The Death of Tenure?

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.


lyn L.
l L8 years ago

No; the death is to the r and tea partiers period. Can't wait.

Robin H.
Robin H8 years ago

Good article, and very interesting comments here. Some of my best profs were adjunct, with no hopes of getting tenure. I think that this points to our education system as a whole, with teachers getting less & less, while being expected to do more & more. I teach only part time, and it consumes me like a full-time job . . . and all this without benefits.

As much as I love education and teaching, I'm currently working towards transitioning to another career.

Ann Eastman
Ann Eastman8 years ago

I did a brief stint as an adjunct prof. I adored interactions with the students and the intellectual stimulation of preparing the 2 courses. However, after factoring in preparation and travel time, supplies, travel costs, I figured that I earned the princely rate of about 37 cents an hour. This was the major reason for the "brief" in "brief stint".

Michele C.
Michele C8 years ago

Thanks for the information

Alamzeb Akhund
Alamzeb Khan8 years ago


HoneyBee GreenBee
HoneyBee G8 years ago

The entire grad school structure is still based on the assumption that there will be tenure track positions for the graduates to go into, so that part hasn't caught up with the reality of these universities going the way of the corporation -- trying to save money by hiring adjunct professors. It may be a fantasy they want to keep alive to keep the students paying, paying, then they cannot pay it back but by that time it's not the school's concern.

It is demoralizing and difficult for the professors. As you say, they are constantly worried about their next job and trying to do enough to stay employed, rather than really giving value to the university by doing their research and publishing, and fine-tuning their teaching abilities.

Philippa P.
Philippa P8 years ago

If our colleges want the best and brightest minds to teach our next generations, then we must offer them benefits that are commensurate with the services they offer. I think tenure is one of those benefits.

Melannie B.
Melannie B8 years ago

It's almost the same in Canada and it bodes no good for our educational institutions.Yes, there are always a few bad professors but there are a good number of decent ones, and after working hard - writing, teaching, researching and participating in the universities activities for many years - they deserve to not only have good jobs with fair pay and good benefits but to be rewarded with tenure that tells them how much their institution values them and their service. After all, how can an institution expect them to work for bad pay, that may be less than minimum wage (when the hours of preparation, teaching, then marking are taken into account) with no benefits? And these instructors have doctorates and have invested in a large amount of money in their own educations, which they then cannot afford to pay back, because they don't make enough to even live on. And if they teach too many courses (not a problem here, I think only so many courses are allowed per instructor, unlike the States) will not the quality of education suffer? And when will they research, and publish, and with what? Or is this also part of our dumbing down of life that is in evidence in our schools?

Bruce M.
Bruce Morgan8 years ago

Tenure has to do with academic freedom as much as anything else. Without tenure, administrators can and will tell instructors at all levels what to teach, how to teach and what not to teach. For example, at the public school level, science teachers could and would be forced to teach intelligent design and not permitted to even mention evolution. Religion, however, is only one area where political correctness would override any objective educational values. There are indications that this may eventually happen, but for now tenure discourages such policies.

Michael Rains
Past Member 8 years ago

Good !tenure needs to go i had 2 instructors who did nothing! they were lazy spoiled complacent smegheads.
Let them have to succeed on hard work and performance like the rest of us.