Fewer than one-third of professors in the US have tenure or are in tenure-track positions, according to a report to be published in the fall by the US Department of Education. According to a July 4th article entitled Tenure, RIP in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 57 percent of faculty members in 1975 had tenure or were in tenure-track positions—and only 31 percent did in 2007. Statistics from 2009 reflect even lower numbers of faculty with tenure or in tenure-track positions.
It’s not that there are fewer college students and, therefore, a need for fewer professors. Rather, over the past decades, colleges and universities have increasingly hired adjunct instructors (who have short-term contracts and, except in some rare cases, no benefits; they may be paid ‘as little as’—as much?—as $1500 per course, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education) to teach classes. Indeed, tenure is a ‘completely foreign concept’ at many community colleges and for-profit school and, too, is becoming an endangered species at ‘many regional state universities and at less-elite liberal-arts colleges.’ We have friends who are ‘full-time adjuncts’ and teach some eight or more courses a semester, traveling from school to school to school.
Some argue that the decline, if not the death, of tenure is actually a good thing. Says the Chronicle of Higher Education:
‘The competition to secure a tenure-track job and then earn tenure has become so fierce in some disciplines that academe may actually be turning away highly qualified people who don’t want the hassle. A system without tenure, but one that still gave professors reasonable pay and job security, might draw that talent back.’
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), notes that the ‘biggest loss’ with the decline of tenure is not so much about what professors can say in the classroom, but about what they ‘say to the president or the trustees—or to politicians.’ Without tenure, say such organizations as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), what’s lost is ‘the ability of professors to play a strong role in running their universities and to object if they think officials are making bad decisions.’
I’m not an unbiased party here. I teach at a ‘less-elite liberal-arts college.’ I have tenure and that job security means a tremendous lot to me. To get tenure, I had to have evidence of ‘excellence in teaching’;scholarship in the form of writing academic articles in my disciplinary fields (Classics and disability studies); service to my college (I’ve been a student advisor, administrator of my college’s Honors Program, coordinator of scholarships and graduate school applications), and a few other things. I was hired in a tenure-track position by my college, but just getting such a position—as many will tell you—is by no means a guarantee of getting tenure. (Just getting my job was a Herculean task in itself, I should say—tenure-track positions in Classics are few and we live in the metropolitan New York/New Jersey area, where there is a high concentration of people with PhD’s.) It’s not at all unheard of for tenure-track faculty members to do even more than I did and still not get tenure at some institutions.
Having tenure is a sign that one’s school truly values one’s contributions as a teacher, scholar, and a member of the college community. I got tenure two years ago and I do my best to continue to teach my students to the best of my ability, to make scholarly contributions to my field (I’m currently translating the poetry of two Roman poets, Catullus and Virgil), and to do as much as I can for my college in the way of advising students, doing administrative work, and much more. I really like the school where I teach: It is not a large research university, but a relatively small college where the main emphasis is on teaching and service. It’s no secret that taking care of my son who’s on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum is a full-time job in myself, and I’m grateful to my college for supporting me in my professional and personal life—there’s not too many jobs that I might have in which I could work full-time and take care of Charlie.
Prior to getting my position at my college, I taught as a full-time instructor at another university in New Jersey. I taught four classes and was technically an adjunct instructor. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly common for colleges and universities to hire full-time instructors who aren’t on the tenure track as a cost-saving measure. While I was in that position, I was in a state of constant worry about not getting my contract renewed the next year and was always frantically volunteering to do extra tasks (tutoring at the Writing Center, developing curriculum, talking to students, and much more). When I saw an ad for my current position, I immediately jumped to apply for it. More than a few people thought this an irrational decision as the university I was at is a bigger school with many more resources. But I knew having tenure—even having only the chance for it—was worth it.
Do we really want our college students to be taught by instructors whose office is their car?
Photo of Sather Gate at the University of California at Berkeley by Franco Folini.