Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Debating Tenure, Again
By now, many readers will have seen the story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about the dramatic decline in the number of tenure track faculty at American colleges and universities. The Valve’s own Marc Bousquet is quoted in the story. There is also a series of columns under the “Room for Debate” rubric at the New York Times, called “What if College Tenure Dies?"
The comments on the Chronicle story expose some of the problems in the way the story is framed. The basic graph shows a decline in the percentage (not number) of tenure track jobs in academia across the board (from 57% in 1975 to 31% in 2007), which then provokes a round of debate amongst pro-tenure (i.e., Cary Nelson) and anti-tenure (i.e., Mark C. Taylor) academics, who are quoted in the article and then expand on their views in the Times. No one disputes that there’s been a surge of adjunct hiring at established universities in recent years, and no one disputes that colleges and universities often try to downplay through reclassification the amount of teaching that is done by graduate students (that said, I think it’s incorrect to include graduate student instructors as “non-tenure track,” since in principle graduate students are on their way to tenure track jobs in the future; the number of courses/students taught by graduate students should be in its own category).
But what if the sharp decline in the percentage of tenure track jobs is not due to decisions to eliminate the idea of tenure, so much as the growth of community colleges and the rise of for-profit institutions? The former only rarely have tenure track positions, while the latter never do. As I understand it, very few traditional colleges or universities have actually decided to abandon tenure in recent years. The Chronicle only cites Evergreen State College; Bennington College, not cited in the essay, also abolished tenure in 1994. Does anyone know of other colleges or universities that have gone this route? If that’s it, this is almost certainly a misdirected debate.
Questions by commenter “bmartin” (#12) at the Chronicle fall along the lines of my own objection:
An interesting analysis, but I would like to see the actual numbers not just the percentages. By what amount has the overall higher education enterprise increased since 1975? Is the increasing percentage of non-tenured positions due in part to the increase in for-profit institutions? Has the actual number of tenured positions decreased? I presume the actual report will include the numbers but it would be helpful to include these in the summary.
The actual Department of Education/AAUP report from which the Chronicle derives its numbers hasn’t been publicly released yet; when it is, we’ll be able to get a more exact picture of what exactly is happening vis a vis community colleges and for-profit institutions. Unfortunately, this Chronicle article, extracting one factoid without sufficient “internals,” as Nate Silver might call them, seems to be designed to provoke a contentious debate over “abolishing tenure,” which remains for most universities a non-issue.
In the context of massive expansion of a higher education sector, surely the percentages are far more indicative of what’s happening than the absolute figures?
Caveat: I’m speaking from an Australian perspective, and so I’m not utterly familiar with the North American scene. Still, I assume that the US is seeing the same move from elite to mass education that has occurred in Australia and the UK — even if not to the same extent. But even if we allow only for higher ed growth at the same rate as population growth, the percentages cited — or maybe an enrolments/graduates-per-tenure figure — would be far more indicative of what’s happening to tenure than the “actual numbers”.
Caveat: I’m speaking from an Australian perspective, and so I’m not utterly familiar with the North American scene. Still, I assume that the US is seeing the same move from elite to mass education that has occurred in Australia and the UK — even if not to the same extent.
I guess my thought was this: it’s possible that the actual number of tenure track jobs hasn’t declined nearly as much as the percentage their graph suggests. While some colleges and universities have been laying off people, and quite a number of schools have had hiring freezes over the past 2-3 years with the recession that have resulted in lost lines, the overall impact on TT lines at traditional institutions ought to be under 5 percent (I’m speculating).
What might be skewing the number is the explosion of for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix. Many of them are online, and they also generally have non-traditional students (that is to say, people who wouldn’t normally enroll in a college full-time). These institutions generally aren’t eating into the regular pool of college-going students, but they may be bloating the percentage of non-tenure track teachers.
If that’s what the (still unreleased) absolute numbers will indicate, the idea that this graph should provoke a lot of sturm and drang over whether tenure is sensible at elite private universities is a waste of breath. We should be debating (or rather, advocating) the elimination of subsidies in the form of federal financial aid grants to for-profits, since they take resources out of the system without actually delivering what they promise. See this:
Hmm. Although I write, my day job (!) is teaching, and out here in California, most community colleges do offer tenure.
But they hire part-timers because they’re cheaper.