Is It Time to Abandon Tenure?


Alarmed by the headline?  I was when I encountered it above an article originally published in the online zine Salon, but republished in several other locations (for instance here).  Written by Professor of Higher Education at the University of Southern California Adrianna Kezar, co-director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, and a USC doctoral student, Samantha Bernstein, the essay, you’ll be relieved to hear, answers the question in the negative.  Nonetheless, the authors conclude, “[t]he higher education enterprise has changed, but the traditional tenure model has stayed the same.”

Actually, the essay’s full title, at least in the Salon version, is “Adjunct professorships hurt students and educators alike.  Is it time to abandon tenure?”  Much of its focus is to bemoan the demonstrable evils associated with the burgeoning and excessive reliance on contingent, often part-time, faculty in teaching positions.  According to Bernstein and Kezar, one major source of the problem is that tenure has come to be associated strictly with research.  They write: “the increase in contingent appointments is a result of the tenure model’s failure to adapt with the significant and rapid changes that have occurred in colleges and universities over the last 50 years,” adding that “[t]he most significant of these changes is the rise of teaching-focused institutions.”  Hence, “what we have today is a disparity between the existing incentive structures that reward research-oriented, tenure-track faculty and the increased demand for good teaching.”

Nevertheless, the authors conclude, “[a]cademic freedom was always meant to extend to the classroom — to allow faculty to teach freely, in line with the search for truth, no matter how controversial the subject matter.”  Hence the essay urges us “to rethink the traditional tenure system in a way that would incentivize excellent teaching, and create teaching-intensive tenure-track positions.”

Now, the creation of new teaching-intensive tenure-track positions, especially at research-oriented institutions that also teach undergraduates, is an excellent idea, which has been advocated at length by Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth in their excellent little book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary ArgumentsI wholeheartedly endorse it.  But it is not at all clear to me that, to use Bernstein and Kezar’s words, “the negative stigmas surrounding teaching in the academy . . . have resulted from the traditional tenure model.”  For not only academic freedom but also tenure itself was always meant to extend to teaching.  This was true when the AAUP first formulated the modern system of tenure in 1915, it was true as well when the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges jointly formulated the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and it has remained true down to the present.

In fact, it is by no means evident that the erosion of tenure has stemmed in any way from a narrow association with research.  When the AAC and AAUP issued the 1940 Statement, the AAC overwhelmingly represented small liberal arts teaching institutions and not research universities, then represented almost exclusively by the Association of American Universities.  For the AAC, and to some extent the AAUP as well, tenure was therefore associated first and foremost with teaching and not with research.  Bernstein and Kezar themselves note that the expansive growth of teaching-oriented institutions was greatest in the two decades between 1945 and 1975 when, as they report, college enrollment increased by 500 percent.  They add that between 1952 and 1972 the number of community colleges nearly doubled.  But those were precisely years during which the embrace of the tenure system spread most rapidly from a relative handful of elite research institutions to win broad acceptance in virtually all segments of higher education, including institutions devoted entirely to instruction.

Take, for one example, California, which boasts the nation’s largest and most extensive higher education system and which I know best.  According to the California Master Plan, adopted in the early 1960s, the University of California (UC) was designated as a research institution while the larger (in enrollment) California State University (CSU) and community college systems were designated as primarily (if not exclusively) devoted to teaching.  Indeed, to this day full-time teaching loads in the CSU remain roughly twice those in the UC and loads are even higher in the community colleges.  CSU faculty are still not paid for research except insofar as outside granting agencies provide support.  Yet both the CSU and the community colleges quickly adopted and have retained extensive tenure systems that take into account, even privilege, teaching excellence.  To be sure, these systems are, as elsewhere, under assault and eroding far too quickly (about which more shortly) and, at least in the CSU, faculty members have chosen to require some research or scholarly achievement to gain tenure.  But such requirements have hardly changed the institution’s basic mission nor have they alleviated teaching loads; indeed, in recent years the teaching responsibilities of tenure-track faculty in the CSU have expanded.

Bernstein and Kezar suggest that “[t]enure-track faculty incentivized to conduct research were typically not interested in investing time to learn about new teaching technologies. Consequently, a strong demand for online teaching pushed institutions into hiring contingent faculty to fill these roles.”  But in fact, especially among younger faculty, it has most frequently been tenure-track faculty who have embraced new technologies (think “digital humanities”) and who have taken the lead in proposing and designing online courses, if only because unlike their part-time colleagues they are more likely to have the time, funding, and incentive to take on such tasks.  Moreover, faculty at research institutions like Stanford and Columbia have been among the most gung-ho evangelists for online education, more often than not quite misguidedly (see Koller, Daphne and MOOCs).  Unfortunately, what has all too often happened is that institutions have encouraged tenure-track faculty to design online courses but have then “out-sourced” the “teaching” once the course is established.

Moreover, it should also be noted that appointments off the tenure track have grown increasingly common in research-only positions.  To be sure, we have not yet witnessed the kind of exploitation and “adjunctivitis” in research fields that has come to be associated with lower-division instruction in, say, English composition and basic mathematics, but as more and more research is funded out of so-called “soft” grant money increasing numbers of research faculty also have been hired on short-term renewable contracts, sometimes associated with specific grants, with little to no hope for tenure.  So, for example, in 2011 the AAUP censured Louisiana State University for its summary dismissal of research scientist Ivor van Heerden.  He had been working full-time at LSU for some 14 years on a contingent renewable non-tenure research contract before he was fired.  In addition, the practice of compelling even tenured faculty to raise their own salaries through grants, once confined to medical schools (where the practice is expanding dangerously), has now spread to less applied sciences and engineering.  That the growing precarity of the tenure system affects research scholars as well as teachers is further highlighted by the ominous events in Wisconsin, where, as Rebecca Schuman reports, the legislature and regents assault on tenure has already cost the University of Wisconsin’s flagship Madison campus some $9 million to retain research scholars threatened by the new order.

What then has led to the erosion of tenure?  Bernstein and Kezar actually suggest another explanation.  They date the start of the rise in contingent hiring to the 1970s when “rising costs and a recession . . . forced administrators to seek out part-time faculty to work for lower wages in order to accommodate” increasing numbers of students.  Add to this the fact that “government funding for higher education decreased in the late 1980s and ‘90s” and stir in the great recession of 2008 and the principal cause becomes obvious: underfunding.

This is the conclusion of a provocative but illuminating post on Process: A Blog for American History by Trevor Griffey entitled “Can Faculty Labor Unions Stop the Decline of Tenure?”  Griffey worked in the CSU as a contingent lecturer in U.S. history and labor studies from 2011 to 2015 and this spring worked for a semester as a campus service representative for the California Faculty Association (CFA), the AAUP-affiliated CSU union that represents both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.  While the AAUP has often argued that tenure represents the strongest protection for academic freedom and shared governance and that a union contract provides the best defense of tenure, Griffey answers the question of his title largely in the negative.  He argues that in general faculty unions

have slowed the decline of faculty pay and job security more than they have reversed it. They have improved the working conditions of adjunct faculty, but have been unable to prevent the use of adjunct faculty to replace tenure track lines. And through collective bargaining agreements that formalize the previously informal positions of lecturers, unions have inadvertently rationalized and deepened the academic caste system that treats tenure track and non-tenure track faculty as separate and unequal.

Griffey uses the CFA as an example.  “Fifteen years ago,” he writes,

the labor union representing CSU faculty—the California Faculty Association, or CFA—won a historic victory that promised to reverse the race to the bottom for college faculty.  But unanticipated events, primarily related to state government’s declining commitment to public higher education, wiped out the union’s accomplishments, and turned what would have been a model for the rest of the U.S. into what stands today as a difficult lesson on the limits of labor unions to reverse the decline of tenure in an age of austerity.

In 2002 the CFA managed to get the California Legislature to pass a resolution calling on (but not requiring) the CSU to create a plan to ensure that 75% of all faculty would be on the tenure-track.  In response, a committee composed of representatives of the CSU administration, the CFA, and the CSU Academic Senate, drafted a plan to fulfill this goal based on reasonable increases in state funding.  As a result, from 2001 to 2003 the CSU hired over 1,700 new tenure track faculty, roughly 15 to 20 percent of whom had previously served as lecturers in the CSU system.  “But,” writes Griffey,

public employees’ contracts depend upon support from the state legislature. During the three years of the path-breaking contract, the California state legislature cut the CSU’s budget by $500 million, forcing the school to reduce enrollment and cut its “non-instruction budget areas to minimal levels.” Though the state restored some of that funding over the 2005–8 school years, the CSU never met its ambitious goals to reduce its dependence on adjunct faculty, and from 2001–8 added only about 120 new tenure track positions per year after accounting for retirements, deaths, and resignations.

The recession of 2008–11 wiped out the minimal gains in tenure density that the CSU system had made over the previous seven years. The state legislature slashed its funding for the CSU budget by one third between 2008 and 2012, triggering a wave of layoffs and increased workloads across the system. . . .

As a result, in just fifteen years, the CSU system has inadvertently gone from being a potential model for reversing tenure decline to becoming one of the worst examples of it. Since 2010, the number of part-time lecturers in the CSU system has increased by 30 percent, while the number of tenure track faculty has declined by 1 percent. This past school year, the CSU reached its lowest tenure density in its history. Since the announcement of its ambitious plan to reach 75 percent tenure density by FTE by 2010, CSU tenure density has dropped from 63 percent to 55.6 percent by FTE, and from 46 percent to 40.5 percent by headcount.

Griffey acknowledges that in response to this history the CFA has fought aggressively to win contracts that reward contingent faculty and “provide a decent amount of job security to longtime adjunct faculty, along with opportunities for periodic raises for all faculty.”  Still, he points out, these gains have effectively, if unintentionally, shifted “the costs of erratic state support for higher education onto lecturers with the least seniority.”  Even so, Griffey argues, “the CFA experience indicates [that] faculty unions can bridge the divides between adjunct and tenure track faculty by uniting them in a fight that produces major victories for all faculty.”

Griffey sadly concludes that “college faculty in labor unions currently lack the power to effectively resist or reverse the decline of tenure.”  He writes:

One way or another, the fight to convert adjunct lines to tenure track lines, create a teaching tenure track, or promote other institutional reforms that can end the race to the bottom for faculty in the U.S. will require a broader struggle to find new sources of revenue for higher education. Faculty unions cannot overcome the forces that are increasingly turning them into poorly-paid temps without participating in a larger social movement to replace austerity politics with a more equitable system of governance.

I can only agree, and I would hope that Kezar and Bernstein would too.  For insofar as their call for tenure reform is, in fact, a call to revitalize and strengthen the tenure system, these goals will only be achieved when we successfully reverse the corrosive disinvestment in higher education (public and private) — affecting both teaching and research — that has characterized the past several decades. To do that we will need to do more than provide new incentives for teaching, as much as these are definitely desirable.  We will need to unite — tenure-track and contingent, research scholars and teachers — and fight.


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