The headline is certainly an attention-getter: “Tenure, RIP: What the Vanishing Status Means for the Future of Education.”
Three days after publication, the July 4 story in the Chronicle of Higher Education still ranks No. 1 in the website’s most-read, most-emailed and most-comments categories (closing in on 80 remarks last time I checked). In a nutshell, the story reports a disturbing drop-off in the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty in U.S. colleges and universities.
“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,” according to the story.
A U.S. Department of Education report due out this fall is likely to show a further decline, the Chronicle notes. “The new report is expected to show that that proportion fell even further in 2009, dropping below one-third. If you add graduate teaching assistants to the mix, those with some kind of tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors.”
I’ll explain why I italicized 31 percent and “dropping below one-third” in a few paragraphs, though I’m sure MinnPost’s rocket-scientist readers already have figured it out.
The cyberspace version of the article is making the rounds of inboxes at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, but so far it isn’t setting off a lot of panic.
Comments are ‘all over the place’
“What struck me is the … comments [on the web version] are all over the place,” said Marti Hope Gonzales, immediate past president of the Faculty Senate’s faculty consultative committee and an associate professor of psychology at the Twin Cities campus.
Comments question everything from the use of percentages vs. raw numbers to who’s responsible for the drop-off.
A snarky example: “I bet even some of the non tenure track scum teaching mathematics know that 31% is less than one third.” (Ouch. See what I italicized above.)
An appeal for sanity: “This hysteria has to stop. The headline, the use of percentages rather than absolute numbers … I venture to say that the total number of tenured professors is higher than it has ever been. The cause of more untenured instructors, and thus the ratio of untenured-to-tenured, is the explosion in college enrollment. Tenure is not dead. Of course it may become that way if we act like it’s a fait accompli.”
A gender-centric concern: “Am I the only one that thinks the feminization of the academy has led to the demise of tenure. It’s funny how any prominent position loses prestige as soon as women become the fastest growing participants.”
I have asked the U for a breakdown of how tenured, tenure-track and part-time faculty has changed over time. I hope it will include raw numbers (see snarky example). Another source has suggested getting a college-by-college breakdown from the U as well. Good point. I’ve written about 60-odd faculty positions going dark in the College of Liberal Arts. When I get the data, I will write a follow-up post.
‘Looming budget cliff’ is bigger concern
Even in the midst of filling a $150 million-something hole in the U’s budget after reduced state appropriations, concern over the number of tenured and tenure-track positions wasn’t at the “forefront” of governance discussions this year between faculty and the administration, Gonzales said.
“There wasn’t much talk about revisiting tenure in the interest of efficiency” and cutting spending, she said. “I think what probably captured our attention this year are ways to deal with the big, looming budget cliff coming up.” Though the U’s Board of Regents recently approved a budget to deal with that hole, the state’s budget deficit is expected to worsen in 2011-12.
Even so, the last time tenure was a hot topic occurred during the “tenure wars” in the 1990s, Gonzales recalled.
“We on the faculty felt sufficiently threatened that tenure, as we know it, would disappear … and that fueled the faculty unionization effort,” she recalled.
Although the union effort came up short of the votes needed for representation, the threat seems to have had a lasting impact on the administration. Gonzales doesn’t see the administration looking at tenured and tenure-track positions. The only way the U can lay off tenured faculty is to declare a financial emergency, and that hasn’t happened.
“I don’t think they’re ready to go there and I’m not sure how ready they will be,” she said, when the U is at the edge of that cliff she described. “More professors are more willing to endure relatively small decreases in pay than the abolition, or rethinking, of tenure.” In fact, U faculty accepted a temporary pay cut this spring.
The national president of the American Association of University Professors union tells the Chronicle that the “biggest loss” in the declining proportions of tenured and tenured track positions isn’t so much about the academic freedom to sound off in the classroom as the freedom to challenge politicians and university administrations.
“The president doesn’t really care what you say in your World War II-history class,” AAUP President Cary Nelson says in the article. “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.”
But others don’t see the declining proportions of tenured and tenure-track faculty as a huge loss to academia, the Chronicle reports.
“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.’ “
Readers: I turned to the U for this post because it’s the largest university in Minnesota. But I’m also interested in the state of tenure at other colleges and universities, public and private. What do you think? Is the tenure system about to fall off the cliff? What trends are you seeing in your college or university? What has happened in your academic career? Is it time for a different system? Two ways to comment: in the Comments section below, or email me at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com.