When Michaela J. Thompson saw the listing for a new preceptor position in Harvard’s Environmental Science and Public Policy department in early 2018, she jumped to apply.
“It was almost a no-brainer for me to know that this was exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. A Harvard Kennedy School postdoctoral researcher at the time, Thompson studied marine conservation and sustainability. She also loved to teach — she had been a teaching assistant in several Harvard History of Science and ESPP courses for five years.
Three years later, Thompson still loves her job. As the only preceptor in a small department — usually fewer than 20 students per graduating class — she gets to know each of her students personally. She helps them write their senior theses and capstone projects and speaks to faculty advisors about what they want students to take away from the program, which has been “incredible” and “rewarding,” she says.
Yet Thompson goes to work knowing her days here are numbered. No matter how hard she works or how well she does, she will be forced to leave Harvard permanently at the end of this term. She’s timing out.
Like all non-tenure-track faculty in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences —a category that includes College Fellows, Lecturers, and Preceptors — Thompson has a nonrenewable, time-capped appointment. For preceptors like Thompson, who provide specific language or skill-oriented instruction, that term is typically eight years, while for lecturers, who serve as more generalized course heads, the term lasts for three years.
But to Thompson, her imminent leave feels even more premature. Her five years as a teaching assistant are counted towards her eight-year preceptor time cap, even as her salary and responsibilities back then were vastly different from those of her current role.
The stress of searching for and applying to a new job adds to Thompson’s already full schedule as a preceptor, which requires her to spend most of the day teaching and conducting independent research. And Harvard has not made support easily accessible, she says. The most training — pedagogical or administrative — Thompson received was during faculty orientation, when she was shown how to use an online polling program she already knew.
Harvard promises its students the prowess of a research university with the close attention of a liberal arts college. Tenure-track faculty are appointed to focus on research, while non-tenure-track faculty typically engage more closely with students in everyday teaching and grading, particularly in foreign language, mathematics, and the Expository Writing classes all students are required to take. It’s a division of labor that ostensibly benefits everyone.
Yet, according to many non-tenure-track faculty, the University invests disproportionately more in the former group while neglecting the latter — denying lecturers and preceptors job security, opportunities for independent research, and a voice in decision-making. This approach, they claim, undermines the quality of Harvard’s teaching as well as the well-being of its teachers.
“Who is this good for?” asks Thompson, who, alongside her colleagues, has repeatedly spoken out against Harvard’s “counterproductive habit of automatically firing valued instructors.” Thus far, the University has refused to make changes in response to their petitions and protests, and the disparity between tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty remains a persistent issue among universities across the country.
“Harvard has the opportunity here to really show the rest of academia, ‘This is how you respectfully treat non-tenure-track faculty,’” Thompson says.
A Ticking Clock
Often fresh out of a Ph.D., newly-hired non-tenure-track faculty are flush with the excitement of teaching eager and bright students and coming to such a prestigious and resource-rich institution as Harvard.
“I’m like a child whenever I go to Widener,” says Persian language preceptor Mojtaba Ebrahimian, who came to Harvard last September. “I needed this book for the last three years, and here I finally have it.”
As he looks around at his spacious office, his new computer bought by the department, the many borrowed books on the shelves, and the ample supply of face masks nearby, Ebrahimian beams.
“These [amenities] may be small things for people coming from Ivy League institutions, but I have the background coming from the University of Arizona and the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” he says. “I see these things, and I really appreciate it.”
Ebrahimian comes from a family of teachers and fell in love with the profession at a young age. It was the unique combination of an emphasis on teaching with a vast amount of available resources in the Harvard Libraries that then drew him to apply for a preceptor position.
Other preceptors and lecturers interviewed for this article echoed his sentiments when describing what attracted them to the job. “I realized in the course of my Ph.D. that as much as I was excited by my research topic, I probably derive most of my energy from the communal aspect of intellectual life, and teaching was where I found it most,” says Expos preceptor Lusia A. Zaitseva.
But over the course of their time at Harvard, as semesters pass and the term limit looms large on the horizon, many of these faculty begin to question whether the benefits are enough to outweigh the instability of their time-capped appointments.
“Non-ladder faculty are dedicated and creative instructors who play vital roles in the teaching of Harvard undergraduates,” wrote FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane in an emailed statement. “When non-ladder faculty are hired, the terms of their employment and contract length are disclosed.”
When questioned by non-tenure-track faculty, Harvard has claimed the time cap system is necessary to ensure a constant stream of “novel pedagogical techniques.” A 2018 report by the FAS Advisory Committee to Review the Lecturer/Senior Lecturer System concluded that “in fields which are constantly evolving … or else where students’ intellectual interests continually change and require different areas of faculty expertise … the ability to regularly turn over teaching staff at the non-ladder level serves an essential educational purpose.”
But while many non-tenure-track faculty agree that relevance is a worthy goal, they are skeptical of a system that so heavily values novelty over retaining experienced instructors. They argue that over multiple semesters of teaching, they learn the pedagogical techniques that work best in the classroom — expertise that Harvard loses when these faculty inevitably leave.
A teacher who stays for the long term also benefits students in less tangible ways. When students are deciding what courses to take, familiarity with a long-time instructor’s teaching style can make all the difference to students’ comfort in the classroom. This is particularly key in language classes, where gaining fluency depends on building confidence.
“From the first week, I had this idea of what I would be getting into,” Ričards Umbrasko ’25 — who plans to earn a citation in Russian — says of his Russian language class. “I knew the teaching methods and the approach to language learning would stay the same, so I wouldn’t feel like I was out of place.”
Firing the “most experienced teachers” is disrupting students’ education, not improving it, says Expos preceptor Ben Roth.
“Set aside what’s good for us — why does Harvard think it’s good for Harvard?” Roth asks. “Why does Harvard think it’s good for Harvard undergraduate students?”
Even if novelty remains the priority for the University, Roth argues, there are other ways to pursue it, like regularly evaluating teaching performance instead of assuming that existing faculty can’t keep up with the times.
But Harvard has not changed its stance on this issue for over a decade, continually maintaining the conclusion the FAS Advisory Committee on Non-Ladder Appointments reached back in 2009: “many of the teaching functions held by non-ladder faculty are highly demanding and require regeneration that brings in fresh ideas, new talent, and the most recent pedagogical techniques.”
The only way for non-tenure-track faculty to prolong their term is to take on more administrative responsibilities either as a senior lecturer or senior preceptor. These roles are highly competitive, with renewable terms reserved only for those who have the “scholarly achievement of a tenured associate or full professor,” according to the FAS handbook. Some senior lecturers and preceptors appreciate that this route gives them stable employment without the stress of applying for tenure.
But not all non-tenure-track faculty want to become administrators. Many want to continue doing what initially attracted them to their jobs — teaching — and feel this path makes little sense for them. Nor does it seem to make sense for the University to turn some of its most accomplished scholars into administrators.
“The system is built to almost punish people who really care about the profession,” says Molecular and Cellular Biology preceptor Jessica Liu. “It just seems counterintuitive.”
The Double Burden — Present Duties, Future Planning
While most lecturers and preceptors describe having positive experiences with colleagues within their own departments, many feel that their contributions go underappreciated and unrecognized within the University-wide faculty community.
In Expos preceptor Willa H. Brown’s experience, some tenured and tenure-track faculty completely misunderstand the requirements of a non-tenure-track position. “I’ve had these conversations with faculty where they say, ‘Oh, do you need a master’s for that job, or did you get it right out of undergrad?’” Brown, like most of the other Expos preceptors, holds a Ph.D.
Brown believes this misunderstanding stems from the Harvard administration’s understanding of non-tenure-track faculty. “I don’t blame the professors,” she says. “I think they are told [by the University] that we are like glorified TFs.”
To many tenure-track faculty at Harvard, Government lecturer and Expos preceptor Sparsha Saha says, “there is this perception that you’re a failed academic” if you only pursue teaching.
Indeed, the day-to-day reality of Harvard’s non-tenure-track faculty is a reflection of Harvard’s divided educational philosophy, one that prioritizes supporting research over supporting teaching. Only through ground-breaking research can faculty bolster the Harvard “brand,” taking on the moniker “Harvard researcher” when their discoveries garner press coverage.
Accordingly, tenured and tenure-track faculty are expected to spend much of their time in the lab and library rather than the classroom. Liu finds that as a result, tenure-track faculty often lack “the time or the bandwidth to read about the latest research on education or pedagogy” that she stays up-to-date on as a preceptor. “In my experience, even when you try to share it with them, they don’t think it’s important, or they’re too scared to try because they’re so used to their comfort zone,” she says.
In other words, tenure-track faculty are not incentivized to develop, and sometimes even actively resist, the “most recent pedagogical techniques” Harvard claims it values. Though the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning offers skill development workshops to all faculty, they must proactively seek out these resources themselves. It is up to non-tenure-track faculty, then, to fill the teaching gap. In some ways, this policy grants them more latitude; for example, lecturers serve as “course heads for courses that would otherwise be taught by tenure-track or tenured faculty,” the FAS handbook says. Harvard claims this prepares its non-tenure-track faculty to pursue similar teaching-centered roles at similar institutions after their terms here end.
Non-tenure-track faculty, however, contest that these “teaching-only” positions even exist elsewhere.
“When Harvard says they’re preparing us for the ‘teaching track,’ in reality, all that could actually mean is they’re okay if we go on to adjunct jobs that don’t pay a living wage and don’t give us health insurance,” Roth says. “Those are the teaching jobs that are out there.”
Given these poor prospects, many lecturers and preceptors wish to break out of the cycle of job insecurity and apply for more stable tenure-track positions after Harvard. However, the growth of non-tenure-track positions has significantly outpaced the growth of tenure-track roles. Over the past 25 years, the percentage of faculty with tenure at schools with a tenure system has declined from 56 percent to 45 percent. This intense competition has created what Roth calls a “publication arms race” in which faculty are expected to have extensive research experience to even be considered for a tenure-track position.
Some non-tenure-track faculty manage to balance their current teaching responsibilities with pursuing research to prepare for future job applications. Vikrant Dadawala, a lecturer in the History and Literature department, estimates that he spends two days a week conducting research in addition to his teaching load. But for others, these competing interests take their toll. Saha says she often finds herself doing research late at night or on the weekends due to her teaching responsibilities.
“Every once in a while one of my colleagues publishes a book, and that’s a miracle that they found the time, in addition to their teaching, to make progress with that,” Roth adds.
Exacerbating these time constraints, non-tenure-track faculty say, is the lack of institutional support given to them for research. The few funds available to non-tenure-track faculty for summer work and conference travel were discontinued last year due to pandemic budget cuts, according to Brown.
Lecturers, preceptors, and senior preceptors cannot be the principal investigator, or lead researcher, on their own research projects unless they have explicit approval from divisional administrators. “Every time I want to do research, if I have a research project, I have to go around begging tenure-track [faculty],” Saha says. “I’ve missed grant deadlines; I’ve missed things because I’ve had people say no.”
Many non-tenure-track faculty are passionate about their research projects and would love to pursue them — if only Harvard would give them the time and funding they require. Rather than competing with or distracting from their teaching responsibilities, these faculty say, the two could actually complement each other.
“I’m teaching my research,” says Chemistry lecturer Khaled Abdelazim of his lab-intensive course Chemistry 165: “Experimental Physical Chemistry.”
“When I go to the students, I honestly just transfer the knowledge I’ve learned from the lab,” he says.
The Expos program — a required college writing course for freshmen — also demonstrates how these pursuits can overlap. Despite the University’s expectation that Expos preceptors are focused on teaching writing skills, they recruit program faculty with a diverse array of research experience — and Expos faculty report that they draw on that expertise for the classroom.
For instance, Roth incorporates his philosophy research experience while teaching Expos 20 courses like “Existentialism” and “Philosophical Films.”
“Who thinks you can teach one in the absence of the other?” he says.
The impermanence of a non-tenure-track position affects not only faculty members’ careers but also the life decisions they must make because they lack stable employment.
“If you want to pursue this career track, you have to put everything second to that,” Brown says. Non-tenure-track faculty often delay starting families and put relationships on hold, she says, not wanting to “settle” in a place where they can only stay for a few years.
Many of Harvard’s support programs for tenure-track faculty exclude their non-tenure-track counterparts. Tenure-track faculty have access to Harvard-owned, income-controlled housing, allowing them an easier entry into the city with the 12th most expensive average home price in the United States. Only a portion of non-tenure-track faculty receive such aid. All but senior lecturers and preceptors lack access to Harvard’s ACCESS Program, which provides ladder faculty with priority enrollment and scholarships to campus childcare centers.
These policies, Brown notes, push out marginalized non-tenure-track faculty members in particular. “We say we want a really diverse faculty — well, you can’t then pay something that only allows people to take the job if they have generational wealth,” she says. “The fact that I don’t have debt is why I can live to a nice standard in Boston, and that is sheer privilege.”
In her statement, Dane wrote that “tenure-track positions and non-ladder faculty positions have different responsibilities — and the roles are paid commensurate with those responsibilities.” She notes that the minimum salary for lecturers and preceptors has risen by 18 percent since 2019.
Still, many non-tenure-track faculty members end up pursuing additional part-time work to make ends meet. Saha teaches classes at Harvard’s Extension School for additional income,“a very common model for non-tenure-track folks at Harvard,” she says. However, these extra teaching commitments, when added to an already teaching-heavy workload, take further time away from the few hours faculty have for research and job applications.
For Thompson, this means continuing to teach in the summer to keep up with Boston’s high rent and living costs. “There's a lot of burning the candle at both ends,” she says.
The burdens faced by non-tenure-track faculty are now taking place against the backdrop of the pandemic. Over the past two years, an already shrinking market has taken a nosedive, with decreased funding, hiring freezes, and layoffs hitting academic departments across the United States.
The teaching-focused nature of non-tenure-track positions reinforce the difficulty of finding a job after Harvard, which sets off a vicious cycle. Because of how few positions are available in academia, it is now common for faculty to stay the full length of their term, during which they concentrate on teaching. But because they are unable to focus on their research for increasingly longer periods of time, they become less attractive in the job market and remain in less stable, non-tenure-track roles.
“I moved here thinking this would be a few years and I would find the right fit somewhere [else], and that never really happened,” says Saha.
The Long Road to Reform
Changing this system is possible — many of these challenges of job stability faced by non-tenure-track faculty were previously shouldered by Harvard’s “junior faculty” — now called tenure-track faculty.
When Andrew H. Knoll was applying for a junior faculty position at Harvard in the early ’80s, his interviewer said to him, “I don’t know why you’re applying for this position. You’ll never get tenure.” Today, Knoll is a professor in Harvard’s Natural History and Earth and Planetary Sciences departments.
In the early 2000s, Harvard restructured its tenure system to reduce appointments from other schools in favor of more internally appointed professorships from its own junior faculty.
According to Knoll, departments now seek to hire promising young researchers and pair them with senior mentors that will provide them with resources and help them grow in their teaching and research capabilities; so long as they continue to maintain a high caliber of work, tenure-track assistant professors can expect to become associate and then tenured professors.
Thanks to these reforms, Knoll says, assistant professors “are not just ornaments at faculty meetings; they are valued colleagues and everyone wants to hear their opinions.”
As the reform of Harvard’s tenure system demonstrates, changes to faculty policies are indeed possible. However, the University has refused to make similar adjustments to its non-tenure-track policies. And given that they are not voting members of the faculty, non-tenure-track instructors have little say in decisions concerning either their own jobs or their students’ education.
In 2020, Harvard extended appointments and tenure review timelines for many tenure-track faculty as a result of the pandemic. A widely circulated petition received more than a thousand supporters calling for Harvard to also extend the non-tenure-track faculty time caps by at least one year due to the challenges of remote teaching. The University did not grant this extension.
Harvard maintained its term limit policies for a third time in spring 2021, when it shared with preceptors a report reviewing their role. The report reaffirmed the time cap system requiring preceptors to leave at the end of their eight-year term regardless of performance. The committee that wrote the report did not contain any non-tenure-track faculty, nor did it have any direct conversations with them. According to Dane, the FAS had originally scheduled an in-person meeting for preceptors and lecturers to give feedback to the committee, but when the pandemic forced campus operations to go remote, the in-person meeting was replaced with a survey. According to Roth, the survey was only returned by roughly a third of the group.
For Roth, this “insulting” and “incompetent” report marked a turning point in his time at Harvard. His frustrations motivated him to publish an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education last March. “[Harvard] all but admits that it is exploiting us, burning through our teaching energy and good will, because it can discard us, replacing us with the next generation of eager new Ph.D.s who will keep it running,” he wrote.
Roth notes that his willingness to air his grievances stems from the certainty of his termination at the end of the next academic year: He feels he has “absolutely nothing to lose.” In contrast, he believes many non-tenure-track faculty are afraid to say anything and risk losing one of the few renewals they are offered.
Roth believes his arc from excited to disillusioned is “fairly representative” of the non-tenure-track faculty experience. “It takes you a few years to even realize that the conditions are exploitative,” he says.
An Uncertain Future
Caught in between an industry with little room for them, an institution that they say neglects their concerns, and their passion for their jobs, many non-tenure-track faculty are uncertain about what comes next for both their careers and personal lives.
“Do I stay through the fall and keep the institutional affiliation, and try once more [for a job in academia]?” says Brown, who is almost seven years into her preceptor term. “Or do I swallow my pride and say, ‘I gave it a good whack, I wrote a book, I taught at Harvard, and I got my Ph.D., and it’s time to go start a new career’?”
Yet they do not have the luxury of putting off plans for a later day. From the moment non-tenure-track faculty arrive at Harvard, their eventual departure is one of the few certainties in their future. In this unstable situation, they must therefore try to determine their next steps.
For Roth, who was recently diagnosed with diabetes, finding new employment to cover the cost of his healthcare is a constant concern. “It’s basically essential that I now have health insurance for the rest of my life,” he says. “I know that Harvard’s going to fire me and take away my health insurance a year and a half from now.”
Some have decided that the only viable path forward is something they hadn’t considered when they started their Ph.D.s: to leave academia altogether. Zaitseva is one of these people. “I thought really pragmatically about the life I wanted to have — it’s not possible on a Harvard paycheck, in a non-tenure-track position,” she says. She is considering transitioning after her preceptor term ends in 2025 to a career in web development, where her job prospects look significantly better.
“It’s turned out to be much easier in the outside world,” she says.
— Magazine writer Felicia Y. Ho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @HoPanda007.
— Magazine writer Tess C. Kelley can be reached at email@example.com.