Tenuous Tenure

By Roach, Ronald | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, April 25, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Tenuous Tenure

Roach, Ronald, Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Career uncertain ninaers nnancia planning for hiaher ed faculty.

There's little doubt that the post- World War II boom in American higher education helped make the academic profession a highly attractive one for bright, ambitious and public-minded individuals. Propelled by substantial investment from the federal government, state governments, foundations and wealthy alumni, higher education institutions offered those entering the professorial ranks a life of riches, or at least one anchored firmly with middle to upper-middle class incomes, generous employment benefits and a lifetime of job security that came with academic tenure.

Since the 1970s, however, career prospects for young scholars have significantly changed. In 1975, full-time, tenure-track and tenured faculty held 45.1 percent of the teaching jobs in the nonprofit segment of U.S. higher education, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). By 2009, the AAUP reports, tenure-track and tenured faculty held just 24.4 percent of teaching positions, while contingent faculty - meaning full-time non-tenure-track faculty, part-time adjunct faculty or graduate student employees - held the rest.

"I'm actually amazed that the trend has continued to the point where we have 76 percent of all instructional positions that are [held by] non-tenure-track faculty, either part-time or full-time, or graduate [student] employees. . . . Unfortunately, the trend doesn't seem to be reversing," says John Curtis, the AAUP director of research and public policy.

For todays graduate students and young scholars, the financial and professional security once promised by a higher education career has given way to a riskier, less certain path where fewer than one in four teaching scholars attains the coveted tenure-track position. With years of schooling, the changing, less predictable career path for young Ph.D.s has made it difficult for them to plan financially, as previous generations of scholars were able todo.

Conditions for academic professionals have changed so much that the research institute of the higher education-focused financial services giant TIAACREF recently issued a paper, titled Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? The Increasingly Contingent Faculty Workforce, stating that with institutions now employing "majorities of contingent faculty, the established nature of governance, leadership, decision processes and careers in higher education will require substantial rethinking."

"It is hard not to view the contemporary faculty workplace as fraught. Arrangements, roles and responsibilities are in flux, and the faculty [members] are both agents and targets of fundamental shifts in the business models of higher education," University of Georgia professor James C. Hearn and researcher Mary Milan Deupree, the authors of the TIAA-CREF Institute paper, wrote.

Other experts have focused attention on what they see as a deteriorating state of affairs for faculty. "Today, many faculty members have no job security or expectation of employment beyond the current term. Many do not receive benefits, and their compensation is extremely low, averaging $2,700 per course, making it difficult to earn a living wage even when they can get consistent work," wrote Dr. Adrianna Kezar, a professor at the University of Southern California; Dr. David Longanecker, the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education president; and Daniel Maxey, a University of Southern California researcher, last month in an InsideHigherEd.com news website commentary.

"Recent reporting has exposed that some faculty members are living on food stamps. Only 25 percent of non-tenure-track faculty have any form of health insurance, and even those covered often have less than adequate coverage," the authors wrote.

Helping contingent faculty

Craig Smith, the deputy director for higher education at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), describes the opportunities for contingent faculty to access employee benefits and to participate in financial and retirement savings plans being largely dependent on the type of institution at which a faculty member works, faculty status and the state in which a faculty member works.

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