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‘Best practices’ to improve working conditions for non-tenured faculty discussed

At the start of the spring 2015 semester, Macalester’s Resources and Planning Committee (RPC) will release a list of best practices and recommendations to improve the working conditions of non-tenure track faculty. These recommendations will be based on the RPC’s compilation of information focusing on Macalester and comparable schools, as well as on a survey that the RPC sent out to all Macalester faculty members earlier this semester.

Dialogue between the administration and non-tenure track faculty at Macalester has accelerated over the past year. Last fall, German professor Britt Abel and linguistics professor Marianne Milligan began a faculty reading group centered around issues of non-tenure track faculty. (Both Abel and Milligan are non-tenure track faculty members.) Additionally, another Google group was organized for these faculty to discuss issues related to their status as non-tenure track faculty members.

While these conversations were under way, SooJin Pate, then a visiting American Studies professor, was contacting the adjunct action branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This interaction led to a scheduled vote among non-tenure track faculty at Macalester on whether to unionize. Soon before the vote was scheduled to begin, it was called off.

The push to unionize non-tenure track faculty at Macalester came in conjunction with a broader push to form unions among these faculty at other schools around the nation. Locally, Hamline adjunct professors voted to unionize while professors at St. Thomas rejected a union at their college.

Because the SEIU called off the union election before it happened at Macalester, organizers are not allowed to hold another election for six months. Therefore, the next earliest date a new election can theoretically be held is in December. However, most movement around non-tenure track faculty conditions currently revolve around the RPC’s work and discussions with adminstrators.

The Macalester administration had been unable to collaborate with non-tenure track faculty in the period leading up to the vote, but when the vote was suspended, Macalester could meet with non-tenure track faculty once more.

“The administration was aware, after what happened last spring, that there were a number of people concerned, and that it would be good for Macalester to be a leader on this front and to do something positive,” Abel said.

“Right after the vote was called off, we met with [them] and asked how they would like to re-engage the conversation,” Provost Kathy Murray said. “By the end of that meeting, we had decided that it would be best done in the context of our existing governance structure.”

These meetings led to the administrative suggestion that the RPC compile a list of “best practices” for the treatment of non-tenure track faculty as their next project. Abel and Milligan have since been elected as the RPC’s non-tenure track faculty representatives, using the same process as all other faculty elections, but with the non-tenure track faculty as voters.

“I think that really shows that sense of ‘We really want you to be represented,’” Milligan said. “The RPC is a closed meeting, which means students can’t come to those meetings, because we’re dealing with some really sensitive information – salaries, numbers, specific people that could be linked [to those salaries] – so that information can’t be aired,” Abel said. “But we talked at the beginning of the semester about how we could make some information public.”

Over the summer, Abel, Milligan and two other non-tenure track faculty, Paul Cantrell of computer science and Megan Vossler of the art and art history departments, scoured former discussions from the non-tenure track Google group to identify concerns regarding unionization and general treatment by the administration. This information was shared with Polly Fassinger, director of institutional research at Macalester, who used it to design the survey that went out to all faculty in the fall.

Survey findings

Preliminary findings from the survey have been released to the college community and are intended to serve as a starting point for further discussions. The survey, which was distributed to all faculty members, asked about support for various policies and practices related to non-tenure track faculty. It also surveyed non-tenure track faculty about their thoughts and feelings toward Macalester and how valued they feel on campus.

Just over half of all faculty responded to the survey; 55 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty responded while 56 percent of non-tenure track faculty filled out the survey.

Many policies proposed in the survey received high support from all faculty members, regardless of tenure status. These include practices that would increase communication between non-tenure track faculty and the rest of the school, as well as heightening transparency regarding non-tenure track faculty members’ benefits and responsibilities.

Specific practices that received high support include granting non-tenure track faculty annual performance feedback, allowing them to accept additional responsibilities as part of their contract (while not requiring them), allowing departments to request multi-year contracts for non-tenure track faculty, and notifying non-tenure track faculty when they are eligible for promotions or changes in their status.

A number of policy proposals, while receiving strong support from non-tenure track faculty, did not obtain support from a majority of all faculty members. These proposals included allowing part-time faculty to serve on elected committees, giving non-tenure track faculty proportional salaries, and creating a standing committee on non-tenure track faculty issues.

The report concludes by saying that the proposed policies are not exhaustive and discussions will continue in the future on other issues related to non-tenure track faculty. The preliminary report is available on the Provost’s website.

Murray described the survey as “very helpful” and said it brought light to many issues that non-tenure track faculty face that the college was not previously aware of. Throughout the RPC’s work, Murray had been reaching out to peer institutions to get information on salaries for non-tenure track faculty and other data which is not publicly available.

Colleges whose data have been examined include ACTC (Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities) schools, and small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest or associated with urban areas, such as Swarthmore and Haverford, two Philadelphia-area schools.

College officials are not able to comment on any specific recommendations that arose in the survey. According to Murray, this is not designed to make the process secretive. Instead, the lack of comment is designed to “give us time to formulate all of the recommendations and release them all at once,” Murray said.

The RPC hopes to have a final set of recommendations published by the end of the semester. Dan Hornbach and Juliette Rogers, RPC members, will write a final draft of the report over winter break, with the goal of submitting it to President Brian Rosenberg at the beginning of next semester. Until then, college officials are unable to comment on any specific recommendations or best practices.

When asked about their predictions for what best practices would be, both Hornbach and Rogers were unable to comment. Each emphasized that best practices and recommendations may not be directly linked with policy.

“While we’re going to make some recommendations for changes that could be made by the administration, . . . [or] the faculty, because they’re part of the faculty handbook,we’re not to the point where we know what those recommendations are going to be,” Hornbach said.

November 21, 2014

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