Is it really “higher education” without tenured faculty?

How many of you college or university faculty members would have gone into your line of work without the hope of tenure?

I was thinking about this with respect to a survey of provosts published by Inside Higher Ed today.  Among other interesting findings, the provosts surveyed said this about tenure:

The survey found that 70 percent of provosts at public and private four-year institutions (and 54 percent of those at community colleges, where tenure is less common than it is at four-year institutions) agree that tenure “remains important and viable at my institution.” (Not surprisingly, the figure was only 3 percent of provosts in for-profit higher education, where tenure is rare.)

But while 70 percent see that as the status quo, support for tenure among provosts appears soft at best. Asked if they favored or opposed a system of long-term contracts for faculty members over the existing system of tenure in higher education, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of provosts said that they favored such a system. Support was strongest among for-profit provosts (80 percent), but at majority-plus levels in every sector of higher education, two-year and four-year, public and private. At private doctoral universities, 67 percent of provosts favor such a system.

Another question sought provosts’ thoughts on the long-term future of tenure. They were asked to agree or disagree (on a five-point scale) with the statement: “Future generations of faculty in this country should not expect tenure to be a factor in their employment at higher education institutions.” The percentage agreeing or strongly agreeing:

  • Public institutions: 58 percent (with community colleges at 68 percent)
  • Private nonprofit institutions: 53 percent
  • For-profit institutions: 87 percent

I don’t know about the rest of you, but there is no way in hell I would have gone into this line of work without the hope of tenure.  I enjoy teaching and I love my research, but the costs of pursing a Ph.D. and using it fully were just too high for me to undertake without the hope of tenure.  I don’t make enough money, and I didn’t have the liberty to choose where I wanted to live, so without tenure?  Forget it.

I faced the prospect of leaving academia over a decade ago when my first tenure-track job started to really stink.  I was newly married and so had the luxury of spousal support while I reinvented myself, but my partner and I both agreed that if I didn’t get another tenure-track job, the benefit of 1) choosing where we lived, and 2) me having a job that didn’t ruin my life were pretty great compensations for whatever spell of under- or unemployment I might have endured.  But you know what I never, ever contemplated?  Teaching as an adjunct or non-tenure track lecturer!

Is higher education really higher education without faculty tenure?  I say no.  Just check out the loan default rates and unemployment rates of for-profit university alums, where tenure is non-existent, to public or private university graduates.  But our current generation of “leaders” suggest that they’re happy to follow Kaplan and Phoenix down the rabbit hole.  Like the failed leaders in our political life and financial sectors, it looks like today’s provosts are happy to chase fads and engage in an academic version of pump-and-dump:  “pump” up the adjunct rates and “dump” the tenured faculty while they run the clock out on their careers.

After all, they won’t be around when the price of a hollowed-out tenured faculty becomes clear.  They’re doing more with less now and reaping the rewards, so what do they care?

38 thoughts on “Is it really “higher education” without tenured faculty?

  1. Yeah from a strictly cost-benefit perspective, getting a PhD (especially with student loans) is totally irrational without the prospect of tenure. Of course, that’s in comparison to the present job market. Given the downward pressure on wages & benefits in every sector, in 20 years it may be that 35K/year with no benefits or job security and $50K+ in debt will look like a pretty good deal………


  2. This is only tangentially related, but I am curious if anyone has any experience with this at other institutions. I am curious as to how common this is.

    I work at a nursing school in an R1 institution, and “clinical faculty” do not have tenure and only have one year contracts. This includes department chairs and even associate and assistant deans. Only our research faculty (which number 10) and Dean of the School even have the opportunity for tenure. Because of the rules of the university as a whole, only faculty with tenure can be part of university-wide committees and Faculty Senate, which not only puts an undue burden on our 5 tenured faculty members (out of about 40 full time faculty members), but really limits our school’s ability to influence any decisions made at the University level.

    Other local schools are not Universities, and clinical faculty have the opportunity to gain tenure if they are doctorally prepared.


  3. I think the “choosing where you live” aspect of the profession seems like the foremost issue when considering the essential nature of tenure to attracting experts in particular specializations into full-time positions. People will choose to work in careers, even ones that require professional degrees, with lower salaries out of passionate commitment. But they won’t necessarily choose to move across the country or to a totally undesirable location to do so. It’s one thing to work for a non-profit for a less than desirable wage in the town where you have a social support network including both extended family and friends; it’s another thing to pursue that same job (paying at least a grand out of pocket to apply/interview) in an undesirable or far-flung location where you have no such support network. Tenure may not make the second option *easier,* but it does at least indicate a certain level of stability and institutional commitment, which allows a person to put down roots and encourages them to put in the work to “immigrate” to the new location.

    If you don’t provide that incentive, you’re not going to be able to hire in specialized fields anymore, I suspect. The “research” part of the job will basically be a thing of the past. And, just as students often look with distaste at pursuing high school teaching, they will look the same way at pursuing a career in universities. Awesome.


  4. When I was in graduate school, I would have said, “no. definitely not.”

    Then, I graduated in 2008–just before the bottom fell out–and landed in a high-paying VAP (at a military academy, where there is no tenure – all of the civilian faculty are on term contracts) for four years before landing another job teaching in the Professional Military Education system (again, no tenure) with long-term contracts. And this feels fairly stable (at least it did until the latest bit of budgetary insanity hit). This isn’t at all where I imagined being when I thought about grad school or as I was writing the dissertation, or even for the five years I spent on the job market. But it’s where I landed, and it’s actually not so bad. Though I didn’t make a trade off for low pay – my salary and benefits are generous, I imagine I would feel differently if I were working for less money.

    But in both cases, the culture of the institutions has been that the long-term, renewable contracts are tenure-like. After a probationary period and a two short-term contracts (3-years each), you can put in a promotion packet (to Associate) and be granted longer-term contracts. The assumption is that after that, contracts will be renewed except for cause. It is definitely not as secure as tenure, but it seems reasonable, and everyone is playing by the same rules. I think that matters as well – I would most definitely not want to work somewhere where there were three classes of faculty–tenure/tt, long-term contracts, and adjuncts. Because none of us–from the Dean, to Department Heads, to Assistant Professors–have tenure, the system doesn’t feel rigged. Would I like it to be more secure? Sure. Do I think that’s going to happen? Nope. Could it change with a new dean? A new administration? Yes. Do I still keep my eye out for TT jobs in my field? Absolutely. Would I make the jump back to the civilian academy? I don’t know. . .

    So, tradeoffs and cost-benefit analyses abound. I think for a long-term contract system to be viable it would need to be institution-wide and you’d have to pay people more. But I’m not wholly opposed to the idea.


  5. Dr. Crazy: your analysis is the same as mine. I’m sure that elite institutions, especially those in desirable locations, would be able to get and keep good faculty. But unis outside of major metropolitan areas, and/or in places that are deemed less desirable places to live? I don’t think so, and thus our university system would revert to more of what it was back in the 19th century, with vast differences in status and stature of the faculty.

    So, Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Chicago, and all of the elite schools in the BosWash corridor will be OK. But good luck getting people to move to Iowa, downstate Illinois, or Texas without tenure. Nebraska? Forget it. Mississippi? Just turn your unis into community colleges. North Dakota: Are you kidding?

    arbitrista: you know, when I wrote about the cost of pursuing a Ph.D. I was only thinking about the cost in time (most of your 20s, or even 30s, depending.) I never even considered the financial cost outside of loss of earnings–but that’s probably because I never considered borrowing money for grad school, and I think that’s even more prudent advice these days. I always tell my students to forget getting a Ph.D. if they don’t get a grad fellowship. There’s too much risk and too little reward in a humanities Ph.D.

    Maria: the situation you describe sounds like class adjunct work rather than faculty work–but are clinical faculty true adjuncts (people with a day job who train students on the side? Or are they full-time teachers? Do they have Ph.D.s, or doesn’t that matter? In any case, making nursing clinical faculty ineligible for tenure sure is a great way to keep women out of self-government at your school. Wow.


  6. How many of these provosts (except at for-profits) don’t themselves have tenure, and the expectation of being able to return to departmental teaching posts when they either get tired of the grueling 9-5 life in admin; or else get escorted out of the mahogany corridors so a new leadership team can be formed? While they retain their name-on-the-concrete-stick parking slots near Old Main, however, they reflexively think like corpo-crats. If you want to be a visionary change-agent, you have to have squadroons of valued associates and “team members” down below. The allusion of the ability to run your job without an in-basket or a reporting chain-of-command probably runs a close third to eventual cost-recovery and the trade-off on geography in the matrix of things that make faculty careers viable. But, as some have suggested here, generational consciousness change can really happen. I can’t find a single person in my unit who agrees or strongly agrees (or even remembers hearing about) the view that the best way of dealing with an obstreperous dean is to blockade the mofo in hir office for a week or two until ze re-equilibrates to hir senses. Go figure.


  7. As a current PhD student (no loans, and various non-generalizable reasons making it worth my time, but still there’s opportunity cost), I really don’t expect a tenure track position. To people in my position, academic jobs are going to have to compete on the same level and based on the same factors as non-academic jobs. An academic job that requires relocation, pays less than a non-academic job, and has a one year contract is not a worthwhile tradeoff compared to your standard professional job in a desirable location, and adjuncting or instructing without a yearly salary or benefits doesn’t even compare. On the other hand, if universities were to treat “long term contracts” like other employers do – not a lifetime guarantee, but with an expectation that your contract will be renewed if all goes well, and you’ll be treated like a permanent employee as long as you’re there, as notabattlechick describes – that sounds pretty sweet. Unfortunately, it seems like they’re currently split between “tenure track” and “temporary with no long term prospects.”

    Of course, in the current market sometimes there isn’t a good salaried professional job offer on the table, so when you’re comparing jobs with low pay, no security, and no benefits, I guess you take what you can get.


  8. I would have gone into it, but only if salaries were more in the 250K/year range (on average). People do work untenured at think-tanks for more than what I make, and given that I chose academia over the think-tank, the salary that would make an untenured position worth it to me is pretty high.

    And also what Dr. Crazy said about living in BFE.


  9. Historians are terrible prophets, but my guess is that tenure will depart the scene in the not too distant future. I hope I’m wrong: but it’s no longer the majority condition in the academy and has departed from most of the rest of the economy long since (remember when jobs in big corporations were effectively permanent, and layoffs from jobs on big industrial production lines were really layoffs, from which workers were called back?).

    I’m sure some places will offer decent conditions, like those encountered by notabattlechick, and perhaps some schools will retain it. One thing you learn from this and other great blogs is how varied conditions are across the country and beyond. But there are still a lot of tenured and tenure-track historians in the USA, and that may well not be true in a generation. And in a lot of places, those brisk, efficient provosts will be in the happy condition of being able to call highly-paid senior employees in for a meet with HR and security and having them escorted off campus–because they’re unproductive, because they’re not teaching well, or just because they’re costly.

    Historical research, in the sense we’ve known, requires time: time to drill down into the sources, to take wrong turns that turn out to be right ones if you stick to them, to keep up with the scholarship and read up new areas in it. One big reason we go into academic history is to research. If talented young people know they won’t have that kind of time at their disposal, will they continue to do so–especially given the points made by Dr Crazy and Historiann?

    Possibly, of course, some provosts don’t see this as a problem.


  10. I think tenure here can mean different things. On the one hand, it implies a guarantee of long term employment regardless of performance. But when juxtaposed to non t/t instructor, it usually means less teaching and more research, and more involvement in departmental decisions.

    I would be willing to give up the former, but not the latter.


  11. As someone working at a place where there *are* three classes of faculty — tenured/tenure track, full-time contingent, and part-time contingent (adjunct), I have to agree with notabattlechick that that may well be the worst of all possible worlds, for all involved (though why it’s so bad for the TT faculty may not be immediately apparent). Having a lot of untenurable faculty (especially untenurable faculty who do nothing but teach) erodes faculty governance in insidious ways: fewer faculty are available to do committee work/strategic/curricular planning, those who do do such work are increasingly overwhelmed, and a lot of the big-picture investigating, thinking, decision-making falls to the growing administrative class (or, worse, outside consultants). The old frog-in-hot-water analogy applies: tenure track faculty don’t feel the pain for some time (and may even enjoy leaves and/or reduced course loads enabled by shifting more of the teaching to contingent laborers), until at some point those who now hold the decision-making power decide to revolutionize things in the name of making college more affordable, or dealing with budget cuts, or whatever. At that point, it becomes clear that, while tenure may guarantee a job (assuming one’s department/program isn’t eliminated), it doesn’t, in most places, guarantee what the nature of the job will be: how many students can be in a “section,” what the balance of research vs. teaching vs. service will be, etc. (maybe there are places where union contracts do guarantee some of this; I’ve spent most of my career not only untenurable, but also living in right-to-work territory, so I wouldn’t know. From that perspective, I’d say that the key to such guarantees is then the union contract, not tenure, and union contracts are, for better or for worse, re-negotiable).

    Mind you, I support tenure. I’d very much like to have it, and I’m not sure I would have entered the profession if I hadn’t thought it (or at least some sort of guarantee of long-term stable employment) was part of the picture (on the other hand, when it became clear that the market wasn’t going to choose a hometown for me — which I was willing for it to do, at least when I was in my early thirties — in any reasonable period of time, but instead might send me wandering around the country for an undetermined period of time, I *did* settle in an area where I had a support network — and where there were a lot of colleges and universities, and which was far enough away from my grad institution that the degree had a bit of cachet — worked as an adjunct, and eventually landed a full-time but not tenure-track gig. At this point, I would move for a clearly better tenure-track job, but not all tenure-track jobs are, in my mind, clearly better than my present one). In the last few years, I’ve begun to say that I think we need tenure not so much to protect unpopular political speech that might be questioned/attacked from outside the academy (though that’s still a potential problem) as to make sure that there at least some faculty who can speak truth to power *inside* the academy (i.e. Deans, Provosts, Presidents, Trustees, etc. with wacky ideas about pedagogy and efficiency and such. The faculty revolt at UVA last summer was at least a partial example of the exercise of such power.) Sadly, I’m now beginning to conclude that the tenured faculty have less power than they think they have, or perhaps than they actually once did have, mostly due to the factors mentioned above. We can say (as the New Faculty Majority does) that our conditions of labor create our students’ conditions of learning, and that real learning simply won’t occur under certain circumstances, but I’m not sure anyone has to listen to us, tenured or not.


  12. Arbitrista’s describing a future that in many ways has already come to pass–that is, to many people of my generation, $35k a year with no benefits (and loans) already looks good. Yes, I know a few doctor/lawyer types who are doing much better than that, but to most of my twentysomething friends and classmates, both inside and outside grad school, any job that offered $35k a year looks pretty good. Or, as I had to explain to a silver-haired, tenured professor ca. 2008-2009, yes, one reason they were experiencing higher-than-normal volumes of PhD applications was that the guarantee of 6 years of a grad school stipend looks pretty good to a recent college graduate in the middle of a recession: whatever we were giving up to come to grad school, it usually wasn’t financial. The loss of years of earning potential, therefore, really doesn’t enter into the calculation of the total cost of graduate school.

    OTOH, one result of the recession generation being cast on the job market (academic and not academic), is that we’re probably not demanding prospective employees, financially speaking. If you’re the only person you know being offered benefits, you’re unlikely to negotiate for better ones, which doesn’t bode well for the continuation of benefits/salary increases/etc. for all.


  13. I worked for 18 years at an institution with long term contracts, and for 14 of those years, it felt like a stable gig. Then there were problems at the institution, and when our contracts were renewed, we got one year contracts, which could be terminated on 3 months notice. Which they proceeded to do. As notabattlechick points out, it’s not the worst thing in the world. But it depends on respect for the culture of the institution, and if you don’t have that, well…

    My current institution treats long term lecturers medium well (after 6 years, you get 3 year contracts), but does not integrate them into service. And that is not good for them or us.

    The end of tenure might lead back to the system in the 50s, when recruitment for jobs at most institutions was regional: southern institutions recruited in southern states, etc. H’Ann might not want to go to Nebraska, but someone from Nebraska might. That leads to a kind of intellectual insularity (at all institutions) that is probably not good for the academic world. There are probably huge age discrimination issues involved too…


  14. Canuck Down South: $34,000 is what I made in my first TT job–15 years ago–and that was a joke of a salary even then. If more people would reject toy money offers like this, we’d all be better off (even if historians and comp lit scholars can’t command what economists can outside of the university.)

    Thanks for all of your thoughts & experiences. I think Susan is right that the end of tenure would mean a return to provincialism in the U.S. I think this would be a bad thing for universities and their students alike. But this is effectively what the adjunctification of our labor has done halfway, anyway. I would bet that the adjunct pool is pretty good near major metro areas & major unis, but how competitive is it likely to be anywhere else?


  15. Tenure is generally discussed as a big cushy luxury for elite faculty. But without it, teachers have zero (none, nada, bupkis, zero) rights in their jobs.

    (Teaching at a military college would be more like tenure in the civilian world because you’re dealing with the federal government and a million codified rules about everybody’s duties and rights on the job.)

    A total lack of rights means untenured faculty can only say “How high?” when someone says jump. Their bosses are ultimately educrats. The result is that untenured faculty are loaded with work so far over forty hours a week nobody who hasn’t lived it can believe it.

    So, with the best will in the world, which is the kind most adjuncts have, they simply have no time to give students an extra five minutes in their day.

    A lack of tenure hurts students most of all. (I want to jump up and down and shout that.) It hurts students.

    All faculty must be tenure-track and tenured. The caste system of “real” faculty and peons is corrupting everything about universities.


  16. I agree with CC that shared governance is fundamentally linked to tenure. This is presumably why provosts and similarly high ranking administrators are lukewarm if not outright hostile to tenure. At my now-former state university, the provost is very interested in accelerating things like curricular changes. That is, ze wishes to subvert shared governance by bypassing the usual approval structures.


  17. The situation Susan describes is one I strongly suspect I might find myself facing in a few years: although I’ve got a 3-year contract (and, as a newly promoted Contract Associate Professor — yes, that’s an oxymoron — am at least theoretically eligible for a 5-year one next time I come up for renewal), my job is heavily dependent on a single course — a required writing-in-the-disciplines course aimed at juniors, and, unlike freshman writing, unique enough that pretty much all of our graduates, transfers or not, have to take it with us — that, partly because it *is* taught almost entirely by contingent faculty, is vulnerable to being declared expendable/redundant/just plain too expensive in the next (upcoming) curricular revision. It’s a good course, it has helped put my university on several of those national-ranking lists that the upper administration loves so much, and it’s pretty rigorous (the students have to, you know, actually write stuff). On the other hand, transfer students who thought they were done with their core courses (and/or students who’ve managed to accumulate most of their core credits in some other, cheaper, way) very much resent having to take “one more writing course.” And some students fail the first time around (usually because they just don’t do the work, or plagiarize), and/or put it off and then fail, and then we’re “keeping them from graduating.” And (perhaps most important), there’s no way to teach the course in huge lectures, or even to standardize it all that much (we have common course goals, but a lot of freedom to choose our own readings, and design our own assignments and exercises, and that intellectual freedom — and the community built as we exchange ideas — is part of what’s keeping a bunch of very smart, severely underpaid people psychologically afloat).

    So I might well find myself looking for a new job in my fifties. Although I have experience teaching in new modes (online, hybrid), I suspect that my resistance to the latest educational fad (or just my unwillingness to be a worker on an assembly line somebody else constructed) could easily be construed as “being out of date.” Since I write pretty well, and pick up the conventions of new discourse communities pretty easily, and since I’ve got a couple of degrees from pretty fancy places, there’s probably a chance I could talk/write my way into being one of the people who constructs/directs the assembly line (consultant, course head, sub-Dean, whatever). (I’d probably need a makeover/new wardrobe, though). The main problem is that what I really want to do isn’t to tell other people how and why to do things my way (though I would like more of a voice in collective decisions), but to remain a member of a community of independent teachers who share ideas and gradually make revisions to their individual courses to fit the needs of students. I’d also like to spend a bit less time teaching, and a bit more writing and researching, but, given more of a voice and a better salary and job security, I could live without that (that’s the part of the difference between what I expected and what I have with which I’ve made my peace). But I’m beginning to suspect that keeping what I have isn’t an option. I know that I really don’t want to finish out my days as an underpaid educational assembly line worker doing very little real educational work (and making so little that I can’t afford to retire and research/write as a hobby), but I haven’t identified a good alternative at the moment. Maybe when the economy picks up (if it picks up), I will (or maybe I’ll still be fighting all the unemployed 20-somethings out there for whatever decent jobs are available).

    Sorry for two long comments, historiann. This post, and the conversation that followed, hit a nerve for me.


  18. Tenure in English universities was abolished some thirty years ago. Those that already had tenure kept it, but no new tenure awards were possible. The first effect was that the tenuring process disappeared — an unqualified good. Over the long haul, there’s been little effect for most faculty in most universities. Partly that’s because Britain has strong employment retention rights for everyone, academic or non-academic: you can’t just fire people. So whether it would work that way in the US is questionable. Eliminating or radically downsizing departments has become mechanically easier, though. But, as SUNY-Albany learned, it isn’t easy as a matter of policy to eliminate departments.

    If academic work became less desirable, then, perhaps, fewer people would seek PhDs. It’s clear that some people enter doctoral programs because they see tenured full professor as a sweet gig and want some of it. Eliminate that reason and you’ll perhaps end up with fewer, better motivated PhD candidates. Which would be good.

    I really don’t see why geographic dispersal of new PhDs is regarded as desirable. The regional hiring of the ’50s was a product of the old boy system. It wasn’t itself bad, just a product of a bad system. If we return to it, but with open searches, I don’t see a problem.


  19. Oh, I wasn’t suggesting that $35k was a fantastic gig, Historiann–just that, after years of making $18-20,000 with no change in sight, I can see why some people might be disposed to take the $35,000 and to shut up about other benefits, like tenure–to the general detriment of everyone, including themselves.

    Just to add another data point to this thread, I’ve noticed an increasing trend among (some) Canadian academics to chose to stay on the adjunct track after a year or two on the job market. Most of the people I’m thinking of have some family reasons to stay where they are/not move to random US state x where a tt job might be, but I think that in many cases, these are the people who in the US often leave academia with great bitterness after a few years of adjuncting all over town and making hardly any money. In the midwestern city where I live, adjuncting wages average around $2500 per course; in Canada, they’re more like $5-7000, and adjuncts are sometimes members of the faculty union. Add that to the universal health care Canada offers, and suddenly adjuncting looks a lot more attractive than it does down here. The result, (other than that getting an adjunct job in a popular city like Toronto is getting increasingly difficult), is that there isn’t nearly the adjunct-driven push back against the undermining of tenure that there is down here. Yes, most of those Canadian adjuncts would prefer their jobs become tenure-track, but that’s not the same as seeing tenured faculty like yourself talk about the problems they’re all having; the awareness of the problems isn’t as strong, partially because things aren’t quite as bad for the faculty, both tt and adjunct (or sessional, as they tend to be called in Canada).

    I guess what I’m saying here is that while things aren’t yet as bad in Canada as they are in the US, it’s going to be interesting to see whether Canadian universities see the future down south and take steps to avoid it, or whether they keep going on the track they’re on and end up in more or less the same place.


  20. As a current job marketeer, I’d say tenure (or something very close to it) is pretty important. My spouse has a decent job in a not-in-the-middle-of-nowhere place; I couldn’t convince myself or her to forgo that for a one-year appointment anywhere really unless the job paid six figures, and even then it’d be tough call. Even after 8 years of grad school and some modest loan debt it doesn’t make sense to turn into an itinerant preacher in pursuit of a place in the holy orders that may well not exist. I’m more likely to get a better paying job doing something else by staying where I am. This is a social and economic problem. After years of education financed by state and federal governments (and my family & myself), I will likely find myself in a job different from the one for which I was specifically and extensively trained. Society will not be getting the full potential value of my labor. Importantly, I could plausibly find one of the those jobs–I’ve adjuncted before and probably could again. But “we” have decided that paying competitive wages and offering non-monetary remuneration for those jobs is not worthwhile. So why on earth would I bother? We’d like to start a family and maybe someday buy a house–you know, do human being type things. I’ll need to find a different job if those things are going to happen. And everybody loses.


  21. The city where I live is struggling with attrition in the auditor’s office because the council (which coincidentally doesn’t like the oversight!) refuses to even make the three-year commitment to an auditor as it was originally agreed. No, it’s one year contracts all the way and if they could bury the auditor and the auditor’s office, they would. Without even a medium-term commitment, the auditor in place struggles to do the job we so desperately need done.

    That’s rather like what the adjunctification of academia brings – a chance for administration to call the shots without recourse from contingent employees. No critiques of the curriculum when you’re the one hiring the faculty on a just-in-time schedule! You’ll save costs on the teaching faculty in at least some disciplines while you have free rein to spend as much money as you can get your hands on in the other areas that mean a lot to you and your educratic legacy!



  22. Like Jim, I was thinking about the situation in the UK (mainly because I’m planning on applying for jobs in the UK and US, so the differences between life as an academic in both countries is fairly important to me.)

    As Jim’s mentioned, the UK has much stronger employment laws in general, which eases the problems associated with lack of tenure. You can’t just stay on short term contracts forever, for instance. You get a permanent job, which you can be sacked from (with due process) or made redundant from (with redundancy pay.) Another important difference is that the UK’s so much smaller, so even if you have to take a job in a different city it’s easier to either commute, or to find a partner something within commuting distance of the new gig. Those are important differences.

    But the lack of tenure does make it easier to close down entire departments and make faculty redundant (no need to declare financial exigency.) It also makes it much easier to fire faculty in order to reorientate a department in lines with new “university priorities”. Chemistry departments have been shut at a few universities (!!!) but I’m really thinking here about the debacle at King’s College London. (E.g. and

    I wouldn’t take a job in the US without the prospect of tenure at least in the long run. In the UK, however, I think I’m more worried by how incredibly bureaucratized every tiny element of higher education has become.


  23. I’m surprised they didn’t include “light janitorial work” in the job description. But my bet is that they’ll find some sucker to take the job, and that’s what I just don’t get.

    I fear that Janice is right. Administrators have given up on the notion that universities produce new knowledge, unless that knowledge is essentially self-funding (because it’s underwritten by the NIH or the NSF or big industry.) Maybe this generation of faculty is just torturing itself with the idea that we should be scholars as well as teachers, playing crazy one-upsmanship type games that only frustrate us and endanger our jobs further.


  24. Some are pushing “digital humanities” endeavors as a way for the humanities to establish a sort of self funding mechanism. They present an opportunity for humanists to mimic the labs and research projects that the hard and soft sciences create with their big grants and fellowships. They have the advantage of big(ish) dollar tags deans and provosts can brag about and usually give the university some positive exposure since there is often a website the public can visit and even use as a resource. Although I don’t know that they’ll get much use from anyone besides academics, buffs, genealogists and the occasional school kid. And unlike the sciences the pool of money for these projects is small and I don’t see it expanding much in the current fiscal climate.


  25. One minor addendum to this insightful discussion: yes, many of us would have chosen other professions if not for the prospect of tenure, but let’s also note that many of us would have chosen other professions if not for the prospect of advancing in rank, salary, and perks. Certainly, a chain of renewable contracts is at best like a nightmare form of permanent assistant professorhood (enough to stir any potential scholar to choose some other vocation). Yet if you avoid or escape this nightmare, and you get tenure, you may find that aspects of your assistant professorhood linger on. Salary compression is just the most obvious example of the ways in which tenured faculty at many universities are given the message that their progress, growth, and achievements will not be recognized or rewarded.


  26. When I left my last job – in one of those regions that might, in the long run, struggle to draw from the coasts if tenure were abolished – we were just starting to think about post-tenure review as a way to stave off the inevitable. The state tilts red. The past Gov, now the head of Purdue, fancies himself a critic of higher ed. The new Gov is a “wipe the slate clean” sort of fellow. They can do a lot of damage. Why not, we collectively thought, get ahead of them, and reveal our productivity after tenure? On our terms. A beggar’s gamble.

    In the midst of this discussion, our university president, about whom I was deeply ambivalent, offered this as “proof” that it still paid to have a state public university.

    I find it interesting, though, that tenure is never mentioned.

    The publics are getting hammered from two directions – their supposed drain on the state, and their protection of tenure. The administrative types that I know see this as an extinction level event for these big state institutions. They are just trying to survive.


  27. I have decided that where I live is desireable enough, although not on a coast, that we’ll stay here after I leave academia. For me, frankly, it’s just not worth it. I make too little, I have no hope of substantial raises… ever. There was a famous job offer in my field, 5/5 load, tenure track, in the middle of nowhere for 39K. But, it’s in a union state and I did the math and they will be making more than me after 10 years.

    My view of tenure has shifted. I don’t want it, I mean it is very appealing to my personality in a lot of ways. But, the advantages are not worth the costs at my institution. (My flagship, R1 institution with a 2/2 load, etc.) Why would I agree to stay in a situation where I have had a 1% raise in 5 years, have a 2000 tenure raise to look forward in a state where those in power hate what I do. Oh, and I have mentioned the feelings that I’ll never belong, the disrespect in my department for what I do (although not from my immediate colleagues) and the politics.

    My friend was explaining to me the other day how his wife has thought about not working anymore, but giving up her income would mean no more vacations, a smaller house, etc. My reply, which surprised me, was that I don’t make enough to make to stay in this job. My time and happiness is worth more to me than what I make. And, more importantly, how I’d feel making this in 10 years time.

    So, no, I don’t think tenure will be enough in the long term. And, I suspect that the people in charge are making it so by offering so little and asking so much.


  28. tilting red

    We recently advertised an assistant professor position about which a full professor in a right-to-work state sent a carefully worded email. The interested party’s dean had made it clear that if ze heard about anybody applying for positions at other universities, those letters of interest would be read as letters of resignation from Red State U.


  29. Long term contracts with a strong union seems like a better deal than tenure to me. That is the system we have here. In fact if improving conditions for all faculty is the goal then investing in a powerful union is a better way to go than tenure and many countries outside the US have done just that. Higher education in the US like health care is particularly dysfunctional and its problems do not translate to everywhere in the world. Although I do see a troubling trend to try and emulate the US system here.


  30. Well, we have both tenure and an (intermittently, over time) strong union, and the keystone and often the problem is the ambiguous interface between the two. Like kings of old, faculties have two or more bodies, and not every issue affecting the interest of either individuals or sub-groups are amenable or even relevant to collective bargaining approaches. Too complicated to elaborate now, but some governance issues impose roles and responsibilities on the faculty of an institution that may be at odds–or legitimately divide the interests of its parts–with the imperatives of “solidarity forever.” Faculties may be charged with making decisions in spheres that may conflict with or at least not coincide with the material best interests of their members. I wouldn’t under any circumstances do without the union, but mapping its role onto the complex geography of academic terrain is a delicate issue.


  31. Indyanna you make it sound like being a lecturer is a feudal title rather than a job with a collectively bargained salary performed by workers. I used to work as a barrist before I became an academic and the basic model of how workers interact with their employer is not fundamentally different for any waged or salaried job. This is a much better gig than serving coffee in part because I have a better boss and in part because I have a strong union as well as being something I like more. But, there is no difference in how the faculty union here and the staff union work with regards to administration. We are all workers and our fundamental interests are to get paid more for less work and receive better benefits. This is often at odds with the administration and despite being a public institution the role of unions here is not any different really from UAW versus GM or Ford. If there is a problem of interface I suggest you get rid of tenure. We don’t have it in Ghana. Instead after your first one year contract if you are a foreigner you get a long term contract. Normally it is six years, but mine is five and a half because I came in January. If you are Ghanaian you start out with six years. After you pass probation on the second year of the long term contract then all future contracts are basically automatically renewable until age 60. That is a lot better than adjuncting and it applies to all faculty.


  32. J. Otto: Well, if the fundamental objective is to get “paid more for less work,” &c., you would have to explain how at my shop a few years ago (X-teen different plants in one statewide system with a single faculty union and CBA across the whole–but where the standard class “hour” was Y-minutes longer at one of those campuses than at the others) when the administration wanted to shorten the class “hour” at the outlier campus with no reduction in pay, the faculty went nuts. Some disciplines insisted that the world as we know it would end if those ten minutes were chopped off. Other scholarly tribes said, pleeeeaaasse, really, etc. Still other chiefdoms, including mine, split down the middle, so our stewards voted both ways. It took years of secret polling, union rep meetings, back-channel talks, for the admin. to get its “win”: less hours for the same pay. This is where I say (among other examples) the collective bargaining model and its culture can map awkwardly onto the guild system of academic workflow.

    And then you have the curious rhetorical distinction we sometimes make between “work” and “my own work.” What trade union would let a member use a key to sneak back into the plant in the wee hours to whip up an extra batch of steel–which we sometimes genteely enough denominate “my next book…” Prof. Stakhanov would soon enough have a wheel come off the car coming out of the parking lot, and not make it to the book tour.


  33. “Strong union” is increasingly a joke in the USofA. Union membership is at its lowest since 1936.

    The roles of unions and tenure are different; both are important. Tenure is what protected me when I stood with female students and against a predator who taught popular, revenue-generating classes. The union is what ensured the accused worker had a fair hearing.


  34. I don’t pretend to understand anything about American academia. I have never even gotten an interview at a US university. So I guess the feeling is mutual. But, at the University of Ghana there is officially no tenure and we have a strong union and it seems to work okay. Whereas from what I read on the internet US higher education is not okay.


  35. I’m coming to this from a different angle, not getting tenure 28 years ago and finding myself in a dying social science field with no prospects. What did I do? Anything vaguely professional. But what I got was 7 years of temp work followed by 18 at a for-profit till it went into a death spiral, and now bits and pieces of classwork at various small local colleges. Bottom line: The education was great, the teaching and research occasionally wonderful, but overall the experience sucked. Before going this path, I’d recommend a lot better planning than I did. Don’t expect your graduate school teachers to have a clue to the current situation, especially outside academia, but do expect that in the future tenured faculty will be as rare as butlers. Oh, one good thing: After getting a Ph.D. I discovered that the class of rejection letters improved.


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