What the decline of tenure and rise of part-time faculty means for higher education

Thanks to my friend and colleague, Lisa Rivero, for tweeting (@Lisa_Rivero) and thus calling my attention to this story and graph in The Atlantic: “The Ever-Shrinking Role of Tenured College Professors (in 1 Chart).” 

Basically what the chart shows is a steep decline of tenured professors from their position as the largest percentage of teaching faculty (nearly 30%) in 1975 to the third-largest percentage in 2011 (approximately 17%).  Meanwhile, the percentage of part-time faculty has risen dramatically from about 24% to about 42%, now constituting the single largest percentage of college faculty.

This shift from full-time, tenured professors to part-time adjuncts as the primary pool of college faculty is significant in a few ways.

First, it means that the largest percentage of faculty on any given campus is most likely a relatively powerless set of temporary employees.  Part-time faculty have little voice in curriculum decisions or department goals.  They have limited-term contracts and make less per course than tenured faculty.  As a result, many part-time faculty teach at multiple institutions and carry overloads, just to help ensure income stability.  Or they have full-time jobs in other employment sectors and teach part-time as an “extra” that supplements their incomes or professional goals.  Even if a department makes the effort to “empower” part-time faculty by including them in meetings, there is an economic disincentive for attendance.  Because part-time teachers are paid a set fee per course, any additional time spent in meetings is therefore essentially unpaid labor.

Second, the shift from mostly tenured faculty to mostly part-time academic staff means that the collective university-level knowledge base is greatly lessened. Getting a master’s degree is comparatively easy.  It involves taking (usually) a year of coursework and then doing a thesis.  While a thesis is a big project, in some ways it is only a bigger-than-usual research paper.  Someone who was able to put a full-time effort into getting a master’s degree could probably do it within a calendar year.

A Ph.D., on the other hand, involves an additional two or more years of coursework beyond the master’s level.  Before starting the Ph.D. coursework, you have to take a rigorous qualifying exam to further demonstrate mastery of your field and potential for doing original scholarship.  So not everyone who gets a master’s degree would pass the qualifying exam in the first place.

Then after completing the next few years of coursework, you would need to take another set of exams, called the preliminary exams.  At some schools prelims may be called qualifying exams; I am speaking from my own experience.

Then once you pass the prelims, you have to write up a dissertation proposal.  A committee of graduate school faculty has to review and okay your proposal.  Then you have to get a dissertation advisor and a committee together.  You need to do all of the dissertation research and then write the dissertation.  If the master’s degree thesis was, say, three times as big a project as any ordinary graduate-course paper, the dissertation is closer to 15 or 20 times bigger than any single graduate-course paper.

Finishing a dissertation is very hard.  And once you complete it, you have to “defend” it.  Your entire committee (your dissertation advisor and usually four other professors, including one from outside your department) grills you in an oral exam that lasts a couple of hours.  Only after you have successfully defended your dissertation will you receive the Ph.D. degree.

So the master’s degree involves taking 1 year’s worth of courses and writing a thesis that is a project about 3 times bigger than a graduate-course paper.  But the Ph.D. involves at least 2 additional years of coursework beyond the master’s degree, plus 4 sets of gate-keeping exams (qualifying, preliminary, dissertation-proposal approval, and dissertation defense), and writing a dissertation that is a project at least 5 times bigger than the thesis.

(Oh, I just remembered.  There may actually be 5 gatekeeping exams.  My Ph.D. program had a foreign language exam I had to pass.  I had to have enough reading knowledge of French to pass a translation test.  And I recall being thankful I wasn’t at a school that required me to know Greek and Latin, as well.  The language exam may only be a humanities requirement.  I’m guessing a Ph.D. candidate in physics wouldn’t need to pass a translation test.)

You can see a difference in terms of mastery of the field and scale of academic achievement right here at the start of a teaching career.  Over the course of time that disparity will increase as tenured, full-time faculty (who usually have Ph.D.s) attend conferences and produce original scholarship, but part-time adjunct faculty (who usually have master’s degrees) do not.  One reason for this ever-widening gap in scholarly growth beyond the initial knowledge differential is that universities provide travel monies for tenured faculty but not, in general, for part-time adjuncts.  Part-time faculty technically remain temporary contract workers, even if they have taught in a department for 20 years.  In any case, part-time faculty members are often just too overwhelmed with grading and scrambling for income to engage in original scholarship anyway.

Part-time faculty members are usually very strong teachers.  They love teaching.  That’s the primary explanation for their continued commitment to their jobs, as the pay for part-time teaching is relatively low, and job security is uncertain.  Often part-time faculty members don’t know how many classes they’ll be teaching from one term to the next, meaning that their income fluctuates.  If their teaching load falls below a certain level, they may also lose eligibility for health-care and other benefits.

The extensive reliance on part-time faculty has become the dirty secret of academe.  It is similar to the way employers in other industries, like farming and construction and hospitality, have come to depend on the cheap labor of undocumented immigrants.  Keeping costs low is made possible only by exploiting a vulnerable labor pool.

As I’ve said before in my blog posts on higher education, I don’t have the answers to the many challenges facing universities.  All I can do is add my two-cents’ worth to the conversation and hope that any points I raise will contribute value to the discussion.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
This entry was posted in Higher education, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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