This year's season of assistant-professor job offers has come and gone. The search committee has entered that awkward clinch with Dr. Top Choice, holder of a newly minted terminal degree. As for unlucky Dr. Backup, the silence after the campus interview has gone on too long to dismiss, and the obsessive parsing of the search-committee chair's sotto voce "You'll hear from us soon" has given way to the consideration of Plan B. Meanwhile, in some tiny, windowless graduate office, the freshly credentialed Dr. Top Choice joins the tenure track, experiencing what the poet Chris Green calls "jouissance in the oubliette"—pleasure in a one-room prison.
This may seem like just another year in the rhythm of academic life, but we are reaching the end of a long cycle. Today some institution somewhere has, unaware, hired its last tenured professor. To be sure, there will be tenure-track hires next year, and the year after, and perhaps for a decade or more, but today somebody accepted a tenure-track job, and that person will outlive tenure at his or her institution.
The dismal numbers need only a brief review. According to the Department of Education, in 1975, 57 percent of university faculty members were tenured or on the tenure track. By 2007 that number had dropped to 31 percent.
A conservative projection puts the effective end of tenure within sight—a generation might be enough to finish it off. Or perhaps we'll slide under 10 percent and stay there, making "tenured faculty" a rare and archaic academic designation, like the verger or the beadle.
Therefore, the newly hired Dr. Top Choice could be the last of her kind. Let's say she's 30 years old. Grant her tenure in 2018, and then allow her a remarkably long and happy career at St. Hubbins College, Sponsored by Red Bull. Tenure-track colleagues will be hired after her, but fewer as the years pass, despite growing enrollments. Imagine her in 2025, when her institution announces that retiring professors will no longer be replaced by full-timers; in 2030, when her institution stops hiring new tenure-track assistant professors and formalizes the lecturer rank for all incoming faculty members; and in 2040, when a wave of buyouts starts to clear out the old ranks.
Senior among her colleagues by 2051, she will have outlived most of her peers and retire after 35 years of impressive teaching and research (and, perhaps, five down years here and there). Distinguished Professor Emerita Top Choice will be 70. Her junior colleagues, by then adjuncts and/or holograms all, will look with wonder at this relic of the early 21st century, this legacy of the lost age of lifetime academic employment.
This scenario suggests how disconnected discussions of "the tenure crisis" have become. Attacks upon professorial tenure are a standby in the op-ed pages. The scenario is familiar: Professor A (edgy, tenured) does or says or publishes something controversial, perhaps brushing against the hot button of Aggrieved Group B. Media Outlet C picks up the story (or "reports on the controversy"), with wider coverage following. Professor A's university administration circles the wagons, issuing a that's-how-the-sausage-is-made reminder that academic freedom comes with a price. Finally, broader questions about the nature of and justifications for tenure are batted about, usually in the context of an economy where lifetime employment is an anachronistic luxury.
And that is why those skirmishes no longer matter, if they ever did. Tenure's fate has already been determined. It will be killed not by irresponsible academics or the barbs of the commentariat, but instead by the tightening grip of the American economy. Those who have criticized tenure may find its incremental oblivion less emotionally satisfying than a formal abolition, but the results will be the same.
The chances that an undergraduate at an American university will be taught by a tenured professor grow slimmer with the passage of time. Yet this scenario is also turned into a reason to dislike tenure—it gives rise to the image of the professor who doesn't teach, a Dr. Strawman who hands off instruction to the graduate students or part-timers while he studies his esoterica in well-remunerated peace. But Dr. Strawman doesn't teach many undergraduates anymore, not because he refuses to, but because "student-faculty ratio" is not the same as "student-professor ratio."
A university that reports a 15-to-1 student-faculty ratio can create the illusion that for every 150 students there are 10 professors. More likely, for every 150 students there are three professors, three lecturers, and an indeterminate number of adjuncts, graduate students, and miscellaneous instructors, stacked together and then divided into person-size piles. Dr. Backup may well be fated to serve as 25 percent of one of those collective beings. The "full-time-equivalent" is the perfect ersatz professor for what Frank Donoghue calls "The Corporate University."
Although the case for tenure continues to be made, it has proven unconvincing to parents, administrators, university trustees, and legislators. Still, tenure will not be eliminated because the merits of the system have been carefully weighed and found lacking. That will be accomplished by a thousand localized decisions, as underfunded colleges trade each retiring full-time professor for four part-timers whose hopes for a full-time job have been frustrated.
This year's new tenure-track hires, fortunate examples of a vanishing breed, had better make it count.