Part-time, untenured lecturers are the backbone of many US campuses, but at what price, asks Stephen Phillips.
US campuses are in the throes of their most intense recruitment drive in a generation. Professors hired in the 1960s to educate baby boomers are retiring en masse. But new recruits are not filling their shoes. Today's hiring effort intensifies a seismic shift, under way since the 1970s, towards a preponderance of staff working on contracts, often on a part-time basis. It is a situation with parallels in the UK - where more than 28 per cent of lecturers are over 50, and the number of part-time lecturers has almost doubled in the past six years - and it is one that many view with mounting disquiet.
"For the first time ever, we have now reached a point where more than half of new faculty appointments are to tenure-ineligible positions," notes Richard Chait, professor of higher education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and editor of the recent book The Questions of Tenure .
Untenured instructors made up 61 per cent of recruits to US faculties in 1998 versus 41 per cent 11 years earlier, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. The proportion of full-time staff without tenure and not on track for it rose from .9 per cent in 1993 to 31.3 per cent in 1999. By this time, overall untenured faculty outnumbered their permanent colleagues for the first time on US campuses.
Gene Rice, scholar-in-residence and director of the forum on faculty roles and rewards at the American Association of University Professors, is disconcerted by what he sees as a "silent revolution without thoughtful planning". He adds: "There needs to be a group of faculty committed to the institution for a long time - one of the advantages of tenure is the willingness to work hard at developing courses and to be academic citizens."
Research published last year by Martin Finkelstein and Jack Schuster, education professors at Seto Hall University and Claremont Graduate University respectively, found that non-tenure track staff often "play a highly circumscribed role at institutions".
This is no mystery, says William Tierney, professor of higher education and director of the Center for Higher Education Research at the University of Southern California. Tierney singles out the toll exacted by the spiralling use of part-time faculty, who accounted for 43 per cent of 1998 recruits, compared with 33 per cent in 1987.
"When you are contracting with part-time faculty to teach class, meeting with students outside class is not in the contract," he explains. "At most institutions, the most-involved teachers are those on tenure track - statistics show that full-time faculty spend more office hours meeting with students. When part-time faculty don't even have an office, it's hard to have office hours."
Georgetown University law professor Peter Byrne, author of a recent paper on "Academic freedom without tenure," concurs. "Part-time staff don't participate in governance as they are busy holding down multiple jobs."
Roughly 45 per cent of US faculty are part-timers, working for as little as $2,000 (£1,370) per semester-length course, according to the American Faculty Poll conducted by the University of Chicago in 2000.
Even where they have full-time hours, adjunct professors typically earn a fraction of their tenured peers and are not covered by health insurance or a pension plan. At Stanford, untenured instructors are likely to earn about $40,000 a year - half the starting salary of a full professor. Such inequity is leading to untenured staff being treated as second-class citizens, Chait says.
The fact that casual staff cost less is a large part of their appeal, say experts. Tierney expects funding for post-September 11 anti-terrorism measures to intensify the trend.
The advent of contract labour on campuses 30 years ago stemmed from budget cuts and fluctuating student enrolment. According to David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, this was "the smart thing to do" and part-timers were also vital to meet elementary undergraduate teaching needs, such as Spanish courses, that tenured researchers would rather be freed from.
He does not necessarily see this as a bad thing, but he concedes that shrinking tenured openings are trapping many aspirant career professors in contractual roles. However, he thinks the positive aspects of the casual staffing boom need to be distinguished from the negative. He estimates that professionals, such as lawyers, account for one-third of untenured appointments. "There's a need to disaggregate the positive effect of combining practice and theory by using practitioners from the substitution of non-tenured individuals for the tenured."
The real issue, according to Ward, is to improve pay and conditions for faculty members who find themselves in contractual positions. "Universities need to recognise their obligations to employees who make it possible to manage costs more effectively."
Adjunct staff are already taking matters into their own hands. Graduate students at the universities of California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin, among others, are now unionised. And the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America representing graduate student teachers and research assistants at the University of Iowa secured health insurance and salary rises for members.
"Part-time faculty feel so mistreated that they have followed the time-honoured tradition of individuals feeling powerless and started collective bargaining," Chait says.
Some institutions have also recognised the changing complexion of teaching staff. The University of Central Arkansas and Kent State, for instance, have formed senates exclusively for part-time faculty.
In fact, if pay and conditions are taken care of and contractual staff incentivised to contribute to governance and student welfare, tenure could cease to be relevant.
After all, with the demise of the notion of a job for life, the reality for workers outside academia is short-term contracts. Moreover, voting with their feet, most faculty members at Webster University in Missouri, offered the choice between tenure or term contracts with more frequent sabbaticals, plumped for more research time without the job security.
Chait argues, however, that there is a special, inviolable case for academic tenure. "Without employment security, people would not invest 20 years in investigating DNA or the definitive study of Winston Churchill, for which there is no commercial pay-off."
Another concern is academic freedom, says Byrne, since tenure puts the burden of proof on institutions wanting to dismiss faculty members.
For Tierney, tenure underpinned the rise of US higher education to global pre-eminence during the 20th century. He discounts a concerted plot to undermine it. But, multiple, separate, economic-driven decisions could spell death by a thousand cuts.