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Junior faculty face obstacles to have job security and tenure

Junior+faculty+face+obstacles+to+have+job+security+and+tenure
Malik Clement/The Ithacan

Tenure-track faculty in higher education, including Ithaca College, commonly feel higher levels of stress, which is exacerbated by pre-existing workplace power dynamics and life factors. 

At the college, faculty who are hired in a tenure-track position can achieve tenure after six years of full-time teaching. Faculty applying for tenure must create a portfolio with items that demonstrate their history of achievements, service and teaching excellence. The portfolio is reviewed by other tenured faculty dependent on the program, the candidate’s dean, the All-College Faculty Tenure and Promotion Committee, the provost and finally the president. Once promoted, faculty have an indefinite appointment at the college except if they are found to be unfit to continue teaching, if a program changes or if financial circumstances require faculty cuts. 

In 2021, the college cut 116 full-time equivalent faculty positions as part of the Academic Program Prioritization process, which was hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a reminder for faculty at the college that tenure is a better guarantee of job security. Out of the 116 FTE positions cut, 10 of them were tenured or tenure-track positions

According to Melanie Stein, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, In Fall 2022, the college recorded 239 tenured faculty; 66 tenure-eligible or tenure-track faculty; 77 faculty in multi-year, non-tenure eligible positions; 34 full-time, term faculty, which are one-year positions; and 41.6 FTE of part-time faculty who are counted by the percentage of a full, 12-credit course load they have. All non-tenure track faculty are called contingent faculty.

In February, the Board of Trustees announced the tenure of 15 professors. María Mejía Yepes, associate professor in the Department of Media Arts, Sciences, and Studies, was hired in 2017 and is one of the newly promoted faculty. Mejía Yepes — who is an immigrant from Colombia — said she struggled with meeting tenure requirements, like writing academic documents in a non-native language and staying active in her professional field.

“At the time [I was hired], I was on the working visa, which has a couple of restrictions,” Mejía Yepes said. “You are only allowed to work for the company that sponsors you. … So the many, many times that I had to continue my scholarship, I had to do it for free during those times because I did not have permission [through the work visa].”

Mejía Yepes said she got her green card in 2020 with the college’s help, allowing her to be paid for her work outside the college.

Mejía Yepes said she dealt with the stress of not being tenured because she was so accustomed to the stress of being an immigrant. 

“You never take anything for granted,” Mejía Yepes said. “You’re always constantly thinking about, ‘I currently have this, but tomorrow, I might not.’ … I don’t think I’ve ever thought about, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna lose my job,’ … because I cannot tell you the amount of times that I’ve thought, ‘OK, I’m done. I have to get out of the country.’ … I’m always trying to be very chill about those [work] things because I used to stress a lot when I arrived here.”

One tenure-track faculty member — who wished to remain anonymous to preserve her well-being and job security — said that seeking tenure impacts her life in many ways from an overwhelming workload to generally feeling unvalued by the college’s administration. 

“I think what makes this so difficult for folks who aren’t tenured is [that we are] … creating an exit strategy [and] will probably have to start over somewhere else,” the faculty member said. “It is really just exhausting to be firing on all fronts in that way and yet, I think it’s something that the [job] precarity means we have to do.”

Mejía Yepes said that even before being tenured, she feels she can express her opinions but has chosen to step back from confronting people or disagreeing because she was uncomfortable with the position it would put her in. Some faculty believe that being tenured is crucial to being able to speak about concerns and criticisms without being vulnerable to potential loss of employment. Many faculty are not given the chance to become tenured as they are considered non-tenure-track faculty and are generally employed on semester or annual contracts. 

“I’m not that great at confronting people, especially when it’s not my language; I become a mess,” Mejía Yepes said. “I prefer just to step back. I had — in the past — to leave committees where I’m like, ‘OK, I don’t necessarily feel that my opinion is going to be heard and I don’t want to fight with my co-workers. I want to still keep some sort of a nice climate in here.’”

In the recently released Cultural Review of the former School of Music — now Center for Music in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance — the interviewed faculty described tenure as a point of tension in the workplace.

“Faculty noted that the process to earning tenure highlights power differentials between colleagues resulting in junior faculty seeking tenure to feel as they cannot express their own opinions, they need to refrain from demonstrating their expertise to not overshadow senior faculty, and the committee intended to support a faculty’s pursuit of tenure often results in an exasperation of the forementioned issues, especially in regard to feeling silenced,” the report stated.

Another aspect of the conversation around tenure is faculty demographics and how that contributes to increased gender and racial divides in power. The anonymous faculty source said the representation of faculty on committees or governance councils is impacted by the overwhelming workload and life factors that uniquely appear for certain faculty. 

“It’s those dudes who have the time [that lead],” the anonymous source said. “I’m just like, I’d love to be able to respond and take the time to do the research here but … I am also a mom and a person who has to cook for my family and try to exercise and take care of myself. Like, when is all that going to happen?”

The cultural review echoed a similar sentiment about whose voices are heard, stating that at All Faculty meetings, only a few dominate the space. The review also said there is a fear of retaliation that prevents junior faculty — non-tenured faculty — from reporting or confronting bullying by senior faculty. 

The faculty source said that generally the administration, her department and her colleagues are receptive and she feels comfortable sharing her opinions and experiences. However, she said she feels nothing comes of the conversations and the lack of support persists. 

“I also speak very honestly with people in my field,” the source said. “For a lot of us women, the ‘whisper network’ is what keeps us safe. I was warned even before I came here [of discrimination].” 

She said that in addition to the tenure-track work of research, conferences and publishing papers, the foundational role of faculty is not appreciated in a way that matters. 

“The ability to see faculty as people who are more than just this machine that teaches classes and grades papers and provides service for the college, that we are people with families, that we are people with partners, that we want to be able to build a life … is something that I think the college does not do a very good job of,” the faculty source said.

Tenure benefits

Non-tenure-track faculty lack academic freedom and are vulnerable to loss of employment if teaching materials or styles offend students, faculty or staff, according to the American Association of University Professors. This can restrict faculty members from evaluating student work as rigorously and limits the styles and methods a faculty member can use to teach. 

Mark Criley, senior program officer for the AAUP, said academic freedom is the backbone of higher education.

“[Tenure] protects academic freedom in a way that really no other kind of policy or program could … without constantly being worried about anyone — other than your peers — essentially judging you to be unfit and therefore putting you in a situation where you might lose your livelihood,” Criley said.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education conducted its last survey of postsecondary faculty before eliminating funds for the survey, according to Inside Higher Ed. That survey showed that 17% of higher education institutions had replaced tenure positions with contingent faculty in the past five years. The AAUP conducted a 2022 survey that showed tenure positions are decreasing with 54% of institutions reporting they had replaced tenure positions with contingent positions in the past five years.

“As those [newer] faculty members come up through the ranks, if they don’t have the security and protections of tenure that the previous generation of faculty had, then they’re not going to have the opportunity to offer their perspectives and their views and offer the recommendations that could help bring higher education into the 21st century,” Criley said.

Katharine Kittredge, professor in the Department of Literatures in English, said she remembers tenure being very competitive when she was going through the review process in 1995.

“When I was hired, James J. Whalen was the president, and he had a real adversarial relationship with the faculty,” Kittredge said. “[Faculty in my program] were some of the lowest paid professors in the system, and he didn’t want to tenure professors, because once you tenure them it’s harder to get rid of them.” 

Criley said the benefits like salary increases, academic freedom and job security are not things that colleges necessarily want. 

“Precarious employees are often well-behaved employees and disposable employees and you can see why, from a manager’s perspective, that might be desirable,” Criley said.

Kittredge said that when she and her colleague in their department were eligible to apply for tenure, they were told that only one of them would be granted tenure. 

“It was just the most incredibly divisive thing,” Kittredge said. “There were a lot of really great people who ended up leaving the profession because once you’ve been denied tenure, it’s really hard to overcome it. It leaves a mark on your resume … right at the point where our careers should have been really taking off.” 

Support

Kittredge said positive student evaluations are a great way of supporting faculty members who are up for tenure. 

Non-tenure-track faculty generally have fewer protections against student and colleague criticism impacting their employment status, according to the AAUP. Student evaluations play a major role in the employment status of educators, and negative evaluations can potentially put non-tenure-track educators at risk.

Faculty also help one another through the intensive process. Tim Mirabito, associate professor and chair of the Department of Journalism, said that during his tenure process, he received guidance and suggestions from colleagues regarding how he could change his research.

“The other thing that I’d love to see happen, and I am hopeful for, is further mentorship,” Mirabito said. “I think junior faculty gain a lot of advantages when they have somebody to lean on and help them through the process. It’s really important.”

Mirabito, who was tenured in 2022, said the requirements of tenure are open-ended, which leaves what a portfolio looks like up to the faculty member. 

“There’s not a specific checklist like, ‘Get this and you’re gonna be able to move on to tenure,’” Mirabito said. “We’re a teaching institution, so we spend a lot of time focusing on what is happening in the classroom which makes the demand on research that much greater because it’s a scramble to get that done. The winter session or over summer break typically is when you get a lot of that done, and it’s stressful.”

Mejía Yepes said that when she was hired she was unfamiliar with the tenure process and having help from tenured colleagues who knew what to do was invaluable. 

“I never knew how much was in the process,” Mejía Yepes said. “Once I got hired, I had to learn it really, really quick. Luckily, in my case, there’s a lot of faculty that go around and like to guide you that are really nice that share with you their experiences.”

Kittredge said there is an increasingly supportive culture in higher education when it comes to tenure because institutions are more aware of the importance of diversity and inclusivity.

“I think that the atmosphere today is much more about doing everything we can to bring new people in and integrate them into the department, and not using tenure as a way of weeding people out or making sure that only people who look like us or who teach like us are in the system,” Kittredge said.

The anonymous faculty source said that while women faculty and faculty of color are initially hired, there is nothing keeping them here long-term beyond peer support.

“I know IC lost a lot of women of color in the last few years,” the faculty source said. “I think that’s not going to stop being the case because as much as people are brought in with a lot of fanfare … not a whole lot is in place after that initial welcome.”

Lack of faculty diversity, especially in tenured faculty, is not unique to the college. In Fall 2020, colleges across the nation reported that 8% of full-time professors were women of color and 11% of full-time associate professors were women of color. Fall 2019 data showed that Ithaca College has three tenured faculty who are Black women, which is 1.1% of tenured faculty — a number that aligns with national data with 2.1% of tenured faculty being Black women, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The faculty source said she understands that the college cannot offer the same salaries that larger schools can but that there needs to be more funds allocated to creating a diverse pool of faculty.

“If diversity is of value, then there needs to be more than just a few pots of money that folks can apply for, like $1,000 at a time,” she said. “That would actually incentivize folks to come here and stay here and do their work here.”

Criley said tenured faculty must use their position of security and power to say what other campus members may not be able to. 

 “[Tenure] can allow voices that would otherwise be squashed by the institution or by those kinds of pressures to allow somebody to speak up for a colleague,” Criley said. “Faculty members who have tenure really ought to use that to speak up for their untenured faculty members and for their non-tenure-track colleagues and for the students.”

 

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Lorien Tyne, Former News Editor
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