Is the Professoriate Committing Suicide?

Much has been written about the declining number of tenure/tenure-track faculty (TTF) when considered as a percentage of the total instructional faculty on the nation’s campuses. This phenomenon began a few decades ago, but it is only in the last five years that it has become pronounced and widely commented upon. For example, it is now generally accepted that while said percentage was likely more than 75% several decades ago, it is now in the neighborhood of 30%. (It depends upon whether one computes the percentage based on bodies or instructional hours.) The reasons for this development are well-known. In this essay, I will do three things:

  1. Quickly review the reasons;
  2. Describe why, unlike some, I view this development as a serious problem for the cause of higher education; and
  3. Explain how – against their better interests – TTF are actually complicit in the creation and perpetuation of this problem.

It is, of course, item 3 that is the novel contribution to the national conversation on this topic.

The first reason that is usually cited when the declining TTF issue is explained is cost. If we use the term adjunct faculty (which is widely employed, albeit not universally accepted) to describe the non-TTF on the nation’s campuses, then it is an indisputable fact that TTF salaries far outstrip those of adjunct faculty. At a time when the average TTF salary is approaching six figures – and when “star” faculty often earn more than a quarter million dollars annually, the average adjunct faculty salary is a mere fraction of that, often below $25,000. University administrators are under enormous pressure to keep costs down. Faculty salaries are a huge part of the university budget. Replacing TTF by adjuncts is a tactic that is almost impossible to resist.

A close second among the reasons for the disappearing TTF instructor is the intense competition among the nation’s universities to be seen as “one of the best.” Universities are judged on the quality of their students and on the quality of their faculty. Regarding the latter, for better or worse, the evaluation is routinely made on the basis of faculty research. Campuses compete to hire and retain the best research faculty and a prime weapon in that competition is the offer of reduced teaching loads. Guess who picks up the slack.

There are a few lesser reasons that reinforce the teaching imbalance between TTF and adjuncts:

  • Sad to say, but many adjuncts are better teachers than TTF, who, too often, shirk their teaching duties in favor of their research activities. Furthermore, most research faculty experienced little in the way of teacher training in graduate school, whereas many adjuncts do have such preparation in their backgrounds.
  • University administrators find adjuncts much easier to manage than TTF; adjuncts are more docile, less demanding and far less likely to question campus initiatives that muck with academic programs.
  • Many parents have lost faith in American higher education – because of outrageously high costs, worthless degrees awarded to their children and drivel driven into those children’s heads by radical (and not so radical) professors. Parents hold the TTF responsible and are not disturbed by their disappearance from the classroom.
  • The pool of candidates for TTF careers has plateaued as many American youngsters see the requisite credentials as too difficult to obtain and, furthermore, foresee life in a corporate enterprise, small or individually-owned business, or government environment as more accessible and rewarding.

Because of these reasons, some view the declining presence of TTF in university classrooms as not necessarily a bad thing. I disagree. If the trend continues, and the indications are that it will, then the percentage of instructional faculty that are TTF might go as low as 10%. Even at its current low level, it has weakened the faculty as the main branch of the American university. Classically, it was the faculty that ran the university. That is no longer true. The campus agenda – academic and fiscal – is set by university administrators. I discussed this at length in a prior essayin this journal, to which the reader is referred. Therein I outlined all the negative consequences: polarization of the campus, loosening of academic standards, prohibitive costs, and a major contributor to the next, horrible, fiscal bubble (student debt). Another deleterious consequence (inadvertently omitted in loc. cit.) is that one of the prime objectives of higher education – namely, fostering interaction between creative faculty and inquisitive students – is drastically undercut.

So the surrender of control of the campus by the faculty to university administrators is both a cause and an effect of the declining TTF percentage. It is a shocking and dangerous development. But what is doubly shocking – and this is alluded to by the use of the word ‘surrender’ above – is that the faculty is complicit in the diminution of the TTF as the instructional arm of the university.

How so? Well, it’s not like faculty all over the country woke up one morning and decided to engineer a major change in their job description. No, the process was more nebulous. In mid twentieth century, the campuses of America exploded with huge numbers of new students, new programs, new facilities and of course new personnel. The youth of America saw the good life and good works of university faculty and decided they wanted a piece of that action. The ranks of the TTF grew enormously and for the most part the paradigms of university faculty life remained intact – for a while. But the societal forces that rocked the country in the 60s and 70s had a profound effect on the academy. No tradition was safe. Especially not the traditional mode for the conduct of university life (cf. Columbia, 1968 or Cornell, 1970). And here is where the dereliction of duty by the faculty enters the picture. Most faculty were preoccupied with one of two complementary behaviors. Either they were in the vanguard of the cultural and educational revolution that overthrew the ancien regime. More commonly, they were consumed with keeping their heads down and trying to run their academic lives in a traditional way in an attempt to be impervious to the sweeping changes swirling about them. In so doing they missed the revolution and never appreciated that control of the university had been swept away from them. More specifically:

  • Most faculty were content with rising academic salaries – especially those who really cashed in; faculty paid no heed to the increasing use of low-paid adjuncts to staff courses.
  • In addition, they welcomed reduced teaching loads and so – to reemphasize – they ignored the campus’ compensating action of staffing courses with adjuncts.
  • Faculty were also happy to emphasize their research at the expense of their teaching. Naturally, they did little to increase their teaching prowess.
  • Finally, faculty seemed blissfully ignorant of the increasing dissatisfaction among parents, students and politicians regarding the quality of the “product” their “company” was putting out.

In short, far too many faculty were either totally unaware of the changes that were sweeping the campus; or if they were aware, they made no attempt to resist the changes – either because of ignorance or a misguided sense that the changes were redounding to their benefit. They offered little or no resistance to the coup being perpetrated by university administrators. A big part of the coup program was to turn over much of university instruction to adjunct faculty. The TTF was complicit in the coup in that either it completely misunderstood the plans of the revolutionaries or if it understood them, it raised no objection. In the end, the university has been injured, and in the long run the TTF will suffer.

Can that fate be avoided? I think the only chance is if American institutions of higher education accept a national challenge to restore the percentage of TTF in the classroom to at least 50%. This would ameliorate, and hopefully reverse, some of the negative consequences that I outlined above. But what about the two primary drivers of this phenomenon? Well, if the restorative process was universally adopted, then there would be no effect on universities’ ability to recruit and retain exceptional faculty since all institutions would be living with the same constraints. On the other hand, the renewal process would definitely entail increased costs. Where will the money come from? The traditional sources of campus revenue – tuition, endowments, state support, federal and corporate grants – are largely tapped out. The answer: all those scores of administrators (deans, deanlets, program directors, diversity officers and the multitudes of support staff) would have to go. Wouldn’t that be wonderful! A university that values the people who do the teaching and learning rather than those who push papers, issue meaningless reports and set rules that injure the academic enterprise.

This essay also appeared in a slightly abridged form in Minding the Campus.

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