Wednesday, 24 August 2011

On Tenure in America

I warn you, this is a bit of a long post for me, but I think more relevant to the academic world than most of mine, so:

Yesterday, Dean Dad over at Confessions of a Community College Dean published a post about the cumulative load of student loan debt. One, you should read that post and also check out the worrisome chart.

Two, he said something that irked me.

"Among the blogs, you’d get the impression that the biggest problem facing higher ed was its overreliance on adjuncts. Put differently, you’d get the impression that colleges are too frugal. The preferred alternative usually offered is a dramatic and sustained increase in labor costs. From whence the money to pay these increased costs would come is usually left to the imagination. "

I responded in the comments thusly:

"Come now, you know this isn't what we're griping about, nor a fair description of the solution. The problem is not an over-reliance on adjuncts so much as the replacement of full-time tenured positions with underpaid adjunct ones. We just want the number of full time with benefits teaching jobs to remain the same, not decrease in favour of part-time, no-benefits jobs. This shouldn't be described as a "dramatic and sustained increase in labor costs" so much as "keeping up with inflation" -- tough, I know, but certainly not as outlandish as you're making us sound.

Now I'll admit, I may not have spent more than five minutes responding, but today I have more time, and lucky commenter "Anonymous" at 6:11am gets that time spent on her or his response.
"Vellum: what I'd like to see is some statistics. Which schools have lost faculty positions, and how many? At my own institution, I can say with certainty that no faculty have been "replaced" with adjuncts. In real terms, the size of the department has increased significantly in the last ten years...just not as significantly as the number of adjuncts. DD's assumption (which seems in the main correct) is that more people are going to college and instructional loads are increasing, and that we can meet that increased burden with either expensive tenured faculty or inexpensive (in the short term) adjuncts. That's not "replacing;" that's just not increasing. If you can point to a department that had 20 full-time faculty a decade ago and only has 10 today, of course--in a discipline that hasn't seen drastic reductions in students taking classes; The Classics department at SUNY Albany, for instance was clearly not the victim of the contingent labor market--that might help ground this discussion in the facts."

I can't believe I never looked this up for myself. That's lesson one. You read statements like "the percentage of tenure and tenure-track faculty has shrunk to almost a quarter" and "the trend of tenured and tenure-track faculty lines being replaced by adjuncts will likely continue" and you think that across the board, retiring tenured faculty aren't being replaced with new tenured faculty.

That isn't exactly the case.

Yes, I'm sure it's happening in some places, but it's not the whole story. The whole story is both better and worse.

According to these data from the AFL-CIO, between 2001 and 2009 in the US, the total number of tenured faculty, that is, the total number of people with tenure at an institute of higher education, went up in every named category: Professor, Associate, Assistant, Instructor, Lecturer. That's the good news.

The bad news is that untenured and non-tenure-track jobs are becoming a larger part of the whole. While the data seem to only show a slight shift in the population as a whole so far, from 32.6% of the workforce in non-tenured/non-tenure-track jobs in 2001 to 35.9% in 2009, the discomforting thing is where the new jobs are being created. Of the roughly 87000 new teaching jobs reported from 2001-2009, nearly 60% (58.6%) were in non-tenure/non-tenure-track jobs.

Now, I'm also dubious as to how many "temporary" (read: adjunct) staff the Universities would report for this survey, and I can't find much data on that. It could well be that these are only non-tenure-track "full-time" positions being charted, which would leave all the tens of thousands of adjuncts unrepresented in this study.

This doesn't mitigate the way adjunct faculty are being treated. Nor does it really address the decreased quality of education when the economics of the situation are driven by such a lack of government funding that tuition is actually seen as a major source of budgetary income (seriously, in the rest of the western world, that idea is just loopy -- but then in the rest of the western world, you don't have to pay $20,000-$40,000 a year in tuition for a BA, either).

What it does suggest is that even though the pool of qualified PhDs is getting larger by the year, and even though the job market is getting more intensely competitive such that only the very, very top candidates get tenure-track positions, there are more tenure-track positions created in the US every year.

And that should be some small comfort to us all.

Even while we prepare to flip burgers with our non-Ivy PhDs hanging behind us on the wall.


Janice said...

With regards to your anonymous respondent at DD's, if anecdotes are data, I can sure tell you about a serious decline in the number of tenure-track or even full-time faculty. We've gone from fifteen to nine in the past few years and all we've gotten is the equivalent of 1.5 faculty members in course by course contracts. That's progress? I don't think so!

Vellum said...

One thing I haven't been able to do with the data from the AFL-CIO is see about breaking it down by departments -- I would love to know how, say, the number of English department tenure-track positions are faring compared with the number of Economics department or Engineering school tenure-track ones.

But I must say that if I saw the kind of decline you're representing in my department, I'd start to look for a contingency plan in case of the worst. :/

I recognize this is a worst case scenario, but it's not too much of a stretch to see how fewer dedicated staff can lead to a smaller program; then a smaller program can lead to fewer dedicated staff. A few repeats and then it's "oh, you're only a small program and we want to focus on other things we do better, because SUNY Albany Classics, that's why." :(

Dr. Virago said...

Well *we've* definitely shrunk here in English at Rust Belt U. I think in the 90s and before, we had 30 or more TT faculty and now we have 19 (and we had 21 when I first arrived). And what's more, some of our lines have been replaced with VAPs, lecturers, adjuncts, or nothing at all. In the last 8 years, 7 people have retired, left for another job, or died, and we've been able to replace 3 (the lines where people left or died).

So, in my experience, in this part of higher ed, your original comment rings perfectly true. Anon at 6:11 may work at a more prestigious university. Here in the trenches, though, TT lines really are being replaced and erased, even in evergreen English.

Vellum said...

I actually wonder if the growing numbers of TT faculty are in things like business, economics, engineering and so forth, rather than in English and history. Perhaps we're losing TT jobs and they're gaining them? Anybody read this who works in one of those fields?