[Marxism] The death of tenure
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
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
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
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,
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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