Like tweed jackets and same-sex dorms, academic tenure is fast becoming a relic of the past. In 1975, almost half of all teachers at U.S. colleges and universities either had tenure or were in line for tenure; by 2011, that share had fallen to one-fourth. Now, almost two-thirds of instructors are part-time adjuncts, most of them poorly paid, or graduate students.
Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of tenure, which protects professors from summary dismissal. The more pressing question is whether the system that is replacing it makes sense for students or society as a whole.
Students go to college to learn, obviously, and society benefits from both the training they receive and the research they help conduct. The issue, then, is not how to save or end tenure. It’s how to restore teaching to its rightful position in U.S. higher education.
It’s not as if top universities aren’t lavishing attention on their tuition-paying customers. It’s just that a falling share of money is going toward teaching. Spending on student services has been growing almost twice as fast as spending on teaching costs. The share spent on nonacademic functions, such as alumni and public relations, is also growing faster.
This change may not have been conscious, let alone deliberate. It is a consequence of declining state funding, growing competition for students and a perceived need for a more flexible curriculum.
Like most changes made under pressure, this one is not all good. Administrators may like the ability to fill more positions with cheaper and easy-to-replace nontenured teachers. When four-year colleges increase their use of part-time instructors, however, graduation rates fall. The reason isn’t clear -- though it probably has something to do with their relative lack of office hours (for adjuncts, both offices and hours are often in short supply) and their relative lack of familiarity with the latest research (because they’re less likely to be doing any of that research).
The hopeless plight of the comp-lit post-doc student is not necessarily a matter of public concern. It is concerning, however, if fewer Americans are seeking careers in one of America’s most successful (if it’s not too crass a term) industries.
All of which brings us back to the question of how to make an academic career more attractive to students, and to make teaching a more important part of an academic career. Tenured faculty members can help by insisting their nontenured colleagues receive equal institutional support -- allowing them to participate in department meetings, for example, or get money to attend conferences, or receive support for submitting research grants.
Meanwhile, colleges and universities can adopt new contracts that occupy a middle ground between tenure for life and annual renewal. Multiyear contracts, as some schools are offering, are one option. Another possibility is to offer new professors the possibility of tenure -- but only to the age of 65, followed by contract employment.
The federal government also has a role to play. It can discourage overreliance on adjunct professors by making the share of part-timers at any given school a component of the new university scorecard announced by President Barack Obama last year. Accreditation agencies, whose stamp of approval is required by universities and colleges seeking to qualify for federal student aid money, could also set maximum thresholds for the use of adjuncts.
Ideally, a generation from now, U.S. colleges and universities will still be the envy of the world, and teaching will remain at their core -- both in principle and in practice. In that sense, what’s less important for schools is to protect the status of individual teachers as much as the profession itself.
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