Phi Beta Cons

Off the Track

It just fades away. There’s an interesting story in today’s IHE regarding the ever-increasing number and percentage of faculty who are part time and off the tenure track. Out of 1,314,506 faculty members (full and part time), only 283,434 have tenure. Moreover, the trends are moving against tenure (and the tenure-track), with the percentage of tenured faculty decreasing from 2003 to 2005, and the percentage of part-time faculty rising to 47.5% of all faculty members.

Over the last several years, I’ve been in a number of informal debates regarding the virtues (or lack thereof) of tenure, but it looks like policy debates on tenure may be mooted by the facts on the ground. Simply put, market forces are dictating the realities, and the controlling entities in higher education all gain rather substantial benefits from fewer tenured professors:  1. Administrators (including faculty administrators like department chairs) have much greater authority and flexibility when governing at-will employees rather than a permanent class of employees immune from any real discipline or accountability.  2. Part-time faculty and untenured faculty are much less expensive than tenured faculty, which helps administrators and legislators control rising costs.  3. As tenure becomes ever-more “elite,” there is considerable psychological benefit in becoming part of “the few, the proud” of the profession. Why would currently tenured professors want to dilute their brand?  4. Students and parents either don’t care about the issue or prefer more accountability and less cost.  Finally, the untenured professors themselves have almost no ability to change these realities. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand: with a glut of candidates (especially in those areas of the humanities where teaching is about the only thing you can do with your degree), the the professors have almost no market power. There’s always someone else willing to take the job.

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