February 5, 2014

LETTER: The truth behind tenure

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To the Editor:

Re: “University: Non-Tenured Faculty Bring ‘Different’ Skills,” News, Feb. 3

In response to the news article that appeared on Feb. 3, “University: Non-Tenured Faculty Bring ‘Different’ Skills,” your story rather spectacularly misses the point of the study it cites and, as a result, erases the work of a sizeable part of Cornell’s academic workforce.

The study of Northwestern University’s 15,000 students and what they learned compared outcomes from two groups of teachers: tenure-track faculty (those eligible for tenure plus those enjoying it) and “non-tenure-line” faculty (those ineligible for tenure). The Sun’s story maps these on different groups at Cornell: already-tenured faculty and tenurable (but not tenured) faculty. So, there’s a mismatch here. Are there “non-tenure-line” faculty at Cornell? In the College of Arts and Sciences faculty listings alone, I count 98 lecturers and senior lecturers. (In 2002 there were 124.) They are prevailingly full-time professionals eligible for renewal, some (like me) well along in years and renewed many times. They are not to be confused with, to quote Vice-Provost Laura Brown in The Sun’s story, “Newer faculty who have recently been trained as graduate students” hired on tenurable lines.

Why does this matter? American academia is shedding tenurable jobs right and left, often making up the difference with faculty described as “adjunct” or “part-time” or “temporary” — many of them spot-market hires. Cornell has chosen to build — although not always to sustain (124 minus 98 equals 26 ) — a corps of renewable lecturers and senior lecturers to teach in certain labor-intensive areas. That’s a significant and considered commitment on the institution’s part.

Students can ask: Who teaches me math or music or writing or theater arts or a foreign language — or trains and supervises graduate student instructors who do? Who teaches me dance or Spanish or Arabic or introductory economics? Is my professor perhaps a lecturer? And should Cornell disclaim these people (by comparing New York State apples with Northwestern oranges), or recognize their existence?

In this as in other ways, Cornell is just as strong as its labor force. Identifying that workforce accurately is a matter of institutional honesty and full disclosure.

Prof. Stuart Davis, English