Colleges, faced with funding cuts, target tenure trims

Douglas Belkin

For decades, tenured professors held some of the most prestigious and secure jobs in the U.S. Now, their status is under attack at public and private colleges alike.

In states facing budget pressures such as Missouri, North Dakota and Iowa, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills for the current legislative sessions to eliminate tenure, cut back its protections or create added hoops that tenured faculty at public colleges must jump through to keep their jobs. University administrators, struggling to shave their costs, are trying to limit the ranks of tenured professors or make it easier to fire them.

The institution of tenure—which provides job security and perks like regular sabbaticals—began in the U.S. early in the 20th century as a bulwark against interference from administrators, corporate interests and politicians who might not like professors’ opinions or agree with their research.

Attacks on tenure have become commonplace in the wake of the recession as reductions in public support for colleges led to steep tuition increases that have driven up student debt and magnified scrutiny on the business practices of universities. Conservative lawmakers also have expressed mounting displeasure with university professors, saying they indoctrinate impressionable students with a liberal point of view.

“We’ve gone from an atmosphere of optimism [15 years ago] to a time of crisis and despair,” said Russ Castronovo, chairman of the English department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which saw deep cuts and reduced tenure protections in recent years.

In 2015, the Wisconsin Legislature voted to weaken a state tenure law and cut $250 million from the university’s budget. The Wisconsin university board of regents last year instituted “independent and substantive reviews” of tenured faculty every five years. If deemed lacking, they have three or four semesters to improve or are shown the door, said James Schmidt, chancellor of University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker recently announced plans to cut tuition by 5% across all University of Wisconsin System schools while at the same time instituting a faculty accountability policy that would monitor the how much time professors spend in the classroom.

Faculty at State College of Florida hired after July 2016 no longer qualify for tenure-like protections. In North Dakota, the state board of higher education is considering reducing to 90 days from 12 months the amount of time administrators need to give tenured faculty before they can lay them off. The state’s 11-school college and university system is bracing for steep layoffs this year after cutting about 500 full-time positions last year.

A Missouri bill would prohibit any public institution of higher education from awarding tenure after Jan. 1, 2018.

“I just don’t think if you’re being paid with tax dollars you should be guaranteed a job for life,” said Iowa state Senator Brad Zaun, a Republican who filed a bill for the current legislative season that would eliminate the possibility of tenure for new hires and strip it from holders of tenure alike at the three regents universities in his state.

Bruce Rastetter, president of the Iowa Board of Regents, and a leading state GOP donor, doesn’t support it. “We recognize the concern about merit-based evaluations addressed in the bill,” Mr. Rastetter said in a statement. “However the Board of Regents understands the role of tenure. We oppose this bill, and I look forward to meeting with Sen. Zaun to hear his thoughts,” he said.

Defenders of tenure say states that do away with it will be at a disadvantage bringing in the most talented professors and risk losing valuable grants that can power economic growth. “If they get rid of it, it would cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in grants; its financial idiocy to do something like this,” said David Soll, a professor of biology at the University of Iowa.

In 1975, 45% of faculty at public and private schools was tenured or tenure-track; the 2014 figure is 29%. The balance of the jobs are now filled by part-time adjunct professors who make, on average, less than half the salary of tenured professors, enjoying few of their benefits, and are excused from much of the administrative work. While the average salary of a full professor is $142,141, according to the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts are typically paid between $1,500 and $5,000 a course.

Schools across the country, mostly small, private colleges like Wartburg College in Iowa and the College of Saint Rose in New York, have been offering buyouts to cull their ranks of longtime faculty. Other schools have eliminated entire academic departments.

For professors, all of this means more demands, less respect and declining job satisfaction, said Kiernan Mathews, executive director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which surveys faculty at public and private colleges on job satisfaction.

Over the past two years, those surveys have become so overloaded with complaints about the growing demands of university, trustee and legislative leaders, Mr. Mathews said they added “a whole additional dimension to our survey.”

Professors contend they are already working harder than ever. “We’re under a lot more pressure to be more productive,” said John Ziker, an anthropologist at Boise State University who conducted a time-use survey on his mostly tenured peers that found on average they work 51 hours during the week and 10 more over the weekend. “It’s a long way from walking around in robes debating philosophical points,” Dr. Ziker said.

Write to Douglas Belkin at [email protected]

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