Department Chairs & Adjunct Vulnerability


Department Chairs and Adjunct Vulnerability

A former colleague of mine in mathematics once remarked that there are two kinds of academic department chairs: those who see themselves as foremost among colleagues and shield their fellow teachers from administrative prerogatives, and those who capitulate to the administration in order to benefit their own careers (with the aim of eventually advancing from chair to dean, then to provost, and perhaps even to president).

While undoubtedly categorical and reductive, during eighteen years of teaching at the university level, I have had many department chairs. Those who were most effective simply allowed faculty members to do their work, rather than push personal, or administrative, agendas.

Most professors are instinctively dedicated to their job, working 50-60 hours per week, and do not require micromanagement. Faculty members trade lower salaries than their peers in industry, and endure heavier workloads that spill over into weekends and holidays, in return for an ample measure of independence and highly flexible schedules.

Writing on the state of American higher education in the twenty-first century, Noam Chomsky argues that tenured faculty have traditionally determined a substantial amount of their own work: “what they’re going to teach, when they’re going to teach, what the curriculum will be.”

Now, there exists “a higher level of administrators” that even the tenured faculty “can’t overrule or control. The faculty can recommend somebody for tenure, let’s say, and be turned down by the deans, or the president, or even the trustees or legislators. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it can happen and it does.”

In the case of adjunct faculty, Chomsky asserts, “they’re not permitted to be a part of the decision-making apparatus, and they’re excluded from job security, which merely amplifies the problem” of faculty members being reduced to the category of temporary knowledge workers.

This bleak new reality for all teaching faculty, regardless of rank, is a direct consequence of “imposing a business model on just about every aspect of life” in the United States, including higher education and medicine—two areas of inquiry once believed to be diminished by the taint of profit and the centralization of power away from the practitioners (the professors and doctors).

In her thoughtful book, Wannbe U: Inside the Corporate University, Gaye Tuckman observes that while some departments have “bylaws that encouraged heads to share responsibility,” others did not. In either case, Tuckman concludes, “the department head who viewed himself as working for his colleagues was rare indeed.”

Rather than sharing departmental control, and protecting the interests of their faculty, many department chairs seek control over their colleagues–a reflection of an increasing authoritarianism in which chairs see their primary job as implementing, often uncritically, directives from on high.

A coercive regime of assessment and accountability provides administrators with a means “to audit the behavior of the professoriate” while their own activities remain “hidden behind the curtain of transparency.”

These transformations, observes Calvin Morrill, necessarily breed “a corporate mentality among the faculty, squelching the free exchange of ideas and criticisms that once characterized universities” in the United States.

Morrill attributes the palpable sense of fear found among most faculty members today to work environments where the use of rewards and sanctions increasingly resembles those found in American business culture.

To some degree, awakened faculty members with tenure can resist these impositions of power, though they are often labeled “troublemakers” and marginalized, if not sanctioned publicly.

Junior faculty members, who have yet to earn tenure, are vulnerable to targeting by department chairs for any number of reasons. Some department chairs become imperious, even resorting to bullying and cheap political payback for challenging their authority.

I once witnessed a department chair weigh down a weak candidate for tenure with a series of poor performance reviews and then “kill with a borrowed knife” when his successor rejected that application for tenure the following year. Conversely, I have seen equally weak candidates secure tenure because they were well-liked by their colleagues.

The nebulous nature of the tenure review process at most colleges and universities means that such unseemly behavior by department chairs, or higher-ranking university officials, is often attributed (perhaps rightly) to the nasty nature of academic politics in general.

Yet, as compromised as junior faculty members on the tenure-track can be, far and away the most susceptible to the unjust exercise of power by department chairs are adjunct professors and contingent faculty members, who now make up the new faculty majority on campuses around the nation.

Adjunct professors can be punished, fired, or simply not rehired for opposing a chair. I have been in departments where adjunct professors who dared oppose their department chairperson were dismissed at the first opportunity. There is little recourse in such cases, even on campuses with union representation, and therefore there exists little incentive for meaningful opposition to changes in the workplace.

Former chair of English, Annette Kolodny, offers a note of caution to her colleagues who would take the task of chairperson too seriously. Firstly, she writes, department chairs should think of their dean “not as the administrator to whom you report but, instead, as a pupil whom you constantly and patiently educate about your discipline and department.”

Kolodny also suggests that department chairs should remember not to “waste any more time or energy than you absolutely have to on five-year plans, mandated accreditation reviews, or any other kind of long-range planning document.” In addition, chairs might also assume that when reports are filed with deans and other administrators, they “will never have the time to read through them.”

Department chairs do best to defend the interests of all of their colleagues, tenured and contingent, with whom they serve. Those with the concerns of the faculty (and therefore students) foremost in mind will work tirelessly to convert as many contingent teaching positions as possible to tenurable ones.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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