“We chose to begin our careers at Oberlin College for a variety of reasons. Chief among those are Oberlin’s commitment to fostering a research-engaged faculty of the highest caliber, emphasizing an outstanding and socially-minded liberal arts education, and supporting deep faculty engagement in the governing of the College. We write with concern that these commitments are currently being compromised, and we hope to work with other members of our community to ensure that the College’s mission remains intact.”
So collectively wrote Oberlin College’s Assistant and Visiting Assistant Professors in a May letter sent to the entire faculty body, as well as the College’s senior staff, members of the Academic and Administrative Program Review committee, and other campus leaders.
The letter, which was signed by 64 junior faculty members and is available in full on the Review’s website, outlined several concerns with decisions made by the College under its financial duress, specifically with regard to expectations around faculty labor. It followed a controversial spring in which many faculty openly criticized the formation and approach of the newly-formed AAPR committee.
Of the critical voices, many were those of senior faculty members, who have already received tenure and thus have greater financial stability than untenured and visiting faculty, both in terms of pay level and job security.
Since the uproar of the spring, AAPR leadership has addressed many concerns voiced by faculty — namely that their perspectives will be passed over in the review process. In a Sept. 4 email to the Oberlin community at large, the AAPR committee assured campus that the principles of faculty governance enshrined in Oberlin’s bylaws would remain intact, and that any decisions regarding academic programs would be routed through appropriate faculty committees for review.
It was an important assurance that quelled many faculty concerns. However, a number of the dynamics discussed in the junior faculty letter are still present as difficult decisions are made on campus, and warrant discussion as the review process advances.
In May, the junior faculty articulated four main arguments. First, while change is necessary, crisis language is counterproductive. Second, that Oberlin should maintain its commitment to faculty research. Third, that reliance on visiting faculty is exploitative and undermines faculty stability and, fourth, that much faculty labor goes unrecognized and uncompensated, particularly among junior faculty. The letter concludes by encouraging College administrators to engage with faculty as partners in the difficult years to come.
While we believe that senior faculty contribute important critiques of Oberlin’s approach to its financial problems, we also feel that in situations when jobs and livelihoods are at stake, it is important to follow the lead of the people whose proverbial necks are on the line.
It is clear that, in this time of budget cuts and financial uncertainty, junior faculty are in a more unstable position than their tenured colleagues — particularly as College leadership has repeatedly indicated that it will not eliminate any tenured lines without faculty approval, per the College’s bylaws and the Finney Compact. As such, it is appropriate for the faculty as a whole to look to the junior faculty — who have taken a significant risk by advocating for themselves without the security afforded by tenure — for direction.
We believe the junior faculty to be articulating an impressive and constructive vision of Oberlin’s future. Furthermore we agree with their assertion that a disproportionate burden of unrecognized labor will fall on their shoulders should expectations around teaching and advising increase, potentially at the expense of resources allocated towards faculty scholarship. Attaining tenure is an arduous process that depends heavily on research published and grants received; while junior faculty are just as passionate about developing strong relationships with students as their tenured colleagues, it is undeniable that their opportunity cost of doing so is higher.
Additionally, an increased reliance on visiting faculty would prompt major concerns about institutional stability, especially when it comes to advising and valuable professor-student relationships.
While a lot has changed since the junior faculty sent their letter in May, much of what they said at that time still rings true. We continue to fear that the student experience at Oberlin could be negatively impacted by an increased reliance on the temporary and exploited labor of junior faculty. We are also concerned by the long-term implications that such a callous regard for faculty labor would create.
Part of what gives us hope for Oberlin’s future is that our community is filled with people — faculty, staff, students, administrators, alumni — who care about identifying and correcting power dynamics in order to achieve more equitable outcomes.
The junior faculty have identified a significant and serious dynamic, which calls to action not only the administration but their senior colleagues as well. We hope both groups will listen well as we collectively seek a future for Oberlin that promotes growth, academic rigor, and equity on all levels.