The Decline of Tenure is the Greatest Threat to Higher EducationRoundup
tags: academic freedom, tenure, academic labor
Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University. His most recent books are The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History (NYU Press, 2019) and Queer Public History: Essays on Scholarly Activism (University of California Press, 2022).
In the last decade, conservatives have launched high-profile attacks on faculty tenure in higher education. As we understandably focus on these episodes in states such as Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin, we too readily ignore slow and steady developments that may well end up destroying faculty tenure in California and other progressive states.
I approach this subject as a tenured full professor at San Francisco State University, part of the California State University system, the largest four-year public university system in the United States. With 23 campuses, nearly 500,000 students and more than 55,000 faculty and staff, the CSU system positions itself between the elite University of California system and the state’s many community colleges. This is consistent with the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, which distinguished carefully among the state’s three tiers of colleges and universities. If current trends continue, faculty tenure in the system’s middle tier (and perhaps in the others as well) will disappear in the coming decades. Our route to that destination may be different from the ones taken by states and institutions that are openly challenging the faculty tenure system, but the destination will be the same.
First, a short primer on the two main classes of faculty in the CSU system. Tenure-track faculty are typically hired by departmental committees after months-long national or international searches featuring multiple interviews, research/creative presentations and teaching demonstrations. Most tenure-track faculty begin as assistant professors and effectively are on probation for six years before a series of faculty committees and administrators decides whether to grant them tenure—decisions that are based heavily on student evaluations and external assessments of their scholarship, research and creative activities. Most of those who are denied tenure are terminated. Most of those who are granted tenure become associate professors, at which point they only can be fired in extreme situations.
By contrast, non-tenure-track faculty—called lecturer faculty at my institution—are typically hired by department chairs after local searches with no presentations or demonstrations. They are permanently on probation and do not enjoy the privileges of academic freedom.
Tenure-track faculty typically enjoy a number of privileges compared to their lecturer counterparts, among them job security, higher salaries and lower teaching loads (six versus 10 courses per year for most full-time faculty at my institution). Those privileges also come with obligations. In contrast to lecturer faculty, who are only paid to teach, tenure-track faculty are expected to perform in three distinct areas: (1) research, scholarship and creative activities; (2) teaching; and (3) service, including student advising and administrative work to help run the institution. In most departments, only tenure-track faculty can teach graduate courses; supervise graduate students; chair departments; participate in hiring, tenure and promotion decisions; and take on other major administrative roles.
Over the course of the last several decades, tenure density—the proportion of faculty in tenure-track positions—has been declining in the United States. This decline now constitutes the greatest threat to higher education that the United States has ever experienced.
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