24 March 2015

Voting in Academia: Should contingents get the same voting privileges as tenure-track faculty?

Stephen Kershnar
Who Votes? Democracy and Academia
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 9, 2015

A fascinating article by SUNY-Fredonia English professor Emily VanDette (“Who Gets a Vote in Departmental Decisions?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education) signals a looming battle in academia. For years, tenure-track faculty along with university administrators have decided important issues in academia, including how academic departments (such as chemistry and history) are run. They’ve done so without allowing contingent faculty a vote.    

A tenure-track professor is a professor has or likely will have a permanent position at a university. Usually, people in these positions get paid reasonably well and have strong job protection. Traditionally, they are thought to be full members of the faculty in the sense that they have all the duties and privileges traditionally associated with being a professor.

In contrast, a contingent (or adjunct) professor is a professor hired for a specific purpose or length of time and often receives only part-time pay. For example, they are often paid per class and not paid well. They are not given all the duties and privileges of full membership in the faculty. For instance, they don’t have to do research and, also, don’t get a vote and strong job protection. They get last choice in classes and, when enrollment is down, get fewer classes thereby reducing their already meager income.   

The tenure-track faculty’s role has recently been challenged in that the contingent faculty have asked for and received more of a say in how departments and universities are run. Specifically, they want a vote on what’s taught, who gets hired, and who’s in charge. VanDette’s article nicely lays out the Fredonia English Department’s divisive struggle over this issue. The problem is that contingent faculty do more of the teaching at a college than ever before and are more often than in the past making careers out of adjunct work. As of last year, contingent faculty did roughly 50% of the teaching at Fredonia, but got only about 20% of the pay given to professors.

One theory of democracy is that it is justified because it allows people govern their own lives in the sense that they can control the world around them. As adjuncts are more commonly teaching at a university for longer periods of time and increasingly making adjunct teaching a career, the self-government argument strengthens because the university becomes more important to their lives.

A second theory of democracy is that it is justified by the equal respect people can and should demand of others who are part of an organization. The equal respect can be seen in that when everyone gets a vote, people’s interests and preferences are given equal consideration.  

The problem with both theories is that they don’t apply to the workplace. Consider a small family-owned restaurant. Morally, it is owners and not employees who have the right to decide how the restaurant is run. The rights of ownership exhaust the moral rights to control the business. Of course, restaurant owners should consult its workers because the workers often know more about the day-to-day operation of the business than anyone else, including the owners.

Even if were the case that owners did not have the right to control their own restaurant, there would still be legitimate reasons to give some people more of a say than others. Cooks and servers at the restaurant who have worked there full-time, done so for decades, and who oversee the other workers likely know more and have more at stake than transitory and part-time workers. It is consistent with self-government and equal respect that these differences be taken into account by giving the full-time people more of a say.

In addition, in academia, faculty votes count as no more than advice given to the university’s administrators. As such, there is little reason to think that self-government justifies faculty voting in general, let alone granting adjuncts the same voting privileges as tenure-track professors.

The equal-respect argument is murky here in part because equal respect is consistent with different roles being assigned based on knowledge, experience, and investment in an organization.    
A third theory of democracy is that it is justified because voting results produce better decisions than other forms of group decision-making, such as dictatorship. The idea is that publicly vetting ideas and including more people in the decision-making allows for more information to be considered and for it to be better used. Democracy is also better because it forces the group to take more people’s interests into account. An example of this last point is economist Amartya Sen’s observation that large-scale famines don’t occur in democratic countries with a free press.

On this theory, voting works better when voters are more informed, not coerced into voting one way rather than another, and invested in the outcome (they have some skin in the game). In the academic context, tenure-track professors meet these conditions to a greater degree than do adjuncts.    

As a general matter, and there are exceptions, tenure-track members know more about their fields than contingent faculty. They beat out stiffer competition to get a tenure-track spot and are required to have an active research program prior to tenure. They also know more about the university because they sit on more committees and do more service-related work. They often have doctorates (or other terminal degree) rather than a master’s degree. 

Tenure-track faculty are less subject to pressure from the administration and other faculty because their positions and salaries are more secure. They are also more invested in the university because they are more likely to work there longer and are more financially dependent on it than are contingent professors.

The tenure-track faculty’s greater knowledge about their field, lesser vulnerability, and greater investment in the institution make it likely that their voting will achieve better results if their votes are not diluted by the votes of contingent faculty. Even the proponents of contingent seem to agree to some extent in that they rarely argue that contingent faculty should get to vote on tenure and promotion. Still, fewer proponents want graduate students to vote. This is despite the fact that their arguments support both outcomes.

This better-result argument is correct and it explains why, traditionally, only tenure-track members get a vote. It also explains this voting rule is more rigidly enforced the higher up the university on the academic food chain. Still, when contingents are not allowed to vote, it just seems disrespectful and a denial of their right to self-governance. As contingents teach an ever larger portion of classes, the challenge to traditional academic voting rules will continue, even if it is mistaken.