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In Flux: Non-Ladder Life at Harvard

For lecturers, Harvard can be a pit stop riddled with job insecurity and uncertainty for what comes next

By Karl M. Aspelund and Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writers

They come to Harvard as new Ph.D.s, as researchers paid to teach but who hope to use Harvard’s resources to advance their academic careers. They come as curators and administrators, scientists and artists, but work extra jobs on the side. They come as spouses, seeking academic work while relocating for a partner who received a faculty position here.

For Harvard’s non-ladder faculty, rarely is there a single or obvious path into the University’s gates, nor is there a clear path out.

Today, there are 295 full-time non-ladder faculty—the teachers not on Harvard’s tenure track—within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, while there are 726 ladder faculty members. They can hold one of 11 formally non-ladder positions, from lectureships that can expire after just one year to what are essentially indefinite positions for some professors of the practice.

Other Harvard schools—like the Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government—use the term “adjunct” to describe the instructors that take on similar positions in their programs. And in recent months, adjunct faculties at universities both within Cambridge and across the nation have moved to unionize, garnering attention with their demands for workplace rights for part-time instructors.

FAS administrators, though, maintain that their non-ladder faculty are not adjuncts, or part-time or “contingent” instructors, and instead are unique instructors who play a vital role in teaching undergraduates and in the FAS community, even if they are hired solely to replace ladder faculty in some courses. Moreover, they have access to certain University resources and are eligible for contractual benefits that many adjunct faculties elsewhere are not.

But some groups within FAS’s non-ladder faculty closely resemble adjuncts at other universities. Their similarities may be less obvious within FAS given its broad definition of non-ladder faculty, which includes wide disparity in pay, job security, and voice within the school. Even more, some charge that administrators do not give enough attention to the issues that concern them.

“In three years that I’ve been here, I’ve never had any dean or somebody who can affect the conditions of my work or my salary or my teaching sit with me or sit with all of us and have a discussion,” said Ezer Vierba, a History and Literature lecturer.

And to Alison Denton Jones, a Social Studies lecturer, the difference in terminology is just semantics.

“It’s not a term Harvard uses because, like everything else, they have their own term for everything,” said Jones, who often referred to herself as an adjunct. Jones, who says her life at Harvard is “convenient” but often stressful, is not sure what she will do once her contract here expires, since she has not yet been able to find a permanent job at any university.

Included in a large and disparate group of non-ladder faculty within FAS, lecturers face the daily stresses of job instability, uncertainty for their futures, and a lack of career support as many aspire to remain in academia, but as ladder faculty. Theirs is a transient population that serves Harvard in its educational mission, but individual lecturers say they often feel marginalized while they are here but unprepared to leave.


According to the 2013-2014 FAS Appointment and Promotion Handbook, there are 11 categories of non-ladder faculty within FAS, ranging from senior lecturers to the recently-created position of College fellow. In their roles as teachers, these faculty provide a vital service—one to which FAS’s ladder faculty often lack time to contribute.

Non-ladder faculty teach about 34 percent of the College’s enrollments, according to Michael D. Smith, the dean of FAS. And they are often considered better teachers than their ladder faculty counterparts.

“A lot of professors at high-ranking universities are actually poor teachers,” said Cris Cecka, a former lecturer at the new Institute for Applied Computational Science who recently left for another job in California. “I don’t think that’s anything new. That’s been around for along time. Professor and people in academia are taught to do research and think about big ideas and not trained to teach.”

All categories of non-ladder faculty members received, on average, higher teaching evaluations on the Q Guide than full professors, according to a 2009 internal report on non-ladder faculty in FAS.

"They are the bedrock of some of our teaching programs," History professor Maya R. Jasanoff '96 said.

At FAS, many non-ladder faculty are hired explicitly and singularly to teach, which sets them apart from ladder faculty, who are also expected to research, advise, and do committee work. According to the 2009 report, the school uses non-ladder faculty to “deploy its resources and instructors to their best comparative advantage.” The majority of Expository Writing and language preceptors are non-ladder faculty, and concentrations like History and Literature and Social Studies rely almost wholly on part- and full-time lecturers to teach their students.

“They are the bedrock of some of our teaching programs,” History professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96 said of non-ladder faculty members.


Many non-ladder faculty are brought to Harvard for one reason—to teach—but some say that it can be difficult to fulfill that responsibility as they grapple with uncertainty, often second-class to Harvard’s ladder faculty.

Non-ladder faculty members—especially lecturers on short-term fixed contracts that can last as little as one year—often teach courses when professors are on sabbatical or temporarily fill in after faculty members leave and FAS looks for full-time replacements.

As a result, their job security is almost always in flux. Non-ladder instructors’ contracts might not be renewed when ladder faculty members with similar areas of expertise are hired or return from leave. The problem is especially acute in departments with few faculty members who are not on the tenure track.

Although Jones said she has not ever been replaced by a ladder faculty member, if someone who similarly teaches on social movements were hired, she could be. And the problem is not as acute in Social Studies—where most instructors are in fact lecturers—as in other departments with more professors.

“If they should hire one of these joint track [faculty] members who teaches what I teach, then they won't need me anymore, and it won't be because of anything I did,” she said.

And while non-ladder faculty members’ contracts are often subject to the whims of students and faculty, their teaching experiences for the duration of their employment at Harvard are similarly out of their hands. Professors have priority in terms of course choices, non-ladder faculty members say. Even if a lecturer has worked on the subject, they probably will not teach that subject if a ladder faculty member has designed another course on that topic.


Though Smith says that “we expect them to be members of our community,” lecturers, brought to Harvard for an uncertain measure of time, navigate life inside Harvard oftentimes without the sense of belonging that the school’s less transient members come to enjoy.

For his part, Vierba, the History and Literature lecturer, said he and his non-ladder peers feel “marginalized” because they think that ladder faculty and administrators rarely ask for their input.

Indeed, regular lecturers and preceptors—two of the formal positions FAS categorizes as non-ladder—do not have voting power at FAS’s monthly meetings, where ladder faculty and a select few others meet to discuss and change programs and policies, like General Education and sexual harassment procedures, that affect the school.

Vierba—who shares an undecorated and cramped office in the basement of the Barker Center with three other lecturers—said he feels that FAS does not ask for his and his peers’ opinions and that their scholarship often goes unnoticed. “In those ways we’re marginalized,” he said.

Smith, the FAS dean, said individual departments can include instructors in their own internal discussions. “I tell individual departments, ‘It’s entirely up to you, but I have no problem at all if you include your non-ladder important teaching faculty in departmental discussions and departmental meetings,’” Smith said. “But then it becomes very departmental specific.”

Still, within FAS, non-ladder faculty members especially feel the presence and pressures of academic hierarchies. “It’s a weird thing, having all the kind of power and responsibility of faculty without the privilege,” said Cecka, the former Institute for Applied Computational Science lecturer. “It’s something I don’t fully understand.”

And often, undergraduates do not understand those hierarchies, which can sometimes make lecturers feel uncomfortable trying to explain the difference. According to Peter Verovšek, a lecturer on Social Studies, lecturers feel the impact of their positions when students ask them to write letters of recommendation—“I unfortunately think that a letter from a lecturer or a glorified post doc just does not mean as much when students are applying to very prestigious things,” he said—and even when they receive their emails.

“There’s always the awkward moment at the beginning of the semester where students write to you and say, ‘Dear Professor Verovšek,’ and we’re not,” said Peter Verovšek said. “I think students automatically think that if someone’s teaching at Harvard they're a professor.”

"It's a weird thing, having all the kind of power and responsibility of faculty without the privilege," said Cris Cecka, a former lecturer at the new Institute for Applied Computational Science. "It's something I don't fully understand."

“They feel like second class citizens, and that’s unfortunate,” Graduate School of Education professor Howard E. Gardner ’65 said. “Not all of them do, but even when they're beloved by students and faculty, they feel second class because they don’t have that name professor in front of them.”

Still, non-ladder faculty acknowledge that their situations at Harvard are generally better than other adjuncts around the nation, who often do not have access to resources like those at Harvard. “There are a lot of us who would be perfectly happy to do this indefinitely, and not have to timeout,” Jones said.


No matter their experiences, many non-ladder faculty members at the lower end of the pay scale do not feel they could stay in those positions forever—that is not how they are designed. Given that reality, some feel that FAS could better prepare them for the transition into new jobs, especially for careers in academia, once they end their stays here.

Lecturers, aiming for tenure track positions later in their careers, feel pressure to research; in order to be considered for those jobs, they must churn out research and publications—crucial for a potential faculty portfolio.

“We have to convert our dissertations into books, we have to write more articles,” Vierba said, “and the University acknowledges that in that we have full privileges like other faculty to use the Harvard libraries and to do research.”

But lectureships often provide little, if any, financial compensation for research or to attend conferences, whereas ladder faculty position might offer more. Vierba said he receives only $650 in research funds each year.

The issue of funding surfaces elsewhere as lecturers attempt to establish themselves in the academic community. Lecturers recount stories where conference planners expressed surprise that a lecturer from Harvard could not attend due to financial constraints.

“I found myself flying to Panama for a week between classes—Panama is where I do my research—and that does not cover the conference I have to go to,” Vierba said.

Some lecturers seek to relieve their financial constraints by taking paid positions as research assistants, functioning effectively like postdoctoral positions. Smith, meanwhile, said individuals can seek out a variety of positions that fit their academic goals, especially if they want resources to pursue research.

Smith cited the Harvard College Fellows Program as an important effort to ease the transition into a ladder faculty position. Departments seek applications for fellows with specific academic interests so they can teach in a specific academic interest with research support. About half the non-ladder faculty hires since 2009 has been through the program, he said, indicating more support for non-ladder faculty in their transition.

Still, for many non-ladder faculty members, finding time for other scholarly pursuits can be difficult when they are consumed by their teaching duties. As such, the stresses and instability of life as a non-ladder faculty member can force aspiring professors to give up on their academic careers entirely or to concede that their time at Harvard has not adequately prepared them to move forward in academia.

Indeed, non-ladder faculty members worry that a ladder position becomes more and more out of reach, as lecturers become consumed by teaching and do not have the time to research, Vierba said.

“We tend to do a lot of teaching and advising,” Verovšek said. “That’s great for students, but the problem is when you’re searching for other jobs...they’re really looking for research output.”

“The things I think that we're called to do and the things I think a lot of us enjoy doing are not, I think, the things that are then going to help us to get a permanent position necessarily later,” he added.

Jones said that after her contract with Social Studies expires, she thinks she may leave academia.

“There haven't been that many jobs over the years that have been a good fit for me, and I don’t have the publication record to easily get any job,” Jones said.

She began working at Harvard as a College Fellow and had expected her position to be renewed. But it was not, and instead Harvard offered her a part-time lecture position teaching two classes. Jones said she could not have feasibly taken that offer if her family did not have other sources of income, but luckily, her husband had a stable job then.

“It was a good thing,” Jones said. “But if I had known in advance...that isn’t what I would have chosen.”

—Staff writer Karl M. Aspelund can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kma_crimson.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.

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