Last Tuesday, 14 non-tenure-track professors and one teaching fellow submitted a petition to President Sean Decatur, Provost Joseph Klesner and Associate Provost Jeffrey Bowman. The document demanded the renewal of employment contracts expiring this year. A week later, Klesner responded with a written letter stating that the College would not presently commit to contract renewal due to budgetary concerns. “To make a pledge further than that would move Kenyon beyond its usual commitment to visiting faculty members at a time that will be very financially challenging to the College,” he wrote.
Kenyon’s petition sought to account for the lack of job security that non-tenure-track professors are facing. “We are writing to call on the Kenyon College leadership to extend the appointments of all current non-tenure-track faculty members (visiting assistant professors and instructors) with an appointment ending in Spring 2020 by one more year,” the petition reads. “We are thankful for [Kenyon’s] leadership in this crisis, and we request that the College take further measures that will protect non-tenure-track faculty with appointments that conclude in 2020, from the increased insecurity brought on by this pandemic.”
On May 5, Provost Klesner responded via email in a written letter stating that “any further hiring at this point is dependent on enrollment and budgetary implications of the pandemic.”
President Decatur elaborated on other logistical concerns. “Anyone either on a contract that already extended to next year or that we had committed to that we would renew for next year, that we are renewing and committing to,” he said. However, “if we hired someone as a leave replacement and then [the professor on leave] is coming back from sabbatical, we can’t have two people teaching the same courses.”
The Kenyon petition followed similar actions taken at other institutions, including Yale University (Conn.) and Smith College (Mass.), in the wake of hiring freezes during the pandemic. At the national level, several institutions have issued a statement of solidarity with non-tenure-track faculty facing contract expiration this year. According to an April 28 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 70 prominent scholars who signed the statement expressed an intention to boycott institutions that do not renew contracts for non-tenure-track employees and graduate workers.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Jack Jin Gary Lee described the situation as “a conversation going on, outside of Kenyon in the larger world of higher education.”
Lee explained that an oversupply of Ph.Ds in the past decade has made it increasingly challenging for new professors to find employment. “I think this is a structural issue that has affected academia for a while,” he said.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jessica Chandras elaborated on Lee’s statement, remarking that due to the year-to-year basis of non-tenure-track faculty contracts, those professors “are the first to go when colleges are trying to cut back spending.”
“We are now in a particular situation that heightens the already existing precarity that members of [the] academic workforce face,” Lee added.
“The crisis triggered by the pandemic has intensified existing inequalities between faculty on the tenure track and those with non-tenure-track appointments,” she said. “For instance, many higher education institutions in the United States have automatically extended their tenure clocks for junior faculty, giving them more time to prepare their dossiers. They did not do the same with the non-tenure-track faculty.”
Chandras is currently considering applying to jobs outside of academia in the event that her contract is not renewed. “I had always known [that] could be a possibility, [but] it now is a much more realistic possibility due to the pandemic,” she said.
Non-tenure-track professors emphasized the implications of downsizing for academic departments. “I hope the College is aware that visiting faculty members are needed now more than ever, especially since students’ plans for studying abroad are stalling, meaning that Kenyon ought to provide more courses for them,” said Visiting Assistant Professor of History Catalina Hunt, who wrote the final draft of the position.
Klesner said that although Kenyon has suspended hiring for the 2020-21 academic year and many visiting professors have since taken positions elsewhere, the College does not plan to postpone faculty leave for sabbatical. “There are some visiting lines currently not filled,” he said. “We are carefully monitoring enrollments (including waitlists) and the anticipated size of the new first-year class to determine where we need additional staffing.” He added that it is standard for institutions to hire faculty for an upcoming semester during the summer beforehand.
Lee had touched upon the petition’s role beyond the pandemic when the Collegian spoke with him prior to Klesner’s response. “I think this is really more of an attempt to try to get the administration and the larger Kenyon community to pay attention to a salient issue that’s affected higher ed for a while,” Lee said. “A petition is one way to broaden the conversation.”