Protecting academic rigor

Lawmaker wants long-term contracts for at-will faculty

Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

A state lawmaker is proposing legislation that would let colleges and universities give more job protection to at-will instructors, a group that some say are particularly susceptible to outside political pressures and “popularity contests” among students.


An increasing number of university courses are being taught not by tenured professors, but by non-tenure-track faculty who are generally paid less and can be fired for almost any reason. Tenure was created in part to protect the “marketplace of ideas” from outside influence — faculty charged with creating new knowledge and testing theories shouldn’t be subjected to political pressures that might affect their employment or their findings. When a non-tenure-track faculty member is fired for what is perceived to be political reasons, it can create a chilling effect that causes other at-will instructors to rein in views that might be controversial. And evaluations of non-tenure-track faculty tend to be heavily reliant on student assessments, which can encourage instructors to give high marks so that students will return the favor.

Rep. Randy Fischer (D-Fort Collins) says the increasing reliance on non-tenure-track instructors is not good for education. He is introducing a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would let state colleges and universities give at-will instructors, or “contingent” faculty, renewable five-year employment contracts. (His bill stipulates that such contracts can be terminated if the institution can demonstrate that financial hardship justifies it.)

“If we’re going to rely on them, they should at least be afforded some due process rights and the academic freedom that other categories of employees have in the state,” Fischer says.

Fischer agrees with the findings of reports issued on Nov. 1 by the Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) regarding the termination of two CU faculty members: senior instructor Phil Mitchell and professor Ward Churchill. While the Churchill case involved the firing of a tenured professor with radical leftist views who wrote a controversial essay and was later found guilty of research misconduct, the Mitchell case involved an at-will senior instructor who claimed that his appointment was not renewed because of his ultra-conservative religious and political views. The AAUP reports recommend that “faculty in search of employment consider a position at the University of Colorado only as a last resort because of the University of Colorado’s indifference to the ideals of academic freedom.”

Fischer says his bill is not aimed at the Churchill decision or expanding tenure.

“I’m hoping we can keep those issues separate,” he says. “All I’m trying to do here is provide a mechanism whereby colleges and universities can keep and retain and reward appropriately their contingent faculty, who are really becoming the workhorses of the academic environment.”

He says his primary concern revolves around the impact of student evaluations on non-tenure-track faculty.

“They really are in a unique employment category, in that they are subject to kind of a popularity contest among the students,” Fischer says. “If their coursework is deemed to be too rigorous, for example, I’ve heard of faculty members being dismissed because students thought they were having to work too hard. That’s an academic freedom issue that I think is something that’s kind of a sad commentary on our education system.

“The folks becoming the majority of the faculty members on university campuses need to have some academic freedom rights to be able to do their jobs, hold students accountable, have rigorous curricula and maintain the standards of excellence in their universities and colleges,” he adds. “Is the administration going to support a faculty member who holds their students to high standards?” Fischer stresses that his bill is “totally permissive” — in other words, it doesn’t dictate that colleges and universities must offer five-year contracts, it simply gives them the option to do so.

Don Eron, a senior instructor at CU who was the lead author of the AAUP reports, says he’s not optimistic that CU officials will support the legislation, because it would take away their standard excuse for not increasing job security and academic freedom for at-will instructors, which is that state law does not allow it.

Fischer says CU officials have not committed to endorsing — or even not opposing — his bill, but he has received positive signs that the CSU administration will not oppose the legislation.

He says colleges and universities had a telling reaction to a bill he carried unsuccessfully last year that would have simply required them to provide fired at-will faculty with a written statement about the reason for termination.

“Even that was met with almost unanimous opposition from the higher education community,” he says, adding that higher ed officials were concerned it would “open the door to a flood of wrongful termination lawsuits.”

CU spokesperson Ken McConnellogue told Boulder Weekly that CU officials have not yet reviewed Fischer’s legislation and may not have a position on it until after the session starts on Jan. 11.