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Is tenure dying in Minnesota, too? Chronicle of Higher Education story draws some skeptical comments

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.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/07/2010 - 09:21 am.

    Nice overview. I hope you get a good discussion going.

    The bottom line is that you get what you pay for. If you want to run an institution on adjuncts then you are going to have to adjust to a lack of institutional commitment by the wage slaves. And I am not dissing adjuncts – my wife had done this, as have I. Who is going to write letters for the undergrads to get them into the best of all possible medical schools, etc. ? You can be pretty sure that the good places (Carleton, Mac, …) will not be killing tenure soon. However there will be enormous pressure at the U of M, not to replace retiring tenured faculty, except with adjuncts. This will be justified by saying: “I’m sorry but we don’t have the money.”

    Another point that needs discussion is that even getting tenure in the first place is strongly tied to grant support, especially in the Medical School. Is this a good thing?

    I don’t know.

  2. Submitted by Bill Gilles on 07/07/2010 - 09:51 am.

    In a free society such as ours where the 1st Amendment is a constitutional right rather than a ‘democratic tradition’ as it is in Canada, Britain and Europe – in an open and cosmopolitan society such as ours where new and challenging ideas spark debate and controversy rather than censure and jail time – tenure is a relic.

    Tenure is a relic of a European age of persecution and inquisition. In a society that grants every citizen the same protections as tenure – tenure merely acts as a costly job protection scheme. It’s great for those who get it, but it generally ices out new and younger entrants to the profession… thus squashing those most likely to bring fresh, new and controversial ideas into the academy.

  3. Submitted by Aaron Klemz on 07/07/2010 - 10:14 am.

    Bill Gille: The First Amendment will not save your job. “Challenging ideas” may not get you jailed as an academic, but in the absence of some sort of workplace protection of academic freedom, you are at the mercy of your supervisor.

    And seriously, you’re saying that tenure is needed in Canada because Ottawa is more likely to oppress academics than Washington D.C.?

  4. Submitted by Matthew Williams on 07/07/2010 - 10:36 am.

    What Bill Gilles says is interesting for a number of reasons.

    First, it appears he is the founder of the “Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow,” the website is “” (which should tell you an awful lot about the ideological slant they take, despite the euphemistic name of the organization).

    Second, Bill seems to imply (or even personally believe) that tenure in the United States is a direct hold over from monarchical Europe.

    That would be interesting…if it were true.

    I doubt a blog comment is the best arena for a quick history lesson concerning the AAUP, but the formation of this group and its statements on tenure had nothing at all to do with Europe and Kings and Queens persecuting those who dare defy them.

    The AAUP is a direct result of the 1910s and the 1920s in America. And, as far as I am aware, the 1st amendment was in full effect at that point in our history (you can fact check that one yourselves on wikipedia).

    As history buffs are probably aware, that era (not so unlike our own) was rife with social discord, discontent, and dissent over numerous issues (World War One being a major one). The founders of AAUP (John Dewey being one of them) thought it necessary to provide protections for those in academia to be able to do the work they feel is important without being coerced by administrators, politicians, and the like.

    Why? Aaron said it best in the post above mine: “The First Amendment will not save your job. ‘Challenging ideas’ may not get you jailed as an academic, but in the absence of some sort of workplace protection of academic freedom, you are at the mercy of your supervisor.”

    But Bill Gilles DOES sound an awful lot like a business administrator attempting to apply the logic of finance upon post-secondary institutions, where the bottom line is what matters most and the invisible hand of the market (even within education) is the best way to figure everything out. In this logic, the Market will figure out who is needed and who is not depending on what makes money and what does not.

    Except…most ideas fail. Many experiments in the lab don’t go as planned. Most first drafts are awful. Innovation is not cheap. And the production of social knowledge to help solve social problems is always messy. Applying market fundamentalism here simply does not work.

    (no, please, if the AAUP was actually formed in Canada or Europe in the 17th century or earlier, could someone please check my facts and let me know? Otherwise, let’s all demand that people like Bill Gilles be a little more honest with the past…)

  5. Submitted by Howard Miller on 07/07/2010 - 10:51 am.

    integrity is at the heart of the scholarly process.

    academic freedom ensures greater integrity, as political economic, and other pressures have less influence on scholarly work.

    tenure is akin to the immune system for the higher education body – it fights off the political and monetary infections that distort the integrity of scholarship. it keeps the academy free and healthy

  6. Submitted by Gary Engstrand on 07/07/2010 - 12:41 pm.

    The impetus for the establishment of the AAUP was the fact that Jane Stanford, the widow of Leland Stanford, fired economist Edward Ross at Stanford because he criticized railroad monopolies.

    As far as the First Amendment and higher education goes, one should review the US Supreme Court opinion in Garcetti v. Ceballos and the several federal court cases that have followed: The courts have held that faculty, even tenured, do not have the right to criticize their department or college or university without fear of sanction or termination.

  7. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/07/2010 - 12:52 pm.

    Good discussion so far.

    From personal experience, tenure allows you to say and do things that would get you fired without it. And I use the term fired loosely. It means that your contract will not be renewed. Even with tenure there are plenty of ways to harass a non-compliant faculty member. We won’t go there.

    The University of Minnesota has a grievance system as well as the Senate Judicial Committee. These can be used by aggrieved faculty and others. The dice are loaded in terms of the institution and the process is incredibly slow. But if you are in the right, it is possible to survive even under a corrupt administration.

    Don’t ask how I know.


    Bill Gleason
    U of M faculty and alum

  8. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/07/2010 - 01:33 pm.

    ps – to Matthew

    You should probably let folks know, as part of your little history lesson, that the AAUP is basically inactive at the local level at the U of Minnesota.

    The AAUP will be of little help to a Minnesota faculty member while this situation continues. Rumors persist of an attempt at resuscitation.

    I doubt it.

  9. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/07/2010 - 02:40 pm.


    I’m not sure your brief statement about Garcetti does the situation justice, Gary. For a reminder, please see the following post which is based on minutes provide by you:

    Trust Me, I’m a Lawyer…

    Or, Erosion of Academic Freedom
    At the University of Minnesota?

    Quoted material is from the minutes of the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee (Friday, November 21, 2008)

    He [Provost Sullivan] has reviewed the cases cited by the Committee, and noted that he is a lawyer, has practiced and taught, served as Dean of the Law School, and still follows court decisions closely. The Garcetti case was about an assistant district attorney and he said he does not believe that universities need be concerned that the case would be applied in the context of academic freedom.”

    “He said he doubted that this Supreme Court, which is quite conservative, would apply the case to academic freedom, which has its own niche in the law. He said it is also clear, in the Court opinions, that if an academic freedom case were to come before the Court, that academic freedom would be defended, because this Court has been a steadfast defender of the First Amendment. The Garcetti case is an exception and he is not concerned that academic freedom will be trampled by this Supreme Court.”

    Any comments, Gary?



  10. Submitted by S. Sanchez on 07/07/2010 - 05:50 pm.

    The first post touches upon what might be a more poignant issue in higher education than tenure lines: the reliance on transient adjuncts over retaining and maintaining a more stable faculty body. Adjuncts might be good for budgets and short term financial considerations, but they are not an investment by the institution and as such are unlikely to bear future returns.

  11. Submitted by Ron Salzberger on 07/09/2010 - 05:04 pm.

    the Chrnicle piece clearly distinguishes between research and elite institutions and the others with MnSCU institutions in the latter category and the U of M in the former. it claims that declining tenure ratios are mainly to be found in MnSCU-like schools. interviewing U oh M types was therefore irrelevant. ask Mankato, St. cloud, or Normandale faculty. higher Ed reporters should read more carefully.

  12. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/09/2010 - 07:25 pm.


    Subsequent data provided by the U of M and discovered earlier by the Minnesota Daily, indicates that the decline in tenure is happening at the University of Minnesota. It will continue to happen for financial reasons. When tenured faculty retire they will often be replaced by adjuncts or full-time non-tenured faculty. These people are easy to dispose of without declaring “financial exigency.”

    Please see the next two posts on the Next Degree on this web site for further discussion.

    Interviewing U of M types was very relevant.

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