, access to grants or course releases; yet, to land a tenure-track position, you have to do research and publish,” the former professor, who wishes to remain anonymous, said. “The emphasis was always on students and yet, when they considered me for a tenure-track position, the emphasis was on research.”
Fure-Slocum echoes this sentiment.
“You end up with a catch-twenty-two. So the people who might most need that research portfolio, in order to go on the job market and find something else are the people for whom that becomes the most difficult.”
This is a difficult life. One-year contracts offer minimal job security, and these professors must always keep an eye on the job market.
“That is an incredibly difficult way to live. Because you don’t know if in a year’s time if you’re going to have the same type of employment or enough employment,” Associate Professor of Religion Jamie Schillinger said. “I didn’t have a family when I was in that situation. But I wasn’t willing to live that type of life. Had I not got a tenure-track position, I would have left academia. Because I just wasn’t willing to live that way.”
So much unpredictability in NTT positions hurts more than just the professors; students can suffer as well. Not only do these professors teach a significant number of courses but they also serve as mentors, advisors and research directors.
“Students make connections in the classroom. They connect with particular professors, and then those professors are oftentimes here for a year or two and then they are gone, if they are NTT,” Kuxhausen said. “And this creates a problem down the road when [the student] needs a letter of recommendation.”
In the natural sciences, this unpredictability is especially acute. While undergraduate research matters in all departments, chemistry, biology and physics majors need research opportunities if they plan to attend graduate school. This requires a close relationship with a professor. When that professor is an NTT, those research relationships become complicated. The current senior class of chemistry majors encountered this problem firsthand.
“We came into the chemistry department at a time when there were three phenomenal non-tenure track faculty,” Megan Behnke ’16 said. “They were good friends with a lot of students, and more than that, they were good mentors. They took on a lot of students for research, got to know students well and were the obvious go-to’s for letters of recommendation.”
Two of these professors, Elodie Marlier and Cassidy Terrell, took teaching positions at other institutions after the 2013-14 academic year. The final member of this trio, Fogarty, left after the 2014-15 academic year.
“It stranded a lot of students who had begun research with them as sophomores, and who didn’t have the same relationships with tenured faculty,” Behnke said. “Last year, [Marlier] left and another group of us got stranded without our research project for our senior year.”
For Kuxhausen, institutional priorities need to change if current NTT policies are harming student life.
“There’s a cost to students in what the administration says is a necessity in order to have [financial] flexibility,” she said.