Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Community Grapples With Non-Tenured Instructor Job Cuts At NAU

Melissa Sevigny

Tenured faculty once made up the majority of teachers at American universities. But over the last several decades, non-tenure-track jobs have been on the rise. Universities have come to rely heavily on a group of teachers called “lecturers” who work on short term contracts, and have much lower salaries than tenured professors. They often teach large lectures of freshmen and help young students navigate college life far beyond the classroom. But their positions are vulnerable, as the coronavirus pandemic made clear when universities began to cut budgets drastically. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports on more than 100 of those job losses at Northern Arizona University.

Audra Travelbee had her dream job. She was at the end of her fifth year as a Spanish teacher at NAU and was up for promotion. Then she got the news via a Zoom meeting. She’d been let go. “I feel like this is the end of my career,” she says, “because where am I going to find another job teaching? All universities are cutting back right now.”

Travelbee says non-tenure-track lecturers tend to teach more than tenured faculty, so they spend a lot of time with students. She believes they “give life” to the university. “You’re talking about people that are fairly early in their career, so a lot of them are really looking for ways to make their mark. They’re looking for projects to do, they’re looking for initiatives to start. They have a lot of energy.”

Non-tenure-track faculty typically work on yearly contracts that don’t have to be renewed when enrollment levels dip. A committee at NAU was making headway on a proposal for pay raises and multiyear contracts Then, the pandemic hit.   

More than 100 people showed up at Flagstaff City Hall for a recent protest of the job cuts. Cars honked their horns in support, and masked demonstrators waved signs criticizing the university’s decision, which left at least 114 people unemployed and within days of losing their health insurance.

Art history professor Alexandra Carpino came to support her colleagues who lost their jobs.  “The whole process, this whole month, I’ve been just sick to my stomach,” she says. “If anything we need teachers more than ever. Our students need stability, and the faculty provide that stability.”

Credit KNAU
Trends in NAU faculty jobs. The yellow line shows non-tenure-track positions. Data from NAU Fact Books.

NAU’s growing reliance on lecturers is part of a nationwide trend, and it comes down to money. Two decades ago, 80 percent of NAU’s operational budget came from the state. Now just 40 percent does. The rest comes from tuition dollars. Enrollment has swollen in that time from 20 to 30 thousand students, but the number of tenured faculty positons hasn’t changed. Instead hundreds of full-time lecturers and instructors have taken up the task of designing curriculum, teaching classes, and advising students.

Gioia Woods, humanities professor and president of the Faculty Senate, says, “Frankly the cost of non-tenure track labor is just so much cheaper. And it’s so unfortunate to my mind because these are some of the teachers who make the student experience, who make magic in the classroom, who help students persist.”

Public universities were already facing financial worries before the pandemic. At NAU enrollment dipped last year for the first time since 2005, resulting in a budget shortfall of millions of dollars. Experts expect a downward trend to continue because of lower birth rates, diminishing interest in a college education—and now, Woods says, growing concerns about the coronavirus.

“Let’s face it, nearly 40 million Americans are out of work,” Woods says, “and these are families who may think twice about using their last best dollar to send their kids to college. And students may we wanting to stay closer to home. So there’s a lot of financial insecurity out there.”

NAU administration told KNAU they were not ready to speak about specific enrollment projections for this story, but did tell departments campus wide to expect a 100 million dollar shortfall or more. A preliminary budget shows the university expects to save about 15 million dollars between the loss of instructors and furloughs or pay cuts for certain employees. Some departments advocated for deeper pay cuts to save non-tenure-track jobs. But at a recent Faculty Senate meeting Provost Diane Stearns said NAU can’t make the case to the state to pay teachers when there are fewer students to teach.

The College of Arts and Letters took the deepest hit, losing 35 lecturers. The College of Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences lost 23, including longtime geology lecturer Lisa Thompson, who taught a popular course in geologic disasters. “I’m very disappointed I can’t teach anymore, personally, because I loved doing it,” Thompson says. “But I know I’m going to be OK.” It’s her students she worried about, because so many of their formative college teachers are now gone.  

“I have friends in English, I have friends in Spanish, I have friends across campus, that were the safety net for young at-risk students who come into NAU as freshman, and then as sophomores, who don’t have their families, don’t have the support system that they need, and who really don’t have anyone to turn to but us,” Thompson says.

For NAU and many other universities, this financial upheaval is likely only the beginning of a long economic crisis. Arizona State University has not announced any budget decisions yet. The University of Arizona will furlough employees in response to an expected 250 million dollar shortfall. To date, public universities in at least eight other states have cut jobs in response to the pandemic.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
Related Content