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Beryl Lieff Benderly

American Association of University Professors calls for reform of tenure system

“The past four decades have seen a failure of the social contract in faculty employment,” states a new report  issued by the American Association of University Professors.  Forty years ago, the overwhelming majority of faculty members were on the tenure track, including those whose duties concentrated heavily on teaching rather than research.  Today, however, “almost 70 percent of faculty are employed off the tenure track,” to the detriment of themselves, their students, and career prospects in academe, the report continues. “This historic change” affects both those non-tenurable faculty members who do the great bulk of the teaching at most institutions and those who concentrate on research. “Some of these appointments, particularly in science and medicine, are research intensive or research only, and the faculty in these appointments often work under extremely troubling conditions,” the report notes. 

In short, in contrast to decades past, tenure “has ceased to be the norm,” the report goes on.  “Particularly at large research universities,…the tenure system has been warped to the purpose of creating a multitier faculty….Tenure was not designed as a merit badge for research intensive faculty or as a fence to exclude those with teaching intensive commitments,” but as a protection for the academic freedom and economic stability of all college and university teachers, the report declares.  These changes have “turned the professoriate into an irrational economic choice, denying the overwhelming majority of individuals the opportunity to consider college teaching as a career.” This is “deeply unfair, both to teachers and their students.”
The solution?  “Conversion to tenure is the best way to stabilize the faculty,” the report asserts.  “The best practice for institutions of all types is to convert the status of contingent appointments to appointments eligible for tenure with only minor changes in job description.”  [Italics in original]. At a number of institutions, the process of giving contingent faculty more security and better working conditions is already underway, to at least a limited extent, the report indicates.  Though not identical to traditional tenure, and often “less than ideal in one respect or another,” a number of such arrangements have at least improved working conditions.
But, since institutions have long used contingent appointments to cut costs — and have done so by exploiting the oversupply of Ph.D.s that they themselves have knowingly created — it is unclear how far such reforms will go in an era of intense financial pressures on higher education.  At least the AAUP raises the question in an articulate and informed manner.  It will, one hopes, begin a vigorous discussion in academe.