Posts Tagged ‘tenure’

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As a result of the National Labor Relations Board’s latest decision, the members of the university precariat find themselves in a stronger, less-precarious position.

The decision on Case 19-RC-102521, in response to a petition by the Service Employees International Union, Local 925 seeking to represent a unit of all nontenure-eligible contingent faculty members employed by Pacific Lutheran University, affirms the right of those faculty members to form a union. This is a major victory for the growing number of contingent faculty members in American colleges and universities (now amounting to some two-thirds of all faculty in institutions of higher education in the United States).

There were two significant criteria behind the decision—one having to do with religion (the religious nature of the institution and of the employees’ role in the institution), the other with the nature of the employees’ work (whether or not they should be considered part of management).

While both criteria are important, I am most interested in the second: the grounds on which the NLRB found that Pacific Lutheran “failed to demonstrate that full-time contingent faculty members are managerial employees.”

In the famous Yeshiva University case, the NLRB found that faculty members participated in shared governance and thus were considered part of management. Therefore, they had no right to form a union. But the structure of university governance has changed since 1980. According to the latest decision,

Time appears to have confirmed the wisdom of the Court’s decision to address only the case then before it. Over the 30-plus years since Yeshiva was decided, the university model of delivering higher education has evolved considerably. As one commentator has explained:

The rise of consumerism, a growing push for accountability and declining public support for education are contributing to what many call the ‘corporatization’ of higher education. Nonprofit colleges and universities are adopting corporate models, cutting costs and seeking profit-making opportunities.

Indeed, our experience applying Yeshiva has generally shown that colleges and universities are increasingly run by administrators, which has the effect of concentrating and centering authority away from the faculty in a way that was contemplated in Yeshiva, but found not to exist at Yeshiva University itself. Such considerations are relevant to our assessment of whether the faculty constitute managerial employees.

A common manifestation of this “corporatization” of higher education that is specifically relevant to the faculty in issue here is the use of “contingent faculty,” that is, faculty who, unlike traditional faculty, have been appointed with no prospect of tenure and often no guarantee of employment beyond the academic year.

The fact is, most faculty members—both tenure-track and contingent—find themselves increasingly in the position of non-management employees, taking orders from administrators, with at best an advisory capacity with respect to most major decisions in their colleges and universities.

The latest NLRB decision recognizes that university administrators (such as the president, the provost/dean of graduate studies, the vice president for development and university relations, the vice president for finance and operations, the vice president for admission and enrollment services, the vice president of student life/dean of students, and the academic deans) are given faculty status. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that most of the faculty, who do the bulk of teaching and research within higher education, are not administrators and do not participate in any kind of shared governance of the university.

Not in the new corporate university.

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The new “Issue Brief” for the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes of Research [pdf] demonstrates what all of us in the field have been seeing over the course of the past decade: colleges and universities have continued to hire new faculty members but most of the increase is from the growing use of part-time faculty, especially at public institutions. Even at private institutions, where full-time faculty have grown (but still less than the growth of part-time and contingent faculty), the number of full-time professors on short-term contracts has increased dramatically.

As the number of part-time instructors grows, job security continues to erode among full-time faculty. Academics today are less likely than a decade ago to have tenure, hold a tenure-track position, or be full professors. Although tenure systems are a mainstay at research universities and public master’s institutions, they have become less prevalent at other public and private institutions. The proportion of tenured faculty has declined across the board, even in sectors with nearly universal access to tenure systems. In 2012, less than half of full-time instructional staff at public and private four-year institutions held tenure, a decline of 4 to 5 percentage points since 2000. And among full-time faculty, the share of “professors” declined by more than 4 percentage points since 2003, as adjuncts and other contingent faculty were increasingly at the lectern.

The plight of young academics is looking more and more like that of migrant lettuce-pickers in the Salinas Valley in the 1930s: uncertain, poorly paid, with little job security, and subject to the dictates of well-paid overseers.

According to William Deresiewicz,

The reasons for these trends can be expressed in a single word, or buzzword: efficiency. Contingent academic labor, as non-tenure-track faculty, part-time and full-time, are formally known, is cheaper to hire and easier to fire. It saves departments money and gives them greater flexibility in staffing courses. Over the past twenty years, in other words—or really, over the past forty—what has happened in academia is what has happened throughout the American economy. Good, secure, well-paid positions—tenured appointments in the academy, union jobs on the factory floor—are being replaced by temporary, low-wage employment. . .

What we have in academia, in other words, is a microcosm of the American economy as a whole: a self-enriching aristocracy, a swelling and increasingly immiserated proletariat, and a shrinking middle class. The same devil’s bargain stabilizes the system: the middle, or at least the upper middle, the tenured professoriate, is allowed to retain its prerogatives—its comfortable compensation packages, its workplace autonomy and its job security—in return for acquiescing to the exploitation of the bottom by the top, and indirectly, the betrayal of the future of the entire enterprise.

Deresiewicz’s view is that the combination of casual labor and “administrative elephantiasis” is not only a problem for young academics; it represents a social tragedy:

If we don’t make things better for the people entering academia, no one’s going to want to do it anymore. And then it won’t just be the students who are suffering. Scholarship will suffer, which means the whole country will. Knowledge, as we’re constantly told, is a nation’s most important resource, and the great majority of knowledge is created in the academy—now more than ever, in fact, since industry is increasingly outsourcing research to universities where, precisely because graduate students cost less than someone who gets a real salary, it can be conducted on the cheap.

So, what’s the alternative? Deresiewicz is opposed to eliminating tenure as well as increasing salaries.

the answer now is not to raise professors’ salaries. Professors already make enough. The answer is to hire more professors: real ones, not academic lettuce-pickers. . .

If we’re going to make college an intellectually rigorous experience for the students who already go—still more, for all the ones we want to go if we’re going to reach the oft-repeated goal of universal postsecondary education, an objective that would double enrollments—we’re going to need a lot more teachers: well paid, institutionally supported, socially valued. As of 2003 there were about 400,000 tenure-track professors in the United States (as compared with about 6 million primary- and secondary-school teachers). Between reducing class sizes, reversing the shift to contingent labor and beefing up our college-completion rates, we’re going to need at least five times as many.

The administrators of the new corporate university are not the ones who are going to make this possible. Nor, of course, are the right-wing legislators who want to eliminate faculty unions and decrease public funding. The only ones who are in the position to raise their voices, and to join ranks with the academic lettuce-pickers as well as the parents of the students who want more and better college experiences, are the tenured professors.

If academia is going to once again become a decent place to work, if our best young minds are going to be attracted back to the profession, if higher education is going to be reclaimed as part of the American promise, if teaching and research are going to make the country strong again, then professors need to get off their backsides and organize: department by department, institution to institution, state by state and across the nation as a whole. Tenured professors enjoy the strongest speech protections in society. It’s time they started using them.

You can always count on any hack neoclassical economist to celebrate free markets and corporate governance and to make the case against academic tenure.

In the debate staged by the New York Times, Richard Vedder fills the bill with the usual arguments—that tenure is an obstacle to conservatives’  being hired and it makes it more difficult for colleges to quickly reallocate resources. He even adds a kicker about the role of faculty in the governance of educational institutions:

Tenure contributes to the inefficient and expensive system of shared governance, where decision-making is by committee, and compromise and deal-making trump sound policy-making, including introducing cost-saving innovations.

No surprises there. And he’s joined on the flexible market side of the debate by none other than Mark C. Taylor, who argues that “tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible.”

Capital is not only financial but is also intellectual and here too liquidity is an issue. In today’s fast changing world, it is impossible to know whether a person’s research is going to be relevant in five years let alone 35 years.

If you were the C.E.O. of a company and the board of directors said: “We want this to be the best company of its kind in the world. Hire the best people you can find and pay them whatever is required.” Would you offer anybody a contract with these terms: lifetime employment, no possibility of dismissal, regardless of performance? If you did, your company would fail and you would be looking for a new job. Why should academia be any different from every other profession?

It’s clear that Vedder and Taylor are attacking not only tenure, but the entire idea of the noncorporate university. Their view is that academic owners and managers are (or should be) the despots of educational institutions, and they should use whatever carrots and sticks are necessary to get the no-longer-tenured faculty (and, I should add, never-tenured staff) to do what they want.

Fortunately, there is a sane voice allowed into the debate. According to Cary Nelson,

Tenure and academic freedom together ensure that faculty members can speak forthrightly in their classes without fear of retribution. They have made American college classrooms places where students can be challenged and inspired. They have helped make American higher education the envy of the world.

The irony, of course, is that Vedder, Taylor, and others are trumpeting the new free-market university in the midst of the worst crisis of free-market capitalism since the Great Depression. Flexibility and corporate governance didn’t work out so well in the case of financial markets. What makes them think such measures, including liquidating tenure, will solve the current crisis in higher education?

The rise of the corporate university means the death of tenure.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, tenure is disappearing across higher education.

Over just three decades, the proportion of college instructors who are tenured or on the tenure track plummeted: from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The new report is expected to show that that proportion fell even further in 2009, dropping below one-third. If you add graduate teaching assistants to the mix, those with some kind of tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors.

The sharp decline in the percentage of tenured faculty members, and the rise of “casual” academic labor, represents a threat to many aspects of higher education: to the living and working conditions of untenured faculty members, to the quality of education received by students, and to academic freedom.

The changing percentages of tenured and untenured (full-time and part-time) faculty members is both a condition and consequence of the rise of the corporate university. It is a condition, in the sense that academic administrators have more control over the university the more casual the labor is that they manage. It is a consequence, because the increasingly privatized, market-oriented university balances its budget and makes higher profits by hiring fewer tenure-track faculty members and more adjunct faculty members and graduate students to teach classes.

One of the results is that the freedom of speech of faculty members—in their publications, in the classroom, and in the university—is threatened:

According to Mr. Nelson [Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP], though, the biggest loss isn’t what professors can’t say in the classroom. It’s what they don’t say to the president or the trustees—or to politicians. “The president doesn’t really care what you say in your World War II-history class,” says Mr. Nelson. “You can say what you want to about your subject matter, but don’t think you can say what you want to about the president’s edicts.” Indeed, what’s disappearing along with tenure, say its advocates, is the ability of professors to play a strong role in running their universities and to object if they think officials are making bad decisions.

Unfortunately, the ethos and economics of the corporate university point in the direction of even further declines in tenure and threats to academic freedom for the foreseeable future.