BY HANK REICHMAN
In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post a few days ago, Jeffrey Selingo, a former editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers a number of suggestions for how colleges and universities might cut costs. Instead of “always looking at the revenue side of the ledger by figuring out how to attract more students with marketing gimmicks and constant discounting,” Selingo contends, “colleges should start studying the expense side as well for ways to lower their costs.” He then proceeds to offer some suggestions about how this might be accomplished, most of which — increased use of online teaching, fewer sections, simpler dorm rooms, fewer amenities — are either trivial or demonstrably problematic. (Of course, Selingo clearly has only the minority of institutions that are private and competitive in mind, since the overwhelming majority of public four-year and two-year institutions have been implementing these and other proposed “reforms” designed to cut costs for years, albeit with minimal success.)
But Selingo saves his most audacious proposal for last. He writes:
Finally, colleges need to rethink one of the biggest drivers of costs — personnel, particularly the need to have more flexible work forces. Right now, their faculty ranks are largely immovable because of tenure. An idea that higher education needs to adopt is one floated by, among others, Larry Bacow, a former president of Tufts University, that would put a clock on tenure. Instead of a lifetime guarantee, tenure would be for a specific time commitment — perhaps 20, 25, or 30 years — followed by one-year contracts.
It’s difficult to exaggerate how simultaneously awful and ignorant this paragraph is. First of all, the assumption that “faculty ranks are largely immovable because of tenure” bears no relation to reality. As the AAUP’s “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession” notes, in 2015 just 21.4% of all higher ed faculty were in tenured positions, with just 8.2% on the tenure-track. By contrast, 40% were in part-time positions, 16.7% were in full-time non-tenure-track positions, and 13.7% were graduate student employees. In other words just a bit over a fifth of all faculty were, in Selingo’s insulting (and inaccurate) term, “immovable.”
Moreover, as the Delta Cost Project (which Selingo cites) has demonstrated, “Faculty salaries were not the leading cause of rising college tuitions during the past decade. Increased benefits costs, nonfaculty positions added elsewhere on campus, declines in state and institutional subsidies, and other factors all played a role.” Hence any effort to address the alleged “immovability” of the faculty is hardly likely to reverse the rise of costs, since faculty salaries are a minimal driver of that increase.
Which brings me to Selingo’s idea — which he attributes to Bacow — that tenure should be limited to a period of 20+ years, “to be followed by a series of one-year contracts.” To be blunt, this is an incredibly bad idea, as it would undermine the very purpose of tenure and reduce most senior faculty members to the condition now suffered by far too many younger instructors — a total lack of employment security.
Back in 1915 the founders of the AAUP did acknowledge that one purpose of tenure was “to render the profession more attractive to men of high ability and strong personality by insuring the dignity, the independence, and the reasonable security of tenure.” But neither economic security nor the financial stability of institutions were then or are now the primary ends to be accomplished by the tenure system, the first function of which, the AAUP’s founders declared, was “to safeguard freedom of inquiry and of teaching. . .”
Selingo’s proposal would certainly more than undermine that goal, since it is often precisely in the latter years of academic careers that protection may be most needed, as senior scholars branch out into new areas of scholarship and may become emboldened by experience, wisdom — and, yes, the protection of tenure — to explore new, even iconoclastic ideas.
Selingo has apparently bought the unfounded myth that older faculty — heck, older people — are less productive, with many amounting to little more than the proverbial “dead wood.” Although appropriate anecdotes can always be mustered to support this myth, in reality it is little more than a prejudice. Assuming that teaching careers begin when people are in their late 20s and tenure is awarded in the early to mid-30s, this proposal would make all scholars over the age of 50 or 55 subject to one-year contingent appointments. But aren’t they the most experienced teachers, the professors most knowledgeable about their subject matter and most capable of providing wise counsel and savvy leadership to their institutions? And knowing full well that their late careers will be shadowed by the fear of non-reappointment, under Selingo’s system even “tenured” junior scholars will tend to tow the line, for fear of alienating an administration that might dismiss them just as the expenses of late adulthood (sending a child to college, for instance) kick in.
As Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of Lower Ed, commented on Twitter, “Can you imagine a world where all scientists and teachers were first year post-docs? My god.” But that is pretty much what Selingo advocates for senior scholars.
Earlier in his op-ed Selingo writes, “Spending on instruction varies widely among schools, from around $6,600 per student at regional public colleges to $21,400 at private research universities, according to the Delta Cost Project. However, spending more on classroom instruction doesn’t necessarily buy better outcomes for students.” That may be true, but does anyone really believe that students at institutions spending as much as four times more on instruction don’t gain some real advantages? And, guess what? At institutions spending more on instruction a greater, not a lesser, proportion of the faculty generally have tenure. Let’s face it, economies are always possible, but in higher ed as in other areas more often than not “you get what you pay for.”
In short, the real problem in higher education today is not an “immovable” faculty, but one that is increasingly all too “movable” — employed on contingent part-time contracts, insecure, and too often, as a consequence, intimidated and frightened. Corporate managers may desire a “more flexible work force,” but students need the benefits of learning from long-term, dedicated, secure, and academically free instructors. The solution, therefore, is not to limit tenure, but to extend the rights of tenure to all those who qualify. That’s been the AAUP’s position for over a century, and we’re sticking to it.