Umbundling Tenure

From Inside Higher Education:

The fact is that much of the debate, in the United States and elsewhere, about the challenges facing higher education is focused in the wrong direction. Rather than constantly squeezing the professoriate and trying to ensure maximum productivity in narrowly defined areas — and ultimately blaming the professoriate for the ever-expanding list of the university system’s shortcomings — the focus should be on how to lure the best and brightest into academe, and how to create an attractive career for those who choose what used to be termed the “academic calling.”

Fewer and fewer faculty in the United States now have full-time tenure-track positions that lead to a stable career. Indeed, for the past 20 years, the majority of “new hires” (between 50-58 percent) to full-time faculty positions have been off the career ladder; and over the past five, the number of part-time faculty has risen to match the number of full-time faculty — three-quarters of a million each. Many current policies are destroying the traditional tenure system without formally dismantling it: only 47 percent of full-time faculty, and only about one-third of the headcount faculty, are now tenured or tenure-track.

The fact is that much of the debate, in the United States and elsewhere, about the challenges facing higher education is focused in the wrong direction. Rather than constantly squeezing the professoriate and trying to ensure maximum productivity in narrowly defined areas — and ultimately blaming the professoriate for the ever-expanding list of the university system’s shortcomings — the focus should be on how to lure the best and brightest into academe, and how to create an attractive career for those who choose what used to be termed the “academic calling.”
If those who are teaching, conducting research, providing service to students, and creating the most innovative online courses and degree programs are not well-motivated, reasonably paid, and intellectually able, the entire academic enterprise must fall short. After all, presidents and rectors, not to mention state legislators or even President Obama, do not design and deliver the academic program. Technology experts do not create innovative MOOCs. The ideas, and the delivery, come from the professors.
In our recent survey of faculty salaries in 28 countries, we found that in no country were academics paid an equivalent salary to their peers in other fields outside of the university. In at least half the countries, including China and Russia, academic salaries did not permit a middle-class lifestyle, and moonlighting was necessary. Other data show that, in general, academic salaries do not keep up with the rate of inflation. This is certainly the case in the United States, where the situation is better than most.
The pressures continue to mount. Massive open online courses threaten traditional professors — but at same time the faculty members who create MOOCs typically do not own them. Online programs are seen as a less expensive way of providing degrees, but few faculty members are trained to work with them. Great stress is placed on increasing faculty productivity, but at same time the means of measuring that productivity, particularly in terms of teaching performance, is haphazard and not well-developed. Performance expectations are not clearly articulated and are constantly changing. The list could go on — our point is that the conditions of academic life for faculty are deteriorating.
What Do Professors Think?
Evidence of that deterioration is apparent in the results of an international survey of the professoriate in 2007-08. Faculty in the U.S. reported a precipitous decline in working conditions over the past decade — in line with other English-speaking countries — and a majority confirmed that “it is not a good time to begin an academic career.” When it comes to one of the most essential requirements of the profession, only about 40 percent of U.S. faculty agreed that “administrators support academic freedom,” significantly lower than the two-thirds in Canada and Hong Kong and the 55 percent in Norway, Finland and Germany — a relatively disturbing picture. Institutional loyalty has plummeted from 9 of 10 who indicated a strong or moderate sense of loyalty to their institution in 1992 to 6 of 10 — a drop over a 15-year period second only to the United Kingdom and Australia.
Finally, when it comes to overall jobs, two out of three American faculty express high or moderate satisfaction. This places the American faculty in about the middle of the global pack among the survey’s 19 participating countries.
Lagging Salaries
Academic salaries have atrophied, especially in response to the recession of 2008. Most faculty have yet to recover to the pre-2008 level — and in fact salaries have not kept pace with inflation since 1980. Emerging evidence from the Delta Cost Project (as well as other studies) has shown that the exploding costs of higher education are not primarily caused by a heavily tenured faculty and their “big” salaries. Indeed, over the past decade or two, as the faculty had been reconfigured, total institutional expenditures for instruction have declined — offset by increased expenditures for administration, student support, and auxiliary enterprises.
American higher education has not put itself on a diet. Rather it is being starved by state governments, which have dramatically decreased their support for higher education generally, and by budgetary reallocation from the faculty — and teaching — to administrators and elsewhere
Research Universities
Research universities are a small part of any academic system. In the United States, there are perhaps 200 research universities out of a total of more than 4,500 postsecondary institutions. But these universities are of great importance because they are at the pinnacle of the system, produce most of the new knowledge, train the graduate students who will be the future professors in all of higher education and have a complex mission. Research university professors are, in many ways, a special breed. Although a larger proportion of their faculty is in tenure-track positions, pressures for increased productivity are immense and often ill-defined, and attrition in the pre-tenure period is heightened. Increased pressure to obtain external funding (ideally pay their own salaries from external funds), to publish articles that can be measured by their “impact” factor, and in general to produce more is universal.
Many universities have created a two-track system of faculty with research responsibilities and those who teach only. The research faculty are on the tenure track while the others are often subject to renewable term appointments. This idea of a dual-track faculty is contrary to von Humboldt’s concept of the university, where teaching and research are integrally linked — the Humboldtian model has been the guiding principle of the American research university since the beginning.
Mass System
Most colleges and universities, in the United States and elsewhere, are mainly focused on teaching. The faculty in these institutions are perhaps under even more pressure than their colleagues in the research universities. The proportion of full-time faculty, tenure-track or not, has declined, and part-time teachers are increasingly common — in the community colleges, part-timers have dominated for years. Conditions for work have deteriorated — teaching loads are up, many do not have their own offices (how do you have serious conversations with students without office space?), and administrative controls are increasingly stringent. This sector is under great pressure to admit more students, often regardless of qualifications, and to graduate the vast majority of them  — on time. Access and completion are the slogans of the day — and the academic profession is tasked with ensuring student success.
Dissing of the Profession
No one — the media, government officials, and university and college administrators — has anything good to say about professors. They are seen as lazy, unresponsive to students, too focused on their research, unwilling to adapt to online education or other innovations, and opposed to needed changes in their institutions. They are part of the problem — indeed, they are often seen as the problem. Higher ed associations and think tanks constantly propose the need for new models for teaching to change the presumably flawed existing models. The only people who seem to like professors are students — most students evaluate their professors positively.
Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg
The fact is that the entire higher education enterprise depends on the academic profession for its success. No doubt, if current trends continue and the best-qualified and committed young people leave the academic profession or choose not to enter it in the first place, the work of teaching will go on. Perhaps MOOCs will take over. Or the entire teaching force will be part-time, rushing from one university to another to teach a class. Since research will have no role — why bother about requiring a Ph.D. of faculty hires? The research universities will have three classes of professors, like the airlines. A small first-class cabin of researchers, a business-class section of academics who will teach and do some research, and a large economy cabin of poorly paid teachers. The idea of an academic community and of shared governance goes out the window with any of these models. Who would want to spend the time, energy — and money — to prepare for such a profession?
What Can be Done?
Maintaining, and in part rebuilding, a committed academic profession is hardly rocket science. In fact, until fairly recently, such a profession was largely the norm in the United States — and it still exists in some elite institutions. The following elements are required:
  • A career structure that permits reasonable security of tenure and clear expectations for evaluation and promotion. In fact, the traditional tenure system has done this fairly well — although reforms that provide for stringent post-tenure review and additional flexibility are desirable.
  • Salaries that permit a middle-class life style for academics.
  • Strengthening, not weakening, of shared governance so that a community of scholars can be maintained.
  • Better differentiation of institutional functions so that faculty in research universities can, with few exceptions, maintain their traditional commitment to both teaching and research, while much of the rest of the academic system can be even more focused on teaching and serving an increasingly diverse student population.
  • Less reliance on part-timers, and reasonable remuneration for those who are hired, while at the same time recognizing the legitimacy of hiring full-time contract teachers outside of the research university sector.
These suggestions will be seen by the “unbundlers” as soft and overly traditional. The fact is that the American higher education system has been quite successful, and also quite innovative, by global standards. Over the past century, it has supported massive expansion of enrollments while at the same time it has built high quality at the top. By any measure, the United States remains home to more top research universities than any other nation. These are revolutionary times for higher education. If we do not take the academic profession more seriously, we truly are in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
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Lecturer | History & Global Studies
Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences

Chair | UWT Lecturer Affairs Committee
University of Washington | Tacoma       
SCI 102F 253.692.5737

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