Some of ASU’s best teachers see their job security threatened, not by the rounds of layoffs past and future, but by a technical administrative change. Arizona State University is shortening the length of contracts it awards to lecturers, a class of untenured faculty members who specialize in educating rather than researching.
More experienced lectures, labeled “senior,” have traditionally worked on three-year deals. ASU would automatically renew those contracts for three more years each time senior lecturers passed their performance reviews.
University officials say that process no longer works.
But without stability, several lecturers contend they might have to take their work elsewhere.
Jacqueline Wheeler is a senior lecturer in ASU’s English department, where she has taught almost 15 years. She said she is becoming certified to teach high school, just in case.
“Those jobs are at risk now too,” Wheeler said. “But I’m not sure I have a future here at ASU. I’m very sad about it.”
State lawmakers have cut $60 million from ASU this year and additional, possibly even deeper, funding reductions are coming. Arizona’s tax revenues continue to wither, with home building and other critical industries suffering historic slumps.
With the financial uncertainty, Mark Searle, ASU vice president for academic personnel, said the university needs more freedom to shed costs quickly.
And that means keeping employee contracts short as possible, Searle said, preferably to one-year contracts.
Despite that, ASU Provost Elizabeth Capaldi said she is telling university deans that the new multi-year contract policy, announced during the past few weeks, is not absolute.
“Some lecturers have been with us for years and years and years and they’re key,” Capaldi said.
ASU employs about 350 lecturers, of which 250 are “senior” and have multi-year contracts, Searle said. Senior lecturers comprise 14 percent of the university faculty.
Their significance to ASU’s educational quality is far larger than their numbers.
Lecturers teach at least twice as many classes a semester than their tenured colleagues. They have a smaller research requirement than professors. Instead, lecturers spend their work hours teaching and sometimes serve as academic administrators.
“We’re real teachers, as opposed to professors who do a lot of research,” said Paul Quinn, a lecturer in deaf studies the past 13 years and director of ASU’s American Sign Language program. Quinn added that tenured professors contribute just as much to the university, only differently.
Wheeler said she worries about more than their contracts’ length. If lecturers must essentially reapply for a new contract every year, ASU could decrease the teachers’ pay annually without negotiation.
The University Senate, a faculty group, passed a resolution last month asking that ASU again grant lecturers multi-year contracts once the budget crisis passes.
Should ASU shed lecturers, the university would have to make a difficult choice. Eliminate courses, or pile far more teaching on tenured faculty and professors working to earn tenure — essentially a lifetime appointment.
“Their main focus is the research, there’s no doubt about it. That’s what they’re judged on,” John Schaeffer, an ASU geography senior lecturer, said of tenured faculty.
Lecturers’ focus on teaching makes them particularly valuable, Capaldi said, and a limited number of them will continue to receive three-year contracts.
However, several lecturers said their departments’ deans and chairmen have unequivocally eliminated contracts of more than a year.
That is the message David Forsyth, a senior lecturer in real estate law, received earlier this month.
Paul Patterson, dean of the Management and Agribusiness School at the ASU Polytechnic campus in east Mesa, sent Forsyth a memo earlier this month detailing the end of multi-year contracts.
“This decision does not signal any reduction in our deep appreciation for your many and excellent contributions to the university and does not indicate any weakening of our desire to retain you on our faculty,” Patterson’s memo states.
Forsyth had to sign and return a copy.
After almost 30 years spent practicing law, Forsyth said he tried out teaching a couple classes for ASU and Chandler-Gilbert Community College part-time. He fell in love with classroom work, took a lecturer position with ASU four years ago and his first multi-year contract began in the fall.
Forsyth is guaranteed his job, or at least his pay, through May 2011.
Ecstatic about earning a multi-year deal, and more than a decade from retirement, he said he intended to finish his career teaching ASU students. Now Forsyth worries about what happens when his contract expires, regardless of his dean’s statements of support.
“It’s a sad come-down,” he said, “at least for me.”