The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad."...  ...Theodore Roosevelt.

Commentary of the Day - October 1, 2010: The Slow Death of Tenure.   Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 4, 2010), the  U.S. Department of Education will soon publish a report  documenting the steep decline among college professors with tenure or with tenure-line appointments.  In l975, 57% of  all college teachers fell into these categories; as of 2007, the number was 31%.  The news is depressing but not particularly surprising because the assault against tenure has been going on for some time.

However, what has been growing (no surprise here either ) is the number of adjuncts who are willing to work for rock-bottom wages and without hope of anything approaching permanent employment.  Once known as "gypsy scholars" [or here in southern California, "freeway flyers" (ed.)], this army of the tenuously employed often cobble together three or four or five sections of Introductory Something to make ends meet.  A two-hour commute between assignments is not unusual.  Meanwhile, the desperation and the schlepping gets harder and harder as the adjunct faculty members move into their thirties, and then their forties.  This hardscrabble life is not what they signed up for when they began their graduate studies.

You may be surprised to learn that I don't think academic institutions have hearts of stone; but, I do think they can't avoid keeping their eyes on the bottom line.  Part-time and non-tenure-track full-time lecturers are not only cheap labor, but also labor that often comes without health benefits, retirement benefits, or other perquisites -- and certainly without the long-term commitment of tenure.  But the situation is more complex than simply pointing out that "It's the economy, stupid!"

The argument against tenure used to go something like this: nowhere in the business world are people given what amounts to lifetime appointments.  So, why should professors be treated differently?  Professors, such folks would insist, have a "soft" life.  One that tenure protects.  For the most part, the academic world didn't pay attention to such bleats because those outside academe just don't understand.  Historically, tenure was designed to shield professors whose research into, say, Marxist economics, might infuriate the school's trustees.  In the old, bad days, if enough board members were sufficiently agitated, the offending professor got the sack -- without so much as a by-your-leave.

Tenure granted professors the freedom to pursue ideas wherever they led.  But as early statements from the American Association of University Professors insisted, freedom came with responsibilities, including a sense that professors would not misuse academic freedom as a pretense for propaganda or partisan politics.  Professors might, for example, write a letter to a newspaper (as is a citizen's right) advocating this or that position on gun control, but they should not identify themselves as teaching in the English department of XYZ University.  Such niceties no longer  matter as they once did.  Many professors have long ago abandoned what was once the standard dress for those lecturing large lecture classes: sports coats and ties for men or pants suits or appropriate dresses for women.

No doubt many are put off by my "over attention" to such meaningless details but I think they speak to the larger, more important issue of what it means to be a professional and what loyalty to an institution means, or does not mean, for faculty and administrators alike.  Tenure protects the integrity of one's research, but it also establishes a bond between professors and their college or university.  That relationship, once nearly a sacred trust, has slowly been eroded.  Few adjunct faculty members care a whit about the academic institution where he or she works, however much the same adjunct might care about his or her students.

Finally, let me say a few words about the necessity for professors to speak candidly about campus politics.  Even with tenure, most professors are not notable for their courage.  Without tenure, I can only imagine how docile faculty meetings will become.  It is important that professors feel only the pressure to pursue the truth, not the pressure to please students (or worry about what they might write on course evaluations), their colleagues, or the administration.  That's, I realize, a tall order and it's easy to imagine how somebody who took me too literally would complicate academic life.  Even I, a Thoreau lover of the first water, wouldn't want him as a colleague.  The same thing could be said of Socrates.  But I would want both of them, and all their cousins, to have intellectual freedom that tenure affords.  Without it, academic institutions will be cheaper to fund and easier to manage but I don't think that they'll be academic institutions in the full sense of the word.

2010, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees with everything that his friend Sandy Pinsker has said about tenure, and he has some additional observations that he feels need to be made about the issue.  First, the IP would note that the decline of the tenured faculty has coincided with an era of rapidly increasing costs for higher education in the United States.  These rising costs have affected all sectors of higher education in the country, but have been felt most egregiously in the nation's public institutions of higher education.  The use of lower paid part-time and non-tenure-track full-time temporary faculty often has been justified as an attempt to help control those costs.  However, the reality is that this hasn't worked.  Costs have risen more rapidly in the era of the cheap, itinerant adjunct than they were rising before.  Part of the reason for that is that formerly when the majority of faculty members were tenured or on the tenure-track, their responsibilities were much broader than just teaching and research.  A fair part of the administrative and student services work of colleges and universities actually was done by these tenured and tenure-track faculty members.  In that era, administrative and student services staffs were much leaner than they now are.  And, instead of saving money through the use of "cheap" adjuncts, colleges and universities have found themselves having to hire many more non-academic staff members to do what was once done by the tenured faculty.

Second, the "cheap" adjuncts have turned out to be more expensive than previously thought.  Now that many of these people see themselves, correctly, as just working stiffs, they have turned to the faculty unions to help them obtain at least a modicum of benefits.  It's becoming more and more difficult to deny adjunct faculty members health and retirement benefits.  In some of the large public universities, such as the California State University system, adjuncts who manage to cobble together teaching loads that exceed a certain minimum number of units (even if they have to teach on more than one campus to do so) receive health benefits and start to accumulate retirement credits.  Likewise, if they are hired for more than a minimum number of consecutive terms, they start to acquire reemployment preferences, and under some circumstances even de-facto tenure.  Thus, the illusion of the dirt-cheap adjunct is just that, and illusion.

Third, to add to one of Sandy's points, the decline in the tenured faculty has eroded the quality of American higher education.  Even though many adjunct faculty members are excellent teachers, the fact that they don't have the same presence on campus as that of the tenured faculty has made the college experience less intense than it once was for undergraduates.  It often has become difficult to distinguish the undergraduate experience at a large state university campus from that provided by for-profit "storefront universities" such as the University of Phoenix, where the goal is a degree rather than an education.

Finally, to emphasize another one of Sandy's points there have been serious intangible losses to the academy as tenure has slowly eroded.  The most important of these is the loss of collegiality -- the notion among both faculty members and college and university administrators that they were in it together -- that the reputation of their institutions would rise or fall depending on how well they worked together to further the goals of those institutions.  In an era when the majority of faculty members are itinerant teachers and scholars who owe no allegiance to colleges and universities in which they work, precious little time is spent by these faculty members improving the quality of the enterprise.


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2010 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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