Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Decline of Tenure Track

From the NYT, Decline of the Tenure Track Raises Concerns:

Professors with tenure or who are on a tenure track are now a distinct minority on the country’s campuses, as the ranks of part-time instructors and professors hired on a contract have swelled, according to federal figures analyzed by the American Association of University Professors.

“I think we part-timers can be everything a full-timer can be,” Ms. Zendlovitz said during a break in a 10-hour teaching day. But she acknowledged: “It’s harder to spend time with students. I don’t have the prep time, and I know how to prepare a fabulous class.”

The shift from a tenured faculty results from financial pressures, administrators’ desire for more flexibility in hiring, firing and changing course offerings, and the growth of community colleges and regional public universities focused on teaching basics and preparing students for jobs.

It has become so extreme, however, that some universities are pulling back, concerned about the effect on educational quality.

Many state university presidents say tight budgets have made it inevitable that they turn to adjuncts to save money.

“We have to contend with increasing public demands for accountability, increased financial scrutiny and declining state support,” said Charles F. Harrington, provost of the University of North Carolina, Pembroke. “One of the easiest, most convenient ways of dealing with these pressures is using part-time faculty,” he said, though he cautioned that colleges that rely too heavily on such faculty “are playing a really dangerous game.”

“Really, we are offering less educational quality to the students who need it most,” said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, noting that the soaring number of adjunct faculty is most pronounced in community colleges and the less select public universities. The elite universities, both public and private, have the fewest adjuncts.

“It’s not that some of these adjuncts aren’t great teachers,” Dr. Ehrenberg said. “Many don’t have the support that the tenure-track faculty have, in terms of offices, secretarial help and time. Their teaching loads are higher, and they have less time to focus on students.”

Dr. Ehrenberg and a colleague analyzed 15 years of national data and found that graduation rates declined when public universities hired large numbers of contingent faculty. Several studies of individual universities have determined that freshmen taught by many part-timers were more likely to drop out.

Tenure, a practice carried from Germany to the United States, was designed to guarantee academic freedom to professors by protecting them against dismissal. Some argue that it also protects incompetent or lazy teachers and sometimes leaves universities saddled with professors in disciplines that have lost currency.

The lack of tenure can leave adjuncts vulnerable. In a number of cases, professors outside the tenure track have been dropped after run-ins with administrators over everything from grading to opinion articles in newspapers.

Several unions have been organizing adjunct faculty in recent years. In Michigan, the American Federation of Teachers has successfully organized full-time, nontenure-track professors at Eastern Michigan University, as well as part-time and full-time adjuncts at the University of Michigan campuses in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint.

“They are so exploited, the only difficulty in organizing adjuncts is finding them,” said David Hecker, president of the teachers federation.

Keith Hoeller, who has been teaching philosophy for 17 years as a part-timer in Seattle, described it this way: “It’s a caste system, and we are the untouchables of academia.”

Yes, this is a very worrisome trend, and one I've been remarking on since my own undergraduate days--and I graduated five years ago. It just doesn't seem fair to students or teachers.

By the way, undergrads, another tip: they say take more than one class from a professor you like in a subject you like to build the rapport necessary to get letters of recommendation, someone to supervise your senior thesis, etc. They are right.

I would also caution: choose a tenure track faculty member. Their letterhead carries more import, and they can do more to help you. They are also likely to stick around, as adjuncts tend to come in on an year-to-year contract.

Unfortunately, when I went to UC Irvine, no one told me this. And all of my public law/constitutional law/jurisprudence courses were taught by adjuncts. If I had stuck with international relations (relatively strong then) then yes I could have gotten a tenured faculty to supervise my thesis and write my letters. Unfotunately, that was not my primary area of interest, and those professors were so tapped out anyway by the flood of requests. So I had adjuncts write my letters of rec, and an adjunct supervised my senior thesis on Rehnquist Court devolutionary federalism and jurisprudence.

My education in the School of Humanities/Department of English Literature was much stronger, mainly because I was lucky--I was interested in American modernist fiction, and we had several tenured faculty for that subject area. We had tenured faculty for Victorian literature as well, which would have been my other choice. But if I had wanted t write a senior thesis on post modern or post colonial literature (and despite the fact that UCI was #1 in postmodern critical theory), I would have probably encountered a similar set of problems, as a thesis on Asian American literature would have gotten me into adjunct land fast.

I feel somewhat shortchanged as a product of an adjunct education--I was taught well, but there was no stability to the education. I have to hunt down some of my professors, not knowing their current institutional affilitation, to tell them what I'm up to. My political science education felt cobbled together at best, and shallow at worst.

All in all, a very depressing article, trend, and portent.