The decline of tenure is degrading higher education

Published 6:55 am Thursday, October 18, 2018


Contributing Columnist

Over the last 50 years, a blight has been spreading through American higher education. Even as the GOP and the Trump administration boldly promote disrespect for science, for evidence-based governance and investigative journalism, we are undermining the very institutions we must rely on as a defense against the forces of willful ignorance.

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Here are some disturbing statistics. In 1969, 78.3 percent of faculty appointments were tenured or tenure track (tenure available after a multi-year probationary period), while 21.7 percent were contingent (non-tenure track, including part-time and graduate student instructors). By 2015 the ratio had nearly flipped: only 29 percent were tenured or tenure track, whereas 71 percent were contingent. In the Fall of 2011, two thirds of the 1.1 million instructors at four-year colleges in the United States were off the tenure track.

This trend coincided with a surge in the numbers of part time faculty. In the 1970s, 80 percent of professors were full time. Today, more than 50 percent of college faculty are part time. The typical contingent part-time instructor is an underpaid, overworked intellectual migrant laborer commuting from one campus to another, often lacking an office. Most part-time faculty derive all or most of their income from teaching, which requires giving multiple courses at different and often distant locations. Almost 90 percent teach at more than one institution, and half of them teach at three.

Three quarters of contingent (aka adjunct) faculty receive no benefits, often because the number of courses they teach is below that required for benefits at a particular institution. In 2013, they earned a median salary of $2,700 per course ($2,922 in 2018 dollars). An adjunct who is lucky enough have a full-time appointment at a single 4-year college usually teaches four courses per semester (eight per year), which would amount to $23,376 per year. This is below the HHS poverty level of $25,100 for a family of four. About 25 percent of adjuncts receive some form of public assistance, such as food stamps.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (2/12/17) published a very moving speech by Professor Kevin Birmingham on the occasion of his receiving the Truman Capote Award for his book on James Joyce’s Ulysses. His address was titled “‘The Great Shame of Our Profession’ — How the humanities survive on exploitation.” At that time, he held a full-time position, but it had all the perils of contingency:

“To be contingent means not to know if you’ll be teaching next semester or if your class will be canceled days before it starts. Most adjuncts receive less than three weeks’ notice of an appointment.”

How much longer can we expect intellectually gifted people to submit to such working conditions? What will the inevitable decline in quality of professors do to our educational system?

I want to highlight two serious harms resulting from the increasing (ab)use of contingent faculty in American higher education: (1) the creation of an exploitative class structure within faculty ranks, and (2) the threat posed to academic freedom and governance.


Being a tenured faculty member is indeed a privileged existence. The average salary at the probationary rank of assistant professor at a 4-year college in 2016 was $65,857 (in 2018 dollars). For associate professors, it was $76,692, and for full professors, $96,882. Compare this to the poverty-level of $23,376 for a full-time adjunct (young or old). A young assistant professor is paid three times as much to teach the same course as a middle-aged adjunct with the same credentials.

Tenured faculty own their jobs for life, unless they are fired for cause or their jobs are eliminated. Unlike adjuncts, they commonly have benefits such as health insurance and pension plans, and their teaching loads are less. They are commonly entitled to sabbatical leaves, during which they can engage in research and writing. These sabbaticals are often paid by their institutions.

In an era of decreasing public funding of higher education, the privileged existence of tenured faculty is too often financed by exploiting a growing academic underclass. This is an injustice that eats away at what should be a community of peers dedicated to teaching and the pursuit of knowledge.

Academic freedom and governance

To appreciate what will happen to the intellectual life of a college as tenure continues to disappear, try to see the world through the eyes of an adjunct professor concerned about reappointment. Student evaluations are crucial. You need to be liked, so don’t make assignments too difficult, and avoid offending students by not giving them a lower grade than they expect. As Professor Eva Swidler wrote in the Chronicle last year:

“You avoid assignments that might challenge anyone’s ideas, and you steer classroom conversations away from any topic that might provoke a heated discussion. You don’t want to come to the attention of administrators, so you don’t participate in speaking events or teach-ins that might draw the ire of powers-that-be.”

In a similar vein, you will avoid questioning or disagreeing with college administrators about curricular and student life issues. Keep your head down and go along to get along.

Before retiring in 2010, I had the good fortune to be a tenured professor at Centre College, a nationally ranked liberal arts college. Thanks to an enlightened Board of Trustees, Centre is one of the few exceptions to the bleak situation I’ve been describing. It employs contingent instructors (with above-average compensation) only when enrollment and demand don’t justify a continuing appointment. Its strong tenure system rewards good teaching, as well as research and publication, while enabling faculty to play a major role in college governance. It let me feel free to argue for politically controversial positions in local newspapers.

The Centre Faculty (equivalent here to what is usually called the faculty senate at larger institutions) has primary responsibility for curriculum, methods of instruction and faculty development. It has seen vigorous debate in which faculty have the opportunity and job security to challenge administration viewpoints.

Without a strong tenure system, colleges and universities will lose their integrity.