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Smith College hiring freeze prompts petition on behalf of non-tenured faculty 

  • The Grecourt Gates of Smith College on Elm Street in Northampton. KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2020 10:33:12 AM
Modified: 4/9/2020 10:33:00 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Some in the Smith College community are petitioning to expand protections for non-tenured faculty after the college announced that it will enact a hiring freeze due to economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The petition calls for Smith College President Kathleen McCartney, the Office of the Provost and the Board of Trustees to extend appointments and respective benefits to all non-tenured faculty by at least a year; and to “honor all verbal, email and informal agreements for employment for the 2020-2021 academic year.”

Non-tenured, or “contingent,” faculty includes non-tenured faculty such as visiting assistant professors; lecturers and senior lecturers; salaried, paid-per-course and short-notice hires; teaching assistants; lab instructors; and postdoctoral fellows. Contingent employees comprise around 50% of Smith College faculty, according to the petitioners.

As of Thursday morning, the petition had almost 1,800 signatures.

On Friday, McCartney announced via email that due to the COVID-19 crisis and its economic impact on Smith, the college will implement a hiring freeze, with the exception of “a small number of essential positions,” among other spending restrictions.

The college’s current fiscal year operating budget has taken an $8 million to $10 million hit so far due to “lost revenue and unanticipated expenses,” McCartney wrote, though she also said that the college remains in “a strong financial position.”

The college did not specify the effect that the hiring freeze will have on non-tenured faculty, but for those employees the order is cause for anxiety. 

Tian An Wong, a visiting assistant professor at Smith College, is concerned the hiring freeze will guarantee that the college does not grant a renewal of Wong’s one-year position, which would come along with a loss of health insurance coverage after June 30.

In an email to the Gazette, Wong said that the petition “gives Smith the chance to reconsider the unequal treatment of its faculty members.”

Vanessa Adel, a part-time, non-tenured faculty member in the sociology department, said that the position she was offered for the 2020-2021 academic year is now in limbo due to the hiring freeze. Because contracts are not typically sent out until later in the spring semester, Adel said via email, she has not yet signed a contract for the offered position, and “it is very unclear what will happen” with that offer.

“Given the College’s demand that departments reorganize their course offerings, it is very likely that my job offer will be rescinded,” Adel added.

Adel, who has taught on and off through one-year contracts at Smith since 2007, said that contingent employees are in a particularly precarious position amid the hiring freeze — in addition to losing income and health insurance, she said, the fact that other colleges are also implementing hiring freezes limits opportunities to be hired elsewhere.

“Smith has the funds to honor their commitments,” Adel said, “and to follow through on its stated values to ‘create global citizens committed to participating in the communities in which they live and to stewarding the resources that sustain them.’”

When reached for comment on Tuesday, college spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel directed the Gazette to the college’s FAQ webpage and the letter from McCartney.

Under the employee guidance section of this page, the college states that “there will be no changes to college benefit plans” but does not specifically address the hiring freeze.

The petition also has gained support from non-contingent faculty, such as Erin Pineda, an assistant professor of government at Smith.

“I think in a lot of ways, Smith has responded to the current situation with a lot of thoughtfulness and generosity and clarity for a lot of the categories of people in the community,” Pineda said, referencing junior faculty members and students, among others.

“I would like to see that same thoughtfulness and clarity extended to contingent faculty as well,” she said, adding that these faculty members are “a huge and vital part” of the Smith community.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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