Why the decline of tenure is a problem

Why the decline of tenure is a problem

Phil Reitz-Jones, Contributing Writer

What’s the deal with tenure? I frequently find myself pondering this question from one specific angle: why do so few professors seem to have it? And how long can you remain on the faculty without tenure? And is its decline even a problem? 

First: what is tenure? In essence, it’s a job for life, “designed to protect academic freedom” according to the Macalester website. You can’t be fired without serious cause. I believe that the job security part deserves more attention than it gets. Why? Because that’s what most non-tenure track (NTT) Macalester professors (at least, in 2014) worry about: lack of job security and stability. 

All NTT appointments at Macalester are “for a specified length of time.” While this may not sound unusual, the process required to renew one’s appointment is more intense than, say, a standard performance review — there’s a committee involved, and the provost makes an appearance. The appointee must then show why they’re “excellen[t]” enough to stay on, using publications, student evaluations and a written statement as evidence, just to name a few. If they fail, they lose their job. This is part of the problem: the non-tenure track is supposed to be used for temporary appointments. They aren’t permanent positions, and thus they were not designed to include lots of renewals.

Nevertheless, there is an ongoing, national decline in tenure hires in favor of “permanent* (*sort of)” NTT appointments. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 59% of faculty at four-year, non-profit colleges and universities were not tenured as of 2019, up from 56% in 2011-12. Over the same period, Macalester’s specific numbers were 25% and 18%, respectively. This trend has many potential causes, but financials are the top contender. Tenured faculty are expensive, and you have to keep them on, even if money is scarce.

The non-tenure track gives administrators more leeway should some problem arise. At Macalester, for instance, terminations due to “poor performance, low enrollment, restructuring of a department’s curriculum, or budget cuts” are exempt from the one-year notice policy. Those, of course, encompass practically every reason the college might want to fire an academic employee, and they usually aren’t applicable to tenured faculty. 

The non-tenure track, then, gives institutions exactly the kind of administrative flexibility they increasingly want, and it explains how there are “visiting” faculty who have been at Macalester for the better part of a decade. But, however “fiscally responsible” this may be, it means a growing number of our professors, regardless of how long they’ve been here or how hard they work, are at risk of losing their positions at any time for any reason.

This sounds like a problem, but are NTT faculty themselves worried about this? While I’m not certain there are any grumblings among faculty at the moment, there have been in the past — more than grumblings. In 2014 and 2015, NTT faculty pushed to unionize over an array of concerns, publishing pieces in The Mac Weekly. They eventually called off the vote and resumed negotiations with the administration, but there is no definitive, publicly available resolution that I can find. A primary concern was job security (and related matters).

Even so, this may not seem like something with which we students ought to concern ourselves, but I think we should have it in mind for two reasons. First, under our capitalist system, we are the customers in this situation. For better or worse, our education is a business transaction. This arguably (and strangely) gives us greater influence than the faculty in some respects over hiring practices. 

The second reason: it seems like the right thing to do, both from a selfless and selfish standpoint. Understanding the situation in which increasing numbers of our instructors find themselves, having some empathy for them, and being prepared to stand in solidarity with them should the need arise is simply the decent thing to do. Additionally, many of us are here, at least in part, to secure stable jobs in the future by getting our education. Shouldn’t we support access to stable jobs, wherever they’re lacking, as much as possible?

If we want to discuss solutions, though, we first ought to address a key issue of information accessibility here: it’s simply not that easy for students and other community members to truly familiarize themselves with the tenure process at Macalester right now (case in point, the answer on the provost’s website to the question, “What is the tenure process at Macalester?” is: see the faculty handbook). More accessible information, then, on the tenure-track vs. NTT and why appointments on the latter seem to be increasing, would be most welcome. Only with proper communication and clear understanding can we have an ongoing conversation about tenure’s role.

While this may seem to leave students’ options limited in the meantime, I have two suggestions: treat end of course surveys, and any emails you get about “NTT reviews,” as opportunities to support NTT faculty who have made a difference — those go in their periodic review files. Specific examples of quality teaching are key, so baking those into your responses is a smart move. Given we are the “customers” here, our direct feedback can have outsize influence. And second, we need to be prepared and willing to stand in solidarity with our NTT faculty should the need arise. They deserve the support, and we are in a position to provide it.

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