[Marxism] The death of tenure

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 7 06:58:34 MDT 2010

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Tenure, RIP: What the Vanishing Status Means for the Future of 

By Robin Wilson

Some time this fall, the U.S. Education Department will publish a 
report that documents the death of tenure.

Innocuously titled "Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 
2009," the report won't say it's about the demise of tenure. But 
that's what it will show.

Over just three decades, the proportion of college instructors who 
are tenured or on the tenure track plummeted: from 57 percent in 
1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The new report is expected to show 
that that proportion fell even further in 2009. If you add 
graduate teaching assistants to the mix, those with some kind of 
tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors.

The idea that tenure, a defining feature of U.S. higher education 
throughout the 20th century, has shrunk so drastically is 
shocking. But, says Stanley N. Katz, director of Princeton 
University's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, "we may 
be approaching a situation in which there will not be good, 
tenure-track jobs for the great majority of good people."

What does vanishing tenure mean for higher education? For 
starters, some observers say that college faculties are being 
filled with people who may be less willing to speak their minds: 
contingent instructors, usually working on short-term contracts. 
Indeed, the American Association of University Professors says 
instructors need tenure to guarantee that they can say 
controversial things inside and outside the classroom without 
being fired.

But others argue that the disappearance of tenure is actually not 
the worst thing that could happen in academe. The competition to 
secure a tenure-track job and then earn tenure has become so 
fierce in some disciplines that academe may actually be turning 
away highly qualified people who don't want the hassle. A system 
without tenure, but one that still gave professors reasonable pay 
and job security, might draw that talent back.

Ultimately, though, the future of tenure may hinge on a different 
calculation: Does its absence hurt students enough in the 
classroom—something research has shown—that the cost savings to 
institutions are no longer worthwhile?


The prominent shift in the makeup of the professoriate didn't 
occur overnight. It happened gradually, without any public 
endorsement or stated plan, as the byproduct of other 
concerns—primarily budget shortfalls and administrators' interest 
in gaining flexibility. Now, in whole swaths of higher education, 
including at many community colleges and at for-profit 
institutions, tenure is a completely foreign concept. And it is 
waning at many regional state universities and at less-elite 
liberal-arts colleges, as well.

But faculty members at major research universities, where tenure 
is still prominent, often continue to think of it as a mainstay. 
"We operate as if tenure is the norm, but clearly it's not," says 
Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the 
University of Southern California. "Believing we still have this 
norm has prevented people from acting. Tenured faculty across the 
country never mobilized to say: Wait!"

The New Normal

Twenty or 30 years ago, when tenure was, in fact, the norm, 
scholars used to debate its merits and what a college or 
university might look like without it. They studied the pros and 
cons of tenure and the handful of institutions that had gone 
against the grain and eliminated the tenure track altogether. 
Evergreen State College, a liberal-arts college in Washington 
State, famously rejected tenure in favor of renewable contracts in 
1971. And Florida Gulf Coast University was established without 
tenure in 1991.

Now that tenure is disappearing across higher education, you don't 
hear the same kind of debates. What people in higher education do 
talk about is whether the system that has grown over the last 20 
years—heavy on adjunct professors who are paid as little as $1,500 
per course—is what educators would have designed if the 
destruction of tenure had been more purposeful. The universal 
answer to that question appears to be: No.

"To think the way some of the finest higher-education institutions 
in the nation educate students is with gypsy adjuncts who have to 
teach at two to three different places, that would not have been 
what you would have wanted," says Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a professor 
of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. "You want 
faculty with a vested interest in the institution."

The AAUP has for years argued for the necessity of tenure. This 
spring Cary Nelson, president of the association, visited 
Principia College, a liberal-arts institution in Illinois where 
there is no tenure. "You could cut the fear with a knife," says 
Mr. Nelson. "Faculty members are guarded, they're not making 
courageous decisions about what to say, what to think, and how to 
challenge their students." (Jonathan Palmer, Principia's 
president, told The Chronicle that simply isn't true. "Tenure in 
and of itself does not induce or allay fears of faculty members," 
he said. "The deep, rich conversations we seek among our students 
and ourselves are not tied to tenure, but to the continuing desire 
to stretch, liberate, and educate.")

According to Mr. Nelson, though, the biggest loss isn't what 
professors can't say in the classroom. It's what they don't say to 
the president or the trustees—or to politicians. "The president 
doesn't really care what you say in your World War II-history 
class," says Mr. Nelson. "You can say what you want to about your 
subject matter, but don't think you can say what you want to about 
the president's edicts." Indeed, what's disappearing along with 
tenure, say its advocates, is the ability of professors to play a 
strong role in running their universities and to object if they 
think officials are making bad decisions.

"One of the jobs of tenured faculty is to raise a lot of questions 
and make people uncomfortable," says Martin J. Finkelstein, a 
professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.

"Nontenured faculty are very cautious. They want to be retained."

Vanishing tenure may be bad for students as well as teachers. A 
couple of dozen studies over the last decade have shown that as 
the proportion of professors off the tenure track rises, the 
proportion of students who return to college the following year 
and eventually graduate declines. Some researchers, like Ms. 
Kezar, say that may be because contingent instructors typically 
lack teaching resources, including offices, supplies, or 
professional-development opportunities.

Not everyone is mourning the decline of tenure, though. Cathy 
Trower, a senior research associate at Harvard University who has 
studied tenure for about a dozen years at the institution's 
Graduate School of Education, says tenure's harsh up-or-out 
system—and the escalating demands for research and publication at 
the nation's top universities—is actually driving away talented 
young people. "More and more men and women are saying, I don't 
want to be on that fast track," says Ms. Trower, who has studied 
11,000 tenure-track professors at the nation's research 
universities. "Many are saying, This system is broken, I don't 
want it."

Only 70 percent of the tenure-track professors Ms. Trower studied 
at research institutions said they would choose to work at their 
universities if they had it to do over again. Another study, this 
one of Ph.D. students at the University of California that was 
published last year, showed that the proportion of men who said 
they were interested in faculty jobs at research institutions 
dropped from 45 percent when they first enrolled in graduate 
school to 39 percent later in their graduate-school careers. The 
proportion of women dropped from 36 percent to 27 percent.

Ms. Trower says it is possible to run a university with 
hard-working, committed scholars who are off the tenure track. 
"I'm outside the tenure system," she adds, "and I work really, 
really, hard."

How Low Will It Go?

As the proportion of professors within the tenured ranks dips 
lower and lower each year, the question becomes: Is there a rock 
bottom below which the tenured ranks will not go, or will tenure 
eventually disappear altogether?

Professors who talked to The Chronicle say it may go as low as 15 
percent or 20 percent of all instructors, and then reach a holding 
pattern. "I think the financial pressures are so severe that other 
than the selective, wealthy liberal-arts colleges and the public 
and private flagship research universities, tenure is just going 
to be a vanishing species," says Mr. Ehrenberg.

He is among the scholars whose research shows the decline in 
tenure is a bad thing for students. Such studies could create 
public pressure to bring back tenure, says Marc Bousquet, an 
associate professor of English at Santa Clara University. "I think 
we're at a crossroads," says Mr. Bousquet. "Over the past 40 
years, we've seen a growing trend to misrecognize tenure as a kind 
of merit badge for research-intensive faculty." Meanwhile, he 
says, "the majority of teaching-intensive faculty have been 
shunted out of the tenure system." In his view, all professors 
should be included on the tenure track, and that's what a report 
on the issue by the AAUP will call for this fall.

But higher-education watchers don't hold out much hope that the 
numbers on tenure will turn around. "In the end, these are 
financial decisions, and they are very hard to reverse," says 
Frank J. Donoghue, an associate professor of English at Ohio State 
University who writes about the professoriate. "Once a university 
opens the door to staffing courses with adjuncts, they save so 
much money it's almost unthinkable for them to stop."

Editor's note: This article, as first published, noted that a U.S. 
Education Department report is expected to show the proportion of 
tenured and tenure-track college instructors will drop below 
one-third in 2009. Several commentors point out, correctly, that 
the proportion was at 31 percent in 2007, already below one-third, 
and so we have changed the text to reflect the correct math for 
the correct year.

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