Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Times & Tenure

This story from the NYT about the diminishing prevalence of tenure in American colleges and universities in their top-stories feed. I think that they do a decent job presenting the basics, but—as is always the case&mdahs;miss some of the larger issues that are presented with diminishing tenure track positions.

While the story talks exclusively about public universities and all of the examples cited here are non-flagship public universities, the same trends can be seen in private universities as well. The number of tenure-track positions is drying up across the board. While the administrators may cite the lack of public funds and the inconsistency of public funding from states (or cities and counties for many community colleges), this trend is not entirely due to the the lack of funds. It is true that public higher education has suffered in recent years and often the non-flagship universities are hit harder than the flagship universities[1], but if it is also happening at private and flagship universities there must be something larger. Furthermore, this trend is coming at a time when tuitions are so high that Congress is considering action and endowments of many universities are through the roof.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that many universities are employing WalMart-like management strategies. WalMart, the biggest private employer in this country and largest retailer in the world, perfected the art of "just-in-time" delivery of goods. Rather than paying for the manufacture, shipping, and storage of a huge inventory, they honed the method of supplying just enough product to meet demand with as little time as possible. No sense in those Christmas hats sitting on the shelves on Boxing Day when they couldn't be sold until the next year. Get just enough to meet demand, get more delivered next-day if you run out and constantly re-stock the shelves straight from the delivery truck. The same now works for professors teaching classes. Rather than having a full-time job with job security, professors are hired on semester contracts. Their pay, healthcare (if they have it), retirement benefits (again, if they have it), access to the library and university facilities lasts for those 17-weeks. If the department has enough enrollment, the professors receive a full course-load—if not, well...I hope that they planned on getting half the paycheck or less for those four months.

What ends up happening to many of these professors is that they try to line up a full-time teaching load by stringing together three or four jobs at three or four local institutions. In Michigan, as the NYT article mentions, professors would go from U-M Ann Arbor to U-M Dearborn to Wayne State to one of the several community college systems in the area. While they are teaching full time, they aren't getting full-time benefits because they technically have three to four different employers. The pay is bad, healthcare is either not offered or unaffordable and they are lucky if they have an office in one of the four campuses, nevermind all four.

Just-in-time operations for retailers may work[2], but for educators it is a disaster. Professors, at their best, are supposed to be working with students to provide them the tools they need to understand the world, both for their future employment and as engaged citizens. They are not lawnmowers, lawn gnomes, cheap clothes or groceries or any of the other thousands of items available at WalMart. They are not a product on a shelf waiting to be taken home by a family paying the lowest price. When a professor is teaching four classes at four different campuses without an office, they aren't providing office hours, answering student's questions, contributing to the service functions on campus - all of the things that allow professors to have a real impact on students' lives. No, they are driving interstate highways rushing back an forth, trying to grade one exam in time to receive another that day. And, of course, forget term papers or semester projects that allow students to expand their knowledge to their own interests. In the ever-demanding just-in-time world, they give tests that can be answered by scantrons (if they are allowed to use the grading machine). Ultimately, education as a whole suffers and students who have the most tenuous grasp on a college education, first-generation college students, minorities, working mothers who are enrolled at community colleges and local state universities are the ones who are forced to deal with this the most.

It's a deplorable situation that needs to be fixed. If Congress, state legislators, education policy wonks and others are serious about fixing American higher education, then this is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. Otherwise, no amount of fancy new tech center, student gym or other expenditures made possible by the egotistically exorbitant gifts by donors so that they can view their name a building are going to matter if the professors mandated with teaching the students can't teach.

Cross-posted at Free Exchange

[1] In my experience, this is in no small part due to the fact that many state legislators are often alumni of the flagship universities and tend to be less so for the non-flagship local campuses. Supporting a local branch of the state university system is seen as garnering pork for your constituents but trying to get money for the state flagship universities as part of one's alumni obligations is seen as noble -- and is one of the few things that can cut across party lines.
[2] Of course, there are also major problems for workers and communities for the just-in-time methods of corporations like WalMart as well.


pc said...

Thanks for this post, Mike. I agree with everything you said. What a frustrating industry... I would say that the problem isn't necessarily the lack of *tenure* though, which, as the Times points out, has both bad and good aspects (even for those for whom it can have ultimately good outcomes it can have some bad effects too - fatigue, for instance). It's just the lack of full-time positions altogether and, as you say, the lack of supports given to part-time faculty that tenured faculty have total access to (whether it's healthcare or an office). I guess increasing the number of tenured or tenure-track positions would help this, but so would establishing a non-tenure-based system that enabled universities to hire part-timers, adjuncts, whatever, while also compensating and treating them well.

dave3544 said...

Let me be my usual contrarian self and ask a question that has been on my mind as of late...do non-flagship universities actually make any sense?

Or, to put it more bluntly, do we need an Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Oregon, population 12.5K? There are 3,000 students there, doing God knows what.

There are 4 other major public universities within a 4 hour drive...Washington State, Oregon State, Boise State, and Oregon. Why does the state of Oregon (or any state for that matter) need to be sinking its money into glorified community colleges in the middle of nowhere?

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