Critics Say Less Tenure Means Poorer Teaching, Reduced Freedom

By Cronin, Mike | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 3, 2010 | Go to article overview

Critics Say Less Tenure Means Poorer Teaching, Reduced Freedom


Cronin, Mike, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Undergraduates hoping to learn from tenured professors and doctoral candidates anticipating a lifetime teaching job are in for a reality check.

Nationwide, the percentage of tenured or tenure-track professors among university instructors dropped from 56.8 percent in 1975 to 31.2 percent in 2007, according to Department of Education data compiled by the American Association of University Professors in Washington.

When the number of graduate students teaching classes is included, the share of tenured or tenure-track faculty falls to 25.2 percent, according to John W. Curtis, the association's director of research and public policy.

That means about three-quarters of instructors at U.S. colleges and universities don't have or aren't eligible for tenure.

Moreover, the percentage of tenure and tenure-track professors likely will continue to plummet until schools "find out how low we can go before we become dysfunctional," said Michael Berube, a Penn State University professor who teaches American literature.

Critics say the decline in tenured instructors has led to poorer teaching and threatens academic freedom, which academics define as the ability to speak and research social, political or economic matters.

Advocates say eliminating tenure would give administrators flexibility to hire the best talent and save money.

Non-tenured instructors include part-timers, full-timers with contracts and instructors not eligible for tenure. They often are poorly paid and can't focus on teaching as much as they'd like because they're searching for better jobs, said John Baker, former president of the University of Pittsburgh's faculty senate.

"Many non-tenured instructors are dedicated teachers, committed to serving their students," said Baker, a tenured professor at Pitt's School of Dental Medicine. "They simply have pressures tenured professors don't have."

Employing tenured and tenure-track professors is expensive, said Howard Bunsis, treasurer of the American Association of University Professors. Nationwide, schools spend at least $90,000 a year for a single instructor, said Bunsis, a tenured accounting professor at Eastern Michigan University.

"It's cheaper to have big classes and pay teachers a lot less," said Jeffrey Williams, a tenured English professor at Carnegie Mellon University who researched tenure issues.

"Is it fair?" asked Paul Kellermann, 52, a composition and creative-writing lecturer at Penn State, who works under three-year contracts. Kellermann said he makes $30,000 to $40,000 teaching six courses a year. He teaches three or four online courses to make more money.

"Non-tenured faculty are not being valued," said Kellermann, who receives the same benefits as his tenured colleagues. …

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