Brandeis Students Are Lobbying to Get Their Professor on the Tenure Track

It should work. Here’s why it likely won’t.

Brandeis University.
Brandeis University.

Image by Leo Felici/Wikimedia Commons

“What are you teaching next semester?” You might think any professor would love to get this question. But for non–tenure-track faculty, who are often hired on short-term contracts, the answer can be painfully fraught. Maybe you tell the truth (“I don’t know where I’ll be”), maybe you punt.

Recently, one Brandeis University professor, American studies and sociology lecturer Jillian Powers, decided to answer honestly. One day in class—after yet another student wanted to sign up for her possibly-nonexistent future courses—she took her students “behind the curtain” of the faculty hierarchy and told them she didn’t know what her future at Brandeis held. Her contract, a “60-percent time” appointment, with teaching and advising but no research support, was for this academic year only; Powers won’t learn whether it’s renewed until April.

Her students, Powers tells me, “had a sense” that adjuncts and lecturers worked on campus, “and some of them were familiar with the campaign going on to organize and join a union, but I don’t think they realized how intimately it touched their education. They asked lots of questions, which I answered fully and honestly. Some even asked what else I could do with a Ph.D. and why I chose to do this to begin with. They asked me what I could have done differently, basically if I was to blame.” Effectively, Powers says, “I just shattered their idea that a Ph.D. translates to a comfortable middle-class life or job security in higher ed.”

Sophomore Alexandra Shapiro and 29 of her classmates sent an impassioned open letter to the university’s administration, asking that Powers’ temporary position be converted to a tenure-track assistant professorship. “I wish to alert you that we are about to lose a valuable faculty member whose expertise is directly relevant,” begins the letter, which is appended by 16 extensive and heartfelt testimonials. It continues:

Professor Jillian Powers illuminates issues of race and gender by giving students tools to explore their own backgrounds while simultaneously understanding a larger societal context. Her lessons are neither simplistic nor does she impose a specific agenda. […] She gives voice to the marginalized and teaches students of privilege how to think critically about their privilege, rather than teaching white guilt. […] We all believe she should be offered a tenure track position.

“I don’t expect, nor do I demand, to get a tenure track job based on this campaign,” Powers says, “nor did I have any idea what they were going to do or how they were going to do it.” Regardless, the effort soon garnered the attention of the student newspaper the Justice.

This is a heartwarming story, the stuff of inspirational films. For those of us in the fight for better treatment of adjuncts and other precarious faculty, it’s a welcome development. But many well-meaning individuals are under the impression that if a non–tenure-track professor is very good at her job, her “bosses” will recognize her “merit,” which will result in a “promotion.” In truth, it’s more complicated. Most professors don’t have a single “boss” who has the power to make permanent hiring decisions. Departments have chairs, yes, but their responsibilities are varied, and the difference between the chairs and everyone else is often just a bigger office and an inbox full of even more grievances. Chairs rarely, if ever, have the power to make hiring decisions—and never have the sole power to grant anyone tenure or a place on the tenure track.

Powers’ “boss” at Brandeis, American studies Chair Thomas Doherty, declined to comment on this individual case but was happy to discuss the general process. First, the department would have to lobby the university administration for a new tenure-track hire. But the only reason they’d get one, Doherty explains, would be if there were “a hole in the curriculum, most often due to a retirement or a faculty member leaving for another gig.” (Holes are often not enough: Powers tells me she came to Brandeis three years ago on a two-year interdisciplinary postdoctoral fellowship that replaced a professor who was denied tenure; since then, the position has deteriorated into the part-time lecturer position she now holds.)

The next step, Doherty says, would be to “petition the dean for a tenure-track position” in a particular specialization. Let’s say “the gods are smiling,” as he puts it, and they actually do get a new hire approved—a feat that can often take up to two years. Now they can give Jillian Powers the job she deserves, right? After all, she’s a stellar teacher; she has a Ph.D. from a top program at Duke; her ambitious publication record includes a book under contract and two forthcoming articles in peer-reviewed journals, plus two in print. She’s clearly done a tremendous amount to earn a “seat at the table,” as Brandeis senior Jhanezia Stevens wrote in an email that praised Powers’ innovative pedagogy.

Not so fast. What happens next is that a committee made up of three to five professors in the department does “a well-advertised national search,” as Doherty described it. The best they can do is cordially invite Powers to apply. “The legal and professional protocols for all of this are very strict and rigorous,” Doherty says. So, at best, Powers is now what academics call an “internal candidate.” Some people will tell you that the internal candidate has an advantage, because she’s a known quantity who has already proven herself successful. Others will say the opposite, because why take the used goods when there are a dozen brand-new Ivy League Ph.D.s at the ready?

By the time the hire is made, it’s 2018—and the candidate has had to feed, house, and clothe herself for this entire time. Meanwhile, what about the other hundred contingent faculty members at Brandeis who, according to the Justice, comprise 29 percent of the university’s faculty? I’m sure many of them have wrenching student testimonials and stellar publication records, too.

At the very least, several of Powers’ students have given themselves a crash course in faculty labor practices. A few told me the situation goes far beyond her employment and indeed reflects on the broader issues in their $250,000 educations. Henry Loughlin, a 2014 graduate who took two courses with Powers, said he found it “humbling to realize that there are many educated, hard-working, and talented academics who live with the instability and lack of benefits that they do.”

Junior Vanessa Alamo agrees, telling me that she first heard of adjuncts and lecturers during her second semester in Powers’ course. “Since then,” she says, “I have spoken to other students who are equally concerned and read lots of information about faculty hierarchy, the hiring process, and academia as a business.”

As inspirational as it is, the campaign to get Powers onto the tenure track will almost certainly not succeed. (I would, however, be willing to bet that her contract is renewed.) The students aren’t doing anything wrong—they’re simply operating under the misconception that academia is some sort of just meritocracy. And who can blame them?

“There is no reason Brandeis shouldn’t find a stable and rewarding solution for Professor Powers,” Alamo says. I agree—but I also know the cynical realities of academic hiring. The solution doesn’t necessarily involve the tenure track. What universities can and should do is offer every member of the faculty long-term contracts, due process for dismissal, and academic freedom. If students wish to lobby on their professors’ behalf—which I support and hope they continue to do—it should be for much-needed and realistic changes to the faculty labor landscape at large.