Tenure-track faculty positions decrease in US
With the recent financial recession, job security everywhere has become a scarcity—even in academia.
As recently reported in The New York Times, 75 percent of college instructors were full-time tenured or tenure-track professors in 1960, but only 27 percent are today. The rest of the instructors are hired part-time as graduate students, or adjunct and contingent faculty.
While this trend toward hiring fewer tenure-track faculties is observed across the nation, one of the most notable shifts is that at public four-year colleges and universities. From 1997 to 2007, tenured and tenure-track faculty members from these institutions have dwindled from slightly more than 50 percent to less than 40 percent of instructional faculty, according to a study released by the American Federation of Teachers.
Over the last 20 years, Washington University has run opposite to this trend. The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty has grown by about 27 percent, from 508 to 644, and the number of adjunct faculty has also grown by about 26 percent.
But the number of full-time non-tenure track faculty saw a significant rise over the same 20-year period, more than doubling from 189 to 398 on the Danforth Campus.
Growth in number
of non-tenured faculty
Edward Macias, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at Washington University, attributes this trend to the “growth of less commonly taught languages, which benefit from specialized language experts.” An expansion of artists and writers in residence, Macias adds, also contributed to the demand for part-time faculties, as the curriculum in creative writing and performing and studio arts has grown.
Since its establishment in the early 1900s, tenure has been an invaluable protection for those serving in the academia because it guarantees that “faculty members, after successful completion of a period of probationary service, can be dismissed only for adequate cause or other possible circumstances and only after a hearing before a faculty committee,” according to the American Association of University Professors.
The job security that accompanies tenure allows individuals to pursue their academic passions and speak out, even when their theories or data dissent from prevailing opinion.
While some students and parents are concerned that contingent faculty and graduate students may not provide as engaging instructional experience as tenured or tenure-tracked professors can, others disagree.
As Joseph Loewenstein, professor of English at Washington University, points out, these teachers can often offer comparable instruction instruction.
“Because graduate students have usually taken courses from tenured and tenure-track faculty, there is often a very high degree of shared method—shared interests and concerns,” Loewenstein said.
Some students also agree that they do not pay much attention to the instructors’ qualifications as long as they can stimulate students intellectually.
“I don’t really mind how old my teachers are or what backgrounds they come from as long as they can teach,” freshman Weina Dai said.
Another benefit of adjunct faculties and graduate students teaching is that these faces tend to bring a special enthusiasm and energy to the classroom.
In addition to noting the enthusiasm that new teachers bring, Loewenstein claimed that the smaller age difference between undergraduate and graduate students facilitates student-faculty interactions, opens up classroom discussions, and fosters a positive learning environment.
Since these teachers often teach the same courses repeatedly, “they can sometimes develop a remarkable and valuable skill and feeling for those particular courses, so they often bring a very special set of skills to the class,” he said.
Not only do students benefit from instruction from adjunct faculties and graduate students, the instructors learn and often enjoy the experience as well.
For example, Heidi Pennington, a second-year graduate student at Washington University who has been a TA in the Films and Media Studies program and an instructor of the Writing 1 program, shares her valuable and enjoyable teaching experience.
“My teaching experience at Wash. U. is a great benefit to me in my pedagogical and academic development,” Pennington said. “I believe that my training as a Ph.D. student absolutely requires the ability to be an effective educator at the college level, and I have been able to develop my skills as an instructor through my semesters teaching here at Wash. U.”
While there is no clear direction of how the trend will evolve in the future, the tenure issue is gaining increasing attention from students, faculty members and professional societies.
As Macias said, “This is not a new issue, but I think the dialogue will continue.”