Developing Allies out of Public Ugliness: Reflections on the Struggle to Incorporate Non-Tenure-Track Faculty into Shared Governance at the University of Mississippi

Scene report by
Sarah Bartlett Wilson


This is a story of turning what initially felt like utter failure into eventual, near total success. It is a story of provoking and confronting ugly community discord and building campus allies out of the resultant mess.

In September 2016, I founded the Task Force for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty and Shared Governance to explore how non-tenure-track faculty (NTTF) could be included in the University of Mississippi’s shared governance structure. Some NTTF at our university—like those of us in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric—enjoyed overwhelmingly positive and supportive relationships with our departmental tenured and tenure-track faculty (T/TTF) colleagues. That the Task Force had strong initial and persistent representation from NTTF in my department—as well as two of our T/TTF colleagues (our first and second Chairs), who served as ex officio advisors and mentors for our work—points towards the functional working relationships we have cultivated over the past decade.[1] At the same time, however, too many of our counterparts in other departments faced regular exclusionary and demeaning practices and policies in their daily lives. And all of us, no matter our departmental contexts, were excluded from university service in ways that isolated us and our work from other colleagues across campus, no matter their rank or status.

Notably, because of our location in a small, southern, university town, our NTTF tend to be a far more stable set of instructors than the transient contingent faculty who work across much of the nation, especially those in areas that host multiple institutions of higher education. Our NTTF pool is so established in part because of Oxford’s relative isolation; in other words, our NTTF have chosen to make the Oxford area, which hosts only one major university, their home for some extended period of time. Although full-time NTTF teach on one-year contracts and part-time NTTF teach on semester-long contracts, those contracts are often renewed regularly, and all faculty who teach at least six credits every semester are eligible for benefits. Furthermore, full-time NTTF have promotion opportunities available to them according to the track into which they were hired; those promotions come with title bumps, pay raises, and a contract non-renewal notification period. All of these factors together create a fairly stabilized group of NTTF at the university. Despite this relative stability, however, NTTF still face regular challenges in their interactions with T/TTF and the administration. As Catherine D. Rawn and Joanne A. Fox (2018) recently found in their exploration of how teaching-oriented faculty, who tend to be NTTF, are perceived, “Various indicators suggest that teaching is seen as a lower-status task than research, which puts faculty who teach the most at greatest risk of feeling undervalued” (p. 598). Since most NTTF on our campus serve in instructional roles, our values had been consistently questioned and challenged by university—if not also departmental—policies and practices. The Task Force thus saw gaining access to participating in shared governance as a means to improve our campus culture and daily lives.

For the first three semesters of our work, the Task Force engaged in research, data analysis, and campus discussions. Compared to the national average reported by the American Association of University Professors in 2016 for the proportion of T/TTF on any given campus (less than one-third), our university had a noticeably higher percentage of T/TTF: about 50% of our roughly 1,100 faculty members in the fall of 2016. However, our university’s status as an R1 shined a less flattering light on its exclusion of NTTF from shared governance. Willis A. Jones et al.’s 2017 study found that 88% of public R1 universities allowed NTTF to serve as elected members of their faculty senates in some way. At that point, all full- and part-time NTTF at the University of Mississippi were explicitly excluded from both serving on and counting towards allocated seats within the Senate, which meant NTTF were the only people on campus who had no access to shared governance. Therefore, our campus was in the 12% of public R1s that excluded NTTF from participating in shared governance. Significantly, Jean Waltman et al. (2012) have determined that levels of respect for NTTF on university campuses are tied, at least in part, to the ability of NTTF to participate in shared governance. Similarly, other researchers (e.g., Maxey and Kezar, 2016; Morrison, 2008; and Palmquist et al., 2001) have identified NTTF’s exclusion from shared governance as a reinforcing factor of their second-class status. If Judith M. Gappa et al. (2007) are correct—that “the faculty’s intellectual capital, taken collectively, is the institution’s foremost asset” (p. 4)—then our university’s policies and practices were working against building and supporting that asset to its fullest potential.

On January 23, 2018, after nearly 17 months of work, I gave a 15-minute presentation to the University of Mississippi’s Faculty Senate on behalf of the Task Force. The Task Force had explored various potential structures for including NTTF in shared governance, but our research helped us decide upon a proposal that would incorporate NTTF within the Faculty Senate. Our reasoning behind asking for a unified shared governance body was that all faculty across campus, including both NTTF and T/TTF, were in desperate need of benefiting from social contact theory. In their 2014 article “Governance as a Catalyst for Policy Change: Creating a Contingent Faculty Friendly Academy,” Adrianna Kezar and Cecile Sam describe social contact theory: “The most basic premise…that increased contact between social groups will reduce prejudicial attitudes and behaviors. The underlying assumption is that lack of contact, especially meaningful interactions, such as problem solving, leads to stereotypes and misinformation. Contact allows groups to learn about each other and dispel misinformation” (p. 432). The Task Force’s research and conversations had indicated that negative stereotypes and misleading information were complicating—indeed, deteriorating—our campus’s faculty experiences. As Kezar and Sam (2014) note in that same article, “faculty governance is much more than a decision-making body and…has served to foster collegiality, relationship-building, social capital, trust, cooperation and collaboration, and other important functions that help create institutional well-being” (p. 430). Our proposal therefore hoped to increase the well-being of both NTTF and the university as a whole.

After my brief proposal to the Senate, a Task Force colleague and I fielded questions from a small handful of the 51 senators present at the meeting. For the next hour and fifteen minutes, with very few exceptions, the experience was less about answering honest, objective questions and more about withstanding diatribes from that small group of senators about the very existence of NTTF at our university.

The evening thus became an ugly display of elitism run amok, of faculty with more power demanding the protection of resources they perceived as dwindling from being redistributed to colleagues with less power. Whereas we presented a proposal by which all faculty members would have a chance to contribute to a stronger university, the responses were instead participating in some kind of apocalyptic zero-sum game, in which any gains for NTTF would somehow steal away something from T/TTF. We were told that NTTF did not deserve a seat at the governance table, that NTTF were not “invested” enough in the university to partake in important conversations, that NTTF should respect the breadth and depth of experience and knowledge that T/TTF brought to governance. Even the few senators who acknowledged the inequity in the current system still believed, despite the scholarship and research we presented, that a separate governing body for NTTF would benefit everyone more than direct incorporation of NTTF into the Senate would. Our proposal for integrating NTTF into the Senate threatened the “purity” of the governing body and the high status its current members perceived themselves as holding.

The Q&A was, in short, a display of what Robert W. Fuller described in 2004 as “rankism,” which “insults the dignity of subordinates by treating them as invisible, as nobodies…Nobodies are insulted, disrespected, exploited, ignored. In contrast, somebodies are sought after, given preference, lionized” (p. 5). Rather than “punching up” and holding those in higher positions of power to standards of equity and equality, the vocal senators were “punching down” and further denigrating their colleagues in more unstable positions.

For most of the Q&A, my colleague and I stayed in the realm of logic in our responses. We had done research on our own and other schools. We had read the scholarship on the matter. We had analyzed the results of our Fall 2017 survey of campus NTTF. We attempted to highlight issues that NTTF faced as well as the willingness of NTTF to serve in the Senate. I personally used emotional appeals at two key points: first, in calling for equitable treatment of all faculty because it would reflect our university creed’s call to respect “the dignity of each person,” and, second, in warning the senators that the potential separate body for NTTF that some of them were suggesting as an alternate means of addressing the issue would, quite soon, represent more faculty than the T/TTF Senate would.

The greatest flashpoint of the evening, though, came after some senators expressed that they did, in fact, represent the NTTF in their departments—even though the governing documents explicitly said the opposite. In response, my colleague pointed out the similarities between our campus’s state of affairs and the United States before the 19th Amendment, when a woman was supposedly represented through either her father’s or her husband’s votes. The strong reactions from senators to this analogy amounted to calling the comparison “unfair”—with the clear implication that calling out privileged T/TTF on their untenable position was more unfair than the daily realities faced by NTTF.

I left the meeting feeling exhausted, hurt, and exasperated. We had expected some pushback to our proposal but had not anticipated the wave of negative responses we received. Having heard our colleagues’ responses to our proposal, I no longer felt welcome, appreciated, or supported outside of my department. To this day, I have never seen the larger campus the same way I did before that January meeting. While I have continued to see my academic department and its building as a place of refuge, I have never felt fully comfortable again anywhere outside its walls.

The end result for the university, however, has generally been positive. While our Senate presentation was met by that small group of highly vocal critics, the rest of the room—about 40 other senators—sat in silence. A few reached out in the days that followed, apologizing for the behavior of their colleagues and/or their own silence in response to that behavior. As a result, the Task Force started having conversations across campus with senators and other T/TTF. We began building new alliances with those faculty, which resulted in a collaboratively written Statement on NTTF and Shared Governance. That statement garnered 166 faculty signatures, 53% of whom were T/TTF, and it was published in both the student and the local newspapers.

By the time of the April 2018 Senate meeting, when revisions to the Bylaws and Constitution were to be debated, we expected a certain group of senators to now speak up to argue our points on our behalf. (Those same governing documents restrict all meetings’ conversations to senators and invited speakers.) It turned out, though, that our support network reached beyond those senators with whom we had explicitly worked; other senators, from whom we were not expecting to receive help, spoke up forcefully about issues of equity, fairness, and justice. Amendments to both the Bylaws and Constitution were adopted on line-item votes and reflected almost every point in the Task Force’s initial proposal. The one major exception was that, while part-time NTTF would count toward their departmental census numbers, they would remain ineligible to serve on the Senate. When the line-item changes to the Bylaws and Constitution were finalized, they were approved by the Senate at its May 2018 meeting in votes of 43 to 1 and 44 to 0, respectively. When the changes to the Constitution came before all university T/TTF in August of 2018, they were overwhelming approved by a vote of 323 to 66.

That vote means all faculty at the university are now represented on the Senate and all full-time faculty, regardless of rank, can now serve as senators. There is still some work to do, of course: part-time faculty deserve the ability to serve, various university policies need to be updated to reflect the inclusion of NTTF in shared governance, and some of the language used to describe different faculty groups needs adjusting. Some of those changes will be more easily won than others. Now that NTTF have a recognized seat at the governance table, however, the conversations will be more easily started.

One of the most unexpected lessons I learned from our two-year effort is that highly public skirmishes in which those fighting for equity and social justice are clearly bruised and damaged can actually build important support and sustained momentum for the desired changes. I still largely look back at that January night in the Senate with a lot of personal regret and negative emotions. I can now also recognize that evening, nevertheless, as a crucial moment that solidified our allies’ public support for our work. That individually painful evening became a socially productive flashpoint for the movement toward equity and equality.

I wish that justice movements did not require this kind of personal sacrifice. I wish I could still walk across campus and feel like my presence is both acknowledged and appreciated. I wish I could forget the rising disgust, anger, and bafflement that eventually overwhelmed that January evening.

But I also recognize that our outcome would have been unattainable, at least not at the pace at which we reached it and without the amount of positive changes it managed, without the highly visible wave of negativity that met us that night. The open negativity, then, was ultimately self-defeating; it publicly and loudly exposed a number of biases and assumptions that forced our T/TTF colleagues to take a side and no longer ignore the issues at hand.

When the next moment arises for charged conversations about other changes that could create an even more inclusive campus environment, I will feel better prepared. I know now to brace myself for an onslaught of negativity. But, for the sake of more positive social transformations, I might even take a few deep breaths and then try to provoke that public discord.

Endnote

[1] The Department of Writing and Rhetoric officially became a standalone department on July 1, 2014, but it was founded in 2009 as the Center for Writing and Rhetoric (housed under the Department of English) as the initial step of the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan for its Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges reaccreditation process. return

References

AAUP. (2016). The annual report on the economic status of the profession, 2015–16. Retrieved from https://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/2015-16EconomicStatusReport.pdf.

Fuller, Robert W. (2004). Somebodies and nobodies: Overcoming the abuse of rank. British Columbia, Canada: New Society.

Gappa, Judith M., Austin, Ann E. & Trice, Andrea G. (2007). Rethinking faculty work: Higher education’s strategic imperative. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Jones, Willis A., Hutchens, Neal H., Hulbert, Azalea, Lewis, Wayne D. & Brown, David M. (2017). Shared governance among the new majority: Non-tenure track faculty eligibility for election to university faculty senates. Innovative Higher Education, 42, 505–19.

Kezar, Adrianna & Sam, Cecile. (2014). Governance as a catalyst for policy change: Creating a contingent faculty friendly academy. Educational Policy, 28(3), 425–62.

Maxey, Daniel & Kezar, Adrianna. (2016). The current context for faculty work in higher education: Understanding the forces affecting higher education and the changing faculty. In Adrianna Kezar & Daniel Maxey (Eds.), Envisioning the Faculty for the Twenty-First Century: Moving to a Mission-Oriented and Learner-Centered Model (pp. 3–22). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP.

Morrison, Joshua D. (2008). Faculty governance and nontenure-track appointments. New Directions for Higher Education, 143, 21–7.

Palmquist, Michael, Doe, Sue, McDonald, James, Mendez Newman, Beatrice, Samuels, Robert & Schell, Eileen. (2001). Statement on the status and working conditions of contingent faculty. College English, 73(4), 356–9.

Rawn, Catherine D. & Fox, Joanne A. (2018). Understanding the work and perceptions of teaching focused faculty in a changing academic landscape. Research in Higher Education, 59, 591–622.

Waltman, Jean, Begom, Inger, Hollenshead, Carol, Miller, Jean & August, Louise. (2012). Factors contributing to job satisfaction and dissatisfaction among non-tenure track faculty. The Journal of Higher Education, 83(3), 411–34.

Acknowledgements

This scene report would not have been possible without the remarkable efforts of the members of the Task Force for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty and Shared Governance at the University of Mississippi, and I would like to thank two of those members, Kate Hooper and JoAnn Edwards, especially, for the conversations we have had that helped shape some ideas found in this article. I also write in memory of Anne Marie Liles, our Clinical Associate Professor colleague from Pharmacy Practice, whose contributions, energy, and insights as a Task Force member are a legacy I will never forget.

Author Bio

Sarah Bartlett Wilson (she/her/hers) is an Associate Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College (Alexandria) and was an Instructor of Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Mississippi from 2015 to 2019. She teaches first-year composition as well as basic writing and advanced research writing. In addition to contingent labor in higher education, her research interests include composition pedagogies, multimodality, critical reading, and research ethics.