Teacher tenure at Colorado State

Sierra Cymes

The word “tenure” brings up a lot of dissension in the academic world today. Back in the day, tenure was created as a means to preserve academic freedom when schools were teaching how the world was flat. Back then, teachers had to teach the curriculum or they might lose their job — not a very conducive environment to facilitate real-world learning.

But we are in the 21st century, and our openness to new ideas is leaps and bounds away from the black-and-white teaching style presented less than a century ago. This is all thanks to tenure.

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Receiving tenure back then meant you would not be fired for any persecution over what topics you research. So what role does academic freedom play in our schools today?

In the long faculty handbook, it says all faculty are allowed to have academic freedom over researching whatever topics meet their fancy. This academic freedom is no longer only associated with tenure teachers, so how are tenured faculty different than adjunct faculty?

The goal of tenure teachers is to cover all three of the University’s goals: to teach, to research and to provide service. Sixty-three percent of faculty at Colorado State is tenure-track this year, according to the Provost’s office. This is a critical percentage because, as we are a research-intensive university, it is important the research of our teachers is extending into the community and making a distinctive impact.

But how can we define ‘impact’? For this criteria, the research is determined impactful by the amount of positive feedback it gets from the scholarly community. If a professor publishes a paper, that is all well and good, but we can’t evaluate that professor on the amount of papers they publish. With this criteria a professor could publish a paper on string-cheese theory and it would add to their credibility in the University’s eyes. The success of research is determined by the number of conferences the professor is invited to speak at, how many other professors noted their work in the community, basically from the central question: did the research published change their field, and how much?

The impact of having so many tenure teachers ideally comes back to the classroom, shaping the way subjects are taught. This has been proven in how the curriculum is constantly changing every year. It evolves to make way for research that has shaped how the upper-level community thinks about their field. These changes are made from the body of scholarly findings, where CSU is just one (hopefully impactful) voice among many.

If academic freedom is encouraged by all teachers, then why not have one part of the staff that is researching only to report back to the adjunct faculty?

Adjunct faculty is essential to the mission of the University that only deals with teaching. All of the adjunct faculty’s time is devoted to teaching the students. This can cause them to get bad street cred, especially at a research-oriented University like CSU.

Another scruple of academia today comes from the amount of financial security and respect that is not given to the adjunct faculty. Especially in the past five years, CSU has been working to a more attractive career-path approach for adjunct faculty.

One way we’ve moved toward this is by raising the base adjunct salary 10 percent from the minimum that used to be below the national average. I’m not saying the national average is what we should be paying our adjunct faculty. I think this number should be higher. But it does prove how CSU is making strides towards better conditions for adjunct faculty.

Another way we make conditions better for the adjunct is by encouraging department respect. Almost all of the departments include adjunct faculty in their committee meetings. Again, this is good, but it could be better. We need to understand how important the adjunct faculty is to the internal mission of the University. They are a large percentage of our teachers, and their enthusiasm for their jobs will most certainly translate into the classroom instruction.

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Tenure-teachers should be teaching upper-division courses only, and introductory courses should be picked up by adjunct teachers. Here’s why:

Ideally, the research part of tenure teachers molds into the in-class teaching part. Having a tenure-track teacher in the classroom is mostly a positive for the students and the teacher. Tenure teachers are experts because they not only know a great volume of information, they are able to compress and present it in a way that other upper-level thinkers can understand it. Their real-world application in the classroom is hugely useful, especially in intermediate to advanced courses.

I think it’s a little difficult for an expert to be teaching an introductory-level class. At least, I don’t think this is the best use of their expertise.

Adjunct faculty are dedicated to teaching 100 percent of the time. Introductory-level courses are more about following the school’s curriculum than being super invested in research. Learning the basics does not require much innovation management. It’s in the upper divisions where this becomes more central.

Colorado State is leading the pack in how it appreciates adjunct teachers. This trend needs to continue, because the enthusiasm of the adjunct faculty will directly translate into how they teach their classes.

Salaries for non-tenure teachers are better, and it is a University mission to make them better. But we still have a ways to go before the adjunct faculty feels secure and respected by all of the University faculty.

Collegian Columnist Sierra Cymes can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter at @sierra_cymes.