Higher ed teaching force continues to shift away from tenure

Union organizing could usher in a new era in the history of tenure, which has seen both rises and falls

The American Association of University Professors has been championing tenure for more than 100 years as a path to academic freedom in research as well as in the classroom. Back in the early 1900s, only the most senior professors at the most elite institutions enjoyed the privilege. Even moving into World War II, tenure was still rare.

The decades following that war, however, brought a rapid increase in tenure, and in 1975, 57% of faculty were tenured or tenure-track. By 2009, that portion dropped to 30% and it continues to shrink as the number of part-time adjuncts and full-time, non-tenure-track instructors increases. Administrators argue that at-will employees offer cost savings that cash-strapped institutions can’t pass up as well as greater flexibility to respond to changing demands from students.

But Henry Reichman, first vice president of the AAUP and chair of its committee on academic freedom and tenure, worries the erosion of the tenured class on campuses is bad for faculty, students, and institutions as a whole.

At California State University, East Bay, where Reichman serves as professor emeritus of history, tenure-track faculty have to go through six years of multiple levels of review, including student and peer evaluations of teaching and review of course syllabi. Reichman says part-time faculty don’t have to go through any of that rigor.

“They can do whatever they want in the classroom,” Reichman said, “until somebody notices and it’s controversial, and then they don’t have any protection.”

Presidents from the Council of Independent Colleges have been grappling with the issue recently as they research the future of independent higher education. In a panel at the council’s 2016 president’s institute, steering committee members from the Project on the Future of Independent Higher Education discussed the “negotiable” and “essential” elements of such institutions, placing tenure in the former category. Committee members have also identified the proportion of full-time faculty members as negotiable.

Edwin H. Welch, a task force member and president of the University of Charleston, which does not offer tenure, said institutions like his can hire professors in ways that respect their role, according to a report of the forum by Inside Higher Ed. Welch advocated doing more than simply putting out ads for single courses and indicated the extra effort is necessary to find faculty who can elicit strong student engagement.

At the AAUP, however, Reichman finds no reason to believe tenure runs contrary to the business flexibility university presidents are after. Tenure is not, of course, a lifetime job guarantee. Colleges can lay off or fire tenured faculty members in cases of just cause, financial exigency, and program elimination.

One complicating factor are the senior faculty who cannot be forced to retire, thanks to federal regulation. Fully 65% of tenured senior faculty members either reluctantly expect to or want to work past the “normal” retirement age of 67, according to a report by the TIAA-CREF Institute.

Beyond the classroom, the effects of reduced tenure are felt in campus governance and the job market. As fewer tenured faculty make up the ranks of the teaching force, there are fewer participants in campus governance, as adjuncts are not paid for their service. And graduating Ph.D. candidates have fewer well-paying, secure options for full-time employment.

That could all change in the coming years as the higher education system finds a new balance.

Adjuncts across the country have found success with union organizing. Just last week Northeastern University adjunct faculty in Boston reached a tentative contract settlement, averting a strike that would have disrupted coursework for thousands of students. The rise in adjunct unions could push administrators back toward tenure, should they find the cost savings and flexibility they were after have disappeared. They also could usher in a new, post-tenure era of negotiated working conditions through alternative means.

Either way, it will probably be a rocky road on which higher education leaders should tread lightly.

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