August 13, 2009, 04:00 PM ET
Start Making Plans -- Tenure Is Dying
Several weeks ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rob Jenkins discussed threats for tenure at community colleges. He has good reason to do so, because tenure has no future. In fact, tenure has been declining for a long, long time. Professors with tenure haven’t been fired, to be sure, but when tenured profs have retired, the administration hasn’t replaced them with tenure-track lines. It’s a simple process of attrition, and because the remaining professors keep their tenure, they aren’t inclined to raise a ruckus.
The numbers are obvious and clear, but let’s review them again.
If you’re a dean with a tight budget, when a senior professor retires, it opens up a nice pile of cash. What do you do with it? You could hire a tenure-track assistant professor at $40,000-a-year salary plus $10,000 in benefits. From that hire you would get anywhere from four to six courses a year, if you work at a research institution. That comes to $8k-12K per course.
Or, you could take that $50,000 and offer the department adjunct lines that would pay $3k-4K per course.
What will the dean do? Perhaps if the department on campus has enough prestige and power, the dean will provide the tenure-track line. But on many campuses today, humanities departments (and perhaps many “softer” social-science departments) simply don’t matter that much to the overall reputation of the school. And they don’t bring in much money, either. The percentage of students who want to major in them keeps dropping, and they certainly don’t please parents who just want their kids to get a well-paying job after graduation. Furthermore, campuses have a ready pool of part-timers willing to labor for the pittance.
So if dollars are all on the side of adjuncts, the only recourse is the institutional damage the loss of this or that tenure slot will do. Will the dean really worry, though, that not replacing a senior 18th-century British literature scholar will cost the university in U. S. News & World Report?
No, but if not, however, nothing will ensure the survival of tenure in the next 20 years, especially if money remains tight. Tenure won’t go away, not that quickly, but it will occupy a smaller portion of the faculty and of the campus.