The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know.  It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't." ....  ...Anatole France.

Commentary of the Day - March 27, 2002:  The Faculty Hiring Crisis in the California State University System.

With some 388,700 students and more than 22,000 full- and part-time faculty members on 23 campuses the California State University (CSU) is the largest system of higher education in the world.  Unlike the "research" campuses in the University of California system that concentrate on graduate and professional education, the campuses of the Cal State system traditionally have prided themselves on offering high quality, low cost undergraduate degrees.  Often referred to as the "people's university", these campuses have been a haven of opportunity both for students who were the first in their family to attend college and for adults who were returning to seek a college degree.

The California Faculty Association1 (the faculty union for the Cal State system), after a protracted series of negotiations, recently negotiated a new contract that includes a provision to increase the number of searches for new tenure-track faculty from 1,000 per year to 1,200 per year.  Both union representatives and the CSU chancellor have suggested to the news media that this increase will help to alleviate the critical shortage of full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty in the system.  However, a close look at faculty hiring trends in the CSU system suggests otherwise.

To put the situation in perspective, up until about 1990 the ratio of full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty to total faculty was in the neighborhood of 70 to 75%.  An 80-20 rule was adhered to on almost all the campuses in the system that limited tenured/tenure-track to positions to a maximum of 80% of the total number of budgeted faculty position lines.  This was done for two reasons, both worthy.  First, it allowed campuses some flexibility to adjust to changing student interests.  Second, it provided the campuses with a "cushion" in the event of budget cuts.

Things began to change in 1990 when the California economy tanked, and severe budget cuts were imposed on the system.  The number of part-time faculty was reduced sharply.  Most campuses did not lay off full-time faculty, but a number of "permanent" staff employees did lose their jobs.  In the period of retrenchment that followed CSU campuses adopted a policy of not replacing most  of the tenured faculty who left the system through retirement, resignation, and death.  Instead, they opted to replace most of them with "temporary" part-time instructors who received much lower pay and many fewer benefits.

Improvements in the California economy during the second half of the decade allowed for more tenure-track searches, but not enough to compensate for the growing rate of retirements as the existing tenured faculty aged.  The result of these actions and trends was that by 2001 the ratio of tenured and tenure-track to total faculty lines in the system had dropped to 52%.  The agreement to boost the number of new tenure-track searches to 1,200 per year recognizes the precariousness of this situation.

While most of the part-time faculty members are excellent teachers, the campuses cannot operate effectively without a cadre of committed full-time faculty members.  They are the ones who advise students, develop new curricula, and provide the much of the "low-level" administration for the academic side of the house.  In addition, most full-time faculty members have serious programs of research and scholarly activities that involve students in individual learning experiences that complement formal classroom education.

The Irascible Professor's examination of data from the CSU Chancellor's Office revealed a number of interesting facts.

First, the system is not particularly successful in its searches for full-time faculty.  For example, although approximately 1,000 searches per year have been authorized in the past few years the actual number hired has been considerably less.  In the fall of 2001 only 639 new full-time faculty actually actually accepted positions.  This is consistent with the average number of new tenure-track appointments for the past five years (619.2 per year).

Second, the system is losing tenured faculty at an alarming rate.  For example, during the 1998-99 academic year 567 tenured or tenure-track faculty left the system through retirement, resignation, and death.  This jumped to 956 tenured or tenure-track faculty during the 2000-2001 academic year.  These figures do not include tenured faculty who entered the Faculty Early Retirement Program2 (FERP).

The Irascible Professor asked the Chancellor's Office to provide statistics for the past five years to make sure that recent figures were not anomalous.  These data are fully consistent with the recent trends.  During the past five years a total of 3,096 new tenure-track faculty were hired.  In the same period 1,074 retired, 600 resigned, 109 died, and 1,418 entered the Faculty Early Retirement Program3.

The Chancellor's Office tends to count faculty members in the FERP as part of the tenured faculty.  In reality, however, these FERP faculty members have made a transition from full-time to part-time status.  Most teach only one semester out of two (or two quarters out of four at the campuses that are on the quarter system), and in most other respects they function more like part-time faculty than like full-time faculty.  One exception is that a significant number of FERP faculty continue with their scholarly activities.  The system also saves a considerable amount of money for each faculty member who enters the Faculty Early Retirement Program.  Most FERP faculty are full professors who were earning top dollar -- approximately $80,000 per year plus fringe benefits.  As FERP faculty the pay rate drops to about $40,000, and the system no longer pays most fringe benefits.  The only major exception is the contribution that the system makes to Social Security and Medicare for the FERP faculty member (which drops to about half of the previous rate).  The savings the system realizes when a faculty member takes early retirement is nearly enough to hire a new tenure-track assistant professor.

The net effect of the trends of the past five years is that in the past five years the CSU has lost more full-time faculty than it has hired.  This is likely to continue even with the boost to 1,200 authorized searches.  The reason for this is that the rate of retirement is accelerating.  In the fall of 2000 the average age of the full-time faculty was 51.0 years, and 1,952 of the 11,089 (17.6%) full-time faculty members were 60 years old or older.  Another 4,458 (40.2%) were in the 50 to 59 year age bracket.  Owing to the structure of the CSU retirement system, most full-time faculty members choose to retire outright or enter the Faculty Early Retirement Program by age 63.

With these demographics the system can expect to lose somewhat more than 1,200 faculty per year to regular and FERP retirements, resignations, and death for the next several years.  At the same time, if the 65% success rate in the search for new tenure-track faculty continues, as it is likely to, the system will be adding fewer than 800 new faculty members each year.  The clear implication is that the ratio of tenured and tenure-track faculty to total faculty lines in the system will soon drop below 50%, and will remain below 50% for an extended period of time.

The likely consequences will be a significant decline in educational quality, in student support, in program innovation, in faculty morale, and in the institutional memory that is needed for collegial governance.  In the short run, there probably is little that can be done to improve the "yield rate" of searches for tenure-track faculty.  The 65% success rate in faculty searches can be attributed to at least three factors; faculty salaries that lag the competition by about 10%, heavy teaching loads, and the high cost of housing in many parts of California.  The only short-term solution would be to increase the number of searches to about 1,850 per year.  This would yield about 1,200 new tenure-track faculty per year, and at least would maintain the full-time to part-time ratio close to its present level.
1The IP is a member of the CFA; however, he has held no office in the union and he often has disagreed with union policies.
2Faculty members who enter the Faculty Early Retirement Program (FERP) receive their regular retirement benefits from the California Public Employees Retirement System, including pension, medical, and dental benefits.  At the same time they are guaranteed the opportunity to teach half-time at their final salary rate for up to five years.  The average length of time that FERP faculty continue in the program is about three years.
3The Irascible Professor thanks the CSU Chancellor's Office for providing these data.

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