Student letter urges department to place Powers on tenure track
Upon hearing that Prof. Jillian Powers (AMST) was uncertain whether she would be able to return to the University next year due to being hired on a one-year contract, Alexandra Shapiro ’18 began drafting a letter to administrators and the American Studies faculty chair calling for Powers to receive a tenure-track position. Now that letter, along with several post-script testimonials from Powers’ past students, has been distributed to other faculty and undergraduate departmental representatives. Shapiro will potentially contact the Brandeis Faculty Forward movement as well.
Powers is one of 101 contract faculty members as of Fall 2013, making up 29 percent of the University’s total faculty, according to statistics on the University website. Specifically, Powers’ job title is of a “lecturer,” making her one of 44 faculty delineated as “lecturers/artists-in-residence.”
Lecturers are faculty members on one to three-year-long contracts who are hired primarily to teach and advise students, according the Nov. 30, 2009 Contract Faculty Guidelines available through the Provost office. While different departments and schools have different policies about funding any research being conducted by lecturers, Powers stated in an email to the Justice that she personally does not receive “any institutional support for my scholarship.” Powers teaches six courses, including an experiential learning practicum, according to the University faculty guide. Powers’ scholarship focuses on “how the boundaries of belonging are defined and substantiated along racial, ethnic and national lines,” according to her email. She is currently writing a book about how Jewish, African and Chinese-Americans each hire tour guides to travel to their respective lands of ancestral origin: Israel, Ghana and China. According to Powers, this past spring she was named the 2015-2016 Berman Foundation Early Career Fellow due to her research for the book, and she is using this research as a springboard for a scheduled TEDx talk in March.
Powers is compensated at a lower rate than tenure-track faculty but does receive health benefits because she is a full-time lecturer, according to her email. She later clarified to the Justice that she came to the University as a Florence Kay Fellow — a postdoctoral teaching fellow on a two-year, non-renewable contract — three years ago. She was offered a one-year contract with “just over half time, (60%)” last year. Lecturers and artists-in-residence are the only contract faculty who can be hired on a yearly basis — all other positions in the University structure must be hired for at least three years. Full-time lecturers are generally hired after a nationwide search, according to the Contract Faculty Guidelines.
In her letter to administrators and Department Chair Prof. Thomas Doherty (AMST), Shapiro writes that “Professor Powers represents the current desires of Brandeis students as she gives voice to the marginalized and gives students of privilege the tools to find an end to structural oppression and systems of privilege. Her classrooms are legitimately diverse and provide white students with the tools to become accomplices in the movement for equality.”
In an interview with the Justice, Shapiro elaborated that “she’s the only person in the American studies department that specializes in race and ethnicity, and I think it’s kind of obvious that you can’t really talk about America without talking about race and ethnicity.”
The most common promotion for a lecturer is to senior lecturer, a position that includes three to five years-long contracts and possible additional compensation. However, senior lecturers are also employed only from contract to contract and primarily serve as teachers and student advisors. There is no procedure in the Contract Faculty Guidelines for promoting a lecturer to a tenure-track position.
Though she is not personally a member of Brandeis Faculty Forward — the organizing committee of adjunct and contract faculty pushing to create a union at Brandeis — Powers wrote to the Justice that she supports their efforts. There will most likely be a vote on the formation of a union sometime between now and Dec. 14, which Brandeis Faculty Forward hopes would represent both adjunct and contract faculty, according to a Nov. 10 Justice article. One of the topics of negotiation between the University and Faculty Forward representatives is the exact distinctions between various faculty, as well as the varying roles that lecturers and other contract professors serve across different departments and schools.
Several student movements have advocated recently for people of color to see increased representation in the University’s pedagogy; the Ford Hall 2015 movement, which ended on Tuesday, sought to increase black faculty to 10 percent of the University’s faculty and the Brandeis Asian American Task Force is currently calling on the University to create an Asian American Studies department. Powers is Puerto Rican, making her part of the five percent of University professors of Hispanic descent, according to 2013 data on the University’s website.
Shapiro told the Justice that she drafted her letter over Thanksgiving break and sought testimonials from Powers’ past students, including recent alumni. There are 28 signatories on the final letter. She initially sent the letter only to Doherty, Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren and Provost Irving Epstein. On Dec. 4 sent the letter to American Studies UDRs because “they are able to attend faculty meetings so it would kind of be on their radar, they’re students.” She is considering reaching out to Brandeis Faculty Forward and the Ford Hall 2015 and BAATF movements as well.
“If we look around at all the different things that are happening on this campus it’s clear that having an intersectional education is really key, and there aren’t enough spaces to learn to be a good accomplice,” Shapiro told the Justice. Powers also stated in her email that she had no hand in writing the letter and “I am still trying to figure out how I can adequately respond in a manner that can express my full thanks and gratitude to her work and the time students took to write such thoughtful, personal, and detailed testimonials … even if this is to be the final chapter of my academic career or my time at Brandeis, Alex’s letter has shown me that I have succeeded.”
Doherty declined to comment for this article due to its focus on personnel issues.