America's tenure track derails

'Tipping point' reached as job security all but collapses for US scholars. Sarah Cunnane writes

September 9, 2010

Higher education in the US is at a "tipping point" because of the large number of faculty employed outside the tenure track, a report warns.

Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Appointments, published this week by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), says the tenure system, which assures job security, has "all but collapsed", with as many as 70 per cent of faculty not on the tenure track. This trend is especially affecting teaching staff, the report says, and has led to growing levels of disaffection in the sector.

The report argues that because the tenure track has "ceased to be the norm", "contingent faculty" - comprising adjuncts, postdoctoral students, teaching assistants, lecturers, instructors and non-tenure track clinical, part-time or non-senate staff - often work in "subprofessional conditions" without appropriate benefits and with "significantly lower wages" than their tenured counterparts.

The report also refers to contingent faculty being forced to pay for their own office equipment, journal subscriptions and attendance at conferences. The trend has impinged on tenured faculty, too: the AAUP claims that this "steadily shrinking minority" is unable "to protect academic freedom, professional autonomy and the faculty role in governance" alone.

Marc Bousquet, co-chair of the AAUP's Committee on Contingency and the Profession, said scholars should expect the academy to maintain the same levels of professionalism as are found in comparable professions, such as medicine.

"In 1970, most undergraduates took nearly all of their classes from tenure-eligible faculty, most with terminal degrees in their fields," Professor Bousquet said. "This autumn, however, at many institutions a first-year student is more likely to drop out than ever to meet a tenure-track professor."

The report also criticises the shift away from tenure for those who have direct responsibility for teaching students, saying that "too often (it) has become the privilege of those who are, have been, or soon will be administrators".

The AAUP has called on higher education institutions to cap the proportion of faculty on contingent contracts at 25 per cent, but has stressed that this should be done with a minimum of job losses.

The report says that best practice should be "to convert the status of contingent appointments to (those) eligible for tenure" without making the staff involved focus on research rather than teaching.

It adds that "faculty themselves should not perpetuate the false impression that tenure was invented as a merit badge for research-intensive appointments".

It concludes by urging the US sector to return to the original view of tenure as "a right rather than a privilege" and says that it "must be the bedrock of any effort by higher education to fulfil its obligations to students and society".

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