Tenure is under assault in several states, and the public has questioned its value, seeing it merely as job protection for an elite group. Yet tenure is intricately linked to the running of our colleges and universities, and we need to see it in that light to fully understand how we as institutions benefit from it.
Many people have defended tenure on the basis of academic freedom or to protect future knowledge creation as well as democracy. But one argument in support of tenure that has been essentially lost has been the very practical issue that efficient university operations actually depend on it. Simply put, colleges and universities need tenured and tenure-track faculty to get our important work done.
As academic institutions, the work beyond the teaching and research that faculty members do — such as serving on important committees or holding academic administrative positions like department chairs and program directors — moves the university forward. The decline in faculty eligible to provide this centrally important work has consequences we need to better understand.
The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty members has steadily declined. A 2013 study by the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California found that, in 1969, 78 percent of faculty were tenured or tenure stream. By 2009, it was down to 34 percent. At the same time, there was a boom in higher education enrollment. In 1969, about eight million students were enrolled in in higher education; 20 years later, enrollment had soared to more than 20 million.
With more students and fewer tenured or tenure-track faculty members, colleges and universities have relied increasingly on adjuncts to do the work of teaching. At some institutions, contingent faculty members deliver as much as 70 percent of the instruction. Contingent faculty members, however, are not situated or compensated to provide needed student support or services, so a corresponding explosion in nonfaculty staff in higher education has occurred. According to The New York Times, “Administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009.”
So we have witnessed an expansion of student enrollment, a decline of tenure-track faculty, a massive increase in contingent faculty and growth in nonfaculty staff hires in a relatively short time. The calculus driving these decisions is complex and real, but mainly financial. With declines in appropriations in a number of states, many institutions have had little choice.
“Traditional” tenure-stream faculty members, who are also advising and mentoring students, teach only a portion of all college classes. But the growing pressure on them is palpable and massive. Factor in the push to generate more external funding, especially in the sciences, and rising standards for tenure and promotion. Indeed, few people outside the teaching ranks understand how hard our tenured and tenure-stream faculty actually work. A 2014 report found that the typical faculty member — meaning tenure-track and full-time — worked 61 hours per week.
Yes, at some protected silos within higher education, compensation and workload are measured differently, and there is little or no expectation of faculty service beyond research. But that is not the norm.
The pressures mounting on tenured faculty are found in the resistance they exhibit in serving as department chairs or program directors, or on important and necessary committees. At too many institutions, this service falls to recently tenured associate professors, where the added work of this service leads to stalls on the road to promotion. And at too many institutions this difficulty of getting faculty to serve results in a system of stipends or course releases.
What is sacrificed in this system? Much. Universities were established and depend on a shared governance model to effectively work. That model, however, needs adequate numbers of available faculty members to participate on important committees and also serve as chairs and directors. The work of the university has grown ever more complex and the service burdens deeper. Our regional accreditation bodies require us to have robust shared governance. And while many university administrators bristle at the slowness and complexity of shared governance, as well as the quirky home-grown incarnations on our campuses, we need it.
The trend away from tenure-track faculty means that fewer faculty members are available to serve our shared governance model. If you ask any dean, they will tell you that a certain core of faculty members always seems overrepresented in shared governance bodies. We always want to increase that pool, but we know how difficult it is.
At many institutions, the preponderance of those who do the bulk of service are in the arts, humanities and social/behavioral sciences — the very departments that witnessed the steepest decline in tenure-track faculty. These are the faculty members who embrace shared governance and, for whatever complex set of reasons, have dedicated themselves to it. Typically, bench science faculty and those in the professional schools tend to see service as more tied to their specific departments and schools or focused on their profession.
So the burden of service to the institution falls on a shrinking pool of faculty members as the university’s needs and faculty insecurity increase. We see the results in the longer period it takes associate professors who are chairing departments or stalled in rank to get to full professorships. We also see it in the slowness of the pace of seemingly everything at most universities. And we see it in the development of an us-versus-them culture on many campuses. An inefficient governance system that is short staffed cannot serve our needs.
Clearly, the way many universities look at tenure should be adjusted.
As Peter Augustine Lawler of Berry College wrote in 2014, “Tenure works by compensating employees with security instead of money. A secure (if modest) salary makes it possible to raise a family — to, for example, take on a mortgage. In the absence of security, an employee should expect more money. (When a member of my college’s board a number of years ago said it was time to do away with tenure, I said, ‘Sure, just give me a 25 percent raise.’) But those who want to do away with tenure think in terms of withdrawing a luxury perk — not of replacing one form of compensation with another.”
We need tenured faculty members to ensure quality control over curriculum, just as we need tenured faculty to move the business of the university efficiently. But the diminishment of tenure is changing our institutions. Some institutions have strong models of shared governance and have worked to maintain a commitment to tenure. Leaders from those colleges and universities must speak up and explain how tenure makes their institutions stronger and better, how it enhances the quality of the educational experiences offered to its students. Maybe, just maybe, that can help slowly change the debate.