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Non-Tenure-Track Harvard Faculty Call For Appointment Extensions Due to COVID-19

University Hall, which sits at the center of Harvard Yard, is home to many administrative offices, including those of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard College.
University Hall, which sits at the center of Harvard Yard, is home to many administrative offices, including those of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard College. By Aiyana G. White
By James S. Bikales and Kevin R. Chen, Crimson Staff Writers

After Harvard offered many of its tenure-track faculty one-year contract extensions last week due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, several non-tenure-track faculty members argued the University should also extend the time caps on their appointments.

The University hires non-tenure-track faculty, such as preceptors and lecturers, with a "time cap" of three, five, or eight years. At the end of this period, the faculty are required to leave Harvard no matter the quality of their performance.

Several non-tenure-track faculty members said they are concerned about finding employment in the current academic job market — and about what the expiration of their appointments means for their benefits during a health crisis.

History and Literature lecturer Alex W. Corey expressed concern about finding a job, since a gap in employment would mean a gap in health insurance.

“I have chronic asthma, which makes me high risk for COVID-19,” Corey said. “When our term ends, that also means that our health insurance ends and routinely at the end of an appointment year. Folks have a break in between when their insurance coverage from Harvard ends and when it might start from a new employer.”

“The market was already very constricted, and it’s totally collapsing right now,” Corey added. “Springtime is usually a really important time for us to be seeking long term academic employment.”

Last May, 62 non-tenure-track faculty sent a letter to administrators calling for the end of appointment time caps.

Environmental Science and Public Policy preceptor Michaela J. Thompson said she feels the time caps amount to “effectively firing” preceptors and lecturers.

“Harvard needs to be realistic about what it’s doing when it’s timing people out,” Thompson said. “It's saying ‘you’re out of a job,’ and there are no other jobs for us.”

A growing list of universities, including Brown University and Villanova University, have announced freezes on hiring of faculty and staff due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Thompson added that, due to the pandemic, non-tenure-track faculty are unable to present papers and conduct library research that might have improved their chances of finding another job when they reach their appointment cap.

“We’re facing the same kind of struggles that all the tenure-track faculty are,” Thompson said.

Dean for Faculty Affairs and Planning Nina Zipser wrote in an emailed statement that FAS is “deeply grateful” for the work of non-tenure-track faculty.

“Lecturers and preceptors play a very important role in carrying out our teaching mission,” she wrote. “We are deeply grateful to these members of our community for all they are doing, particularly during this unprecedented and challenging time.”

Yiddish preceptor Sara Feldman said that if some non-tenure-track faculty’s time caps expire, that could separate students from instructors with whom they have relationships during an already stressful time.

“A lot of us are going to disappear in the fall, that’s just going to add to the disruption that students are already facing,” Feldman said. “All of the things that that person built to support their students, all those things are going to be gone.”

English and History and Literature lecturer Thomas A. Dichter ’08 — who said his appointment will expire June 30 — also denounced the “lack of stability” the time caps impose upon both non-tenure-track faculty and students.

“I have advisees I’ve been working with for years who I’m just never going to see again in- person,” Dichter said.

Dichter wrote in a follow-up email that he has felt supported by both departments he works in, but that decisions about time caps are made at a “higher level of FAS.”

FAS is currently studying the roles and responsibilities of preceptors and senior preceptors through its Preceptor System Review Committee, which is scheduled to submit a report to FAS Dean Claudine Gay by May. The committee canceled a March 10 meeting to solicit feedback from preceptors due to a University prohibition on large meetings during the outbreak.

Romance Languages and Literatures professor Diana Sorensen, who chairs the committee, wrote in an emailed statement that the committee is instead distributing a survey to gather relevant input, and expects to complete its report on time in May despite changes brought about by the virus.

Correction: March 28, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the length of Harvard's non-tenure track appointments. They are for one, three, or five years, with time caps of three, five, or eight years.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at kevin.chen@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.

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