Welcome to the website for the Altac Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  We are proud to have had aspects of our work supported from 2013-16 by UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities and Carolina Seminars Program.

PLEASE NOTE: The UNC-Chapel Hill Altac Project was discontinued in August 2016 due to the departure from the university of three of its co-conveners, Dr. Donna Bickford, Dr. Stewart Varner, and Dr. Anne Whisnant. We leave the site active here as an archive of our work.  As of 2019, you can reach Dr. Anne Whisnant at Duke University, where she directs the Graduate Liberal Studies program.

What is “Altac,” and Why a UNC Altac Project?

The idea for the UNC Altac Project emerged from the work that original co-convenors Donna M. Bickford and Anne Mitchell Whisnant have been doing for several years–both on campus at UNC and nationally–to bring attention to the unique challenges faced by Ph.D.-prepared professionals pursuing non-faculty or “alternate academic” careers within academe.

While some national discourse on so-called “nonacademic” careers for Ph.D.s began in earnest in the 1990s, it was only in the 2000s that systematic attention began to be paid to the subset of those “nonacademic” careers lying  within or very near to the university (e.g. in cultural heritage institutions, etc.).  In 2005, Whisnant published a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education on her own experiences in this regard, and, since about 2009, these careers have been described by the moniker “altac,” which emerged initially on Twitter.  (Click here to read an account of the emergence of this term.)

The “altac” community has coalesced as the constriction of tenure-track faculty lines, among other factors, has produced a significant number of Ph.D.-prepared professionals who are unable to obtain or who have decided not to seek faculty positions. Although some of those individuals work as adjunct faculty and some leave the academy altogether, there is a growing cadre who remain employed within the university but outside the faculty ranks.  There is also a growing body of resources and online commentary about altac careers and the related struggles of 21st-century Ph.Ds. to carve out satisfying and workable professional lives.  We’ve put a representative sample of some of that material together here.

We have identified about 140 “altacs” in “EPA Non-Faculty” positions on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, approximately 60% of whom are women. Many of these professionals—here and elsewhere—continue to pursue scholarly research, writing, publication, public speaking, engagement, and teaching while fulfilling our administrative duties for the university. We contribute in myriad ways to the academic mission of Carolina.  Some of us have been meeting together informally from time to time for several years.

Our formal work began in 2010, when Donna and Anne developed a proposal for the 2011 Academic Plan Steering Committee (about which we also wrote in a 2010 column in the Chronicle of Higher Education) calling for the development of policies and systems to more effectively leverage the contributions of altac administrator-scholars such as ourselves.

Our thinking, in turn, drew upon the 2009 Report of the UNC Task Force on Future Promotion and Tenure Policies and Practices, which advocated for expanded definitions of scholarship to be incorporated into UNC’s tenure policies.  Many altac staff, we knew, were already doing scholarship very much like that described here.

The “Reach Carolina” Academic Plan, 2011 included only a short reference to our proposal in Theme 5, Recommendation 1-c:

Recognize and reward the staff’s contributions to engagement. Much of the engaged work at UNC-Chapel Hill is generated and/or supported by our Centers and Institutes, the University libraries, and their professional staffs. EPA non-faculty who are academically prepared and professionally disposed to contribute to engaged scholarship and activities should be encouraged, recognized and supported.

Altac Working Group

This was a positive step, but not the more comprehensive effort we had hoped for.  So in the spring of 2013, Donna and Anne took to IAH Director John McGowan an idea of establishing an Altac Working Group to again take up the prospect of how Carolina could create an innovative, robust, and coordinated program of research and teaching support and professional and leadership development opportunities for this unique contingent of its administrative professionals.  McGowan and the IAH generously agreed to support the working group for the 2013-14 academic year (a commitment that was renewed for 2014-15 by IAH Director Mark Katz and Executive Director Maria Wisdom).

The Altac Working Group is focused on local advocacy and policy change.  With relatively modest administrative changes and financial support, we have long believed, the university could more fully realize, and indeed optimize, the value of this rich existing resource to support Carolina’s educational mission, while improving markedly the quality of the workplace and the prospects for long-term retention of this vital, highly capable contingent of the university’s professional workforce.

Altacs in Academe Carolina Seminar

We recognize, however, that policy change is intertwined with the need to understand how the university’s current structure evolved, how various labor categories within it are presently defined, and how the “altac” conversation may relate to other more well-advanced discourses about convulsive changes in the scholarly workforce across higher education.  In turn, understanding of altacs’ concerns and articulating new ideas will be enhanced by looking at the altac sector in the larger context of the adjunctification of faculties, the decline of tenure, the expansion of university administrative ranks, and vigorous debates about what — in light of all of that — the purpose  and structure of doctoral training in many fields should be.

All of these conversations suggest — as Melissa Dalgleish and Daniel Powell eloquently observed in their recent call for new contributions to the influential #Alt-Academy edited collection — that “altac” is partly a conversation about how to create humane spaces for people in certain sectors of work, but also a conversation about how to imagine and build an “alternative academy” that may look very different from the prototypical American university in the mid-20th century.

To frame our work within these larger questions, in 2014-17, the Altac Project will sponsor a broader campus conversation that we will coordinate under our Altacs in Academe Carolina Seminar.  Look for information about those events on our Carolina Seminar page.

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