The decline of university tenure makes it harder to defend politically

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The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published the transcript of a speech by Kevin Birmingham, an instructor in the Harvard College Writing Program, entitled “The Great Shame of Our Profession.” This piece is a sharp critique of the use of non-tenure track adjunct professors and lecturers in American universities and it describes the precarious economic state of those who work as adjunct faculty. Birmingham points out that:

[T]o talk about adjuncts is to talk about the centerpiece of higher education. Tenured faculty represent only 17 percent of college instructors. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest-growing segment. From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled.

{mosads}He goes on to discuss the problems of low pay, poor job prospects and lack of job security faced by PhDs who toil as contingent employees in academia, and his analysis includes the bracing comment “We take the love that young people have for literature and use it to support the research of a tiny elite.”


Birmingham’s article caught my eye as someone who has written about the health and future of liberal arts education. But the 17 percent (and dropping) statistic really got my attention as a political observer. Governance of public universities is a matter of public policy so anything that relates to it is a political question.

Academic tenure at public universities is under scrutiny right now. (Most college students attend public higher education institutions so I’m focusing on them, not private ones, in this piece). The state of Wisconsin dramatically restructured, some might say gutted, its academic tenure system and there is legislation introduced in Missouri and Iowa that would in one case eliminate tenure for new hires and in the other case end it retroactively.

The Missouri and Iowa legislation may not become law or hold up in court if enacted, but that legislation, together with the Wisconsin example, shows how academic tenure at public universities faces very real political threats.

As a practical matter, the low percentage of instructors who have tenure protections makes the institution of tenure more difficult to defend politically. Most voters don’t have tenure protections in their jobs so it can be a hard sell to get them to support tenure for university professors.

However, such voters might support protecting tenure (or at least, oppose laws that would diminish or eliminate it) at the public universities their taxes are helping support if they or their children were taught by tenured professors and they valued the instruction received from such tenured faculty.

But if graduate students and adjunct professors are doing most of the teaching, most non-academics probably won’t see themselves as having any skin in the game. In fact, if voters see tenured professors as a tiny elite that they or their children rarely interacted with during their college years, they are less likely to be sympathetic to claims that academic tenure leads to a better research and education environment.

Please note that I am not arguing for or against the merits of academic tenure, though for the record I support it and think that it provides academic freedom for those who want to use that freedom to speak out on or conduct research on controversial issues. The issue I’m focusing on is one of political realism and practicality. The fact that tenure has become a rarer part of university life, for whatever reason, has also limited its political base of support and thus made it easier to attack.

Even many liberals who would otherwise support increased workplace protections in other fields might ask why academic tenure should be protected when so few university instructors benefit from it. It’s the classic problem of non-universal programs.

If only a few people directly benefit from a program, that program is easier to reduce or abolish. And while there may be many reasons for the decline of tenure over the years (including the cutting of funds to support public universities), the image of a closed guild mentality among the tenured professoriate certainly hasn’t helped.

The increased use of adjunct faculty isn’t completely the fault of tenured professors, but that increase makes the tenure system harder to defend politically. That may not be fair, but it is the situation at hand and all these things are matters of voter math and perception. Those who want to defend academic tenure in its current form will have to face this issue as part of the conversation around public higher education policy.

Mark R. Yzaguirre is associate general counsel and associate vice chancellor for legal affairs at the University of Houston. He’s written for FrumForum, the Independent Journal-Review and the Huffington Post, and specializes in higher education, politics and law. Opinions solely his own. You can follow Mark on Twitter @markyzaguirre.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill. 

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