The Disappearing Tenure-Track Job

Study by AFT documents continued growth during the last decade of adjunct jobs as a proportion of the academic work force.
May 12, 2009

Year by year, various federal data sets are released, and document the steady growth of adjunct positions and decline of tenure-track jobs in the academic work force.

In an attempt to draw more attention to these shifts over time, the American Federation of Teachers is today releasing a 10-year analysis of the data, showing just how much the tenure-track professor has disappeared. The overall number of faculty and instructor slots grew from 1997 to 2007, but nearly two-thirds of that growth was in "contingent" positions -- meaning those off of the tenure track. Over all, those jobs increased from two-thirds to nearly three-quarters of instructional positions.

The growth in these jobs -- and the decline in tenure-track positions -- was found in all sectors of higher education, but was most apparent at community colleges. However, one of the most notable shifts was at public four-year colleges and universities, where over the period studied, tenured and tenure-track faculty members went from being a slight majority to less than 40 percent of faculty members. At the end point of the AFT study, tenured and tenure-track faculty members do not make a majority of faculties in any sector.

"What was shocking to me, even though I think about this all the time, was that the percentage of tenure and tenure-track faculty has shrunk to almost a quarter," said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the AFT chapter at the City University of New York. "The deterioration of staffing has reached a crisis point when only a quarter are tenured or tenure-track."

National discussions about higher education have focused on issues of cost, and Bowen said that it was important to involve students and parents in looking at academic staffing and its impact on the quality of education. "Part-time faculty have done an amazing job, especially under the circumstances that they work," Bowen said. "But I think parents and students are beginning to see the difficulty when the part-time faculty member you loved for English 101 is no longer there for English 201, or to write a recommendation. You don't have that continuity."

The AFT is in fact preparing a brochure that it will be distributing to high schools, encouraging students and parents looking at colleges to "just ask" about the faculty work force. "We want people to ask 'What are the chances I'm going to be taught by a full-time faculty member?' or 'What kind of salaries do your faculty get?' " said Lawrence N. Gold, director of higher education at the AFT. "In terms of achieving our goals, consumer pressure has got to be part of it."

Given the competition among colleges for students, Gold said that institutions could be motivated to change if the people who talk to prospective students "report back that this is what they asked about."

Both Gold and Bowen -- clearly aware that some adjunct leaders have criticized the AFT's efforts as focused too much on the creation of new tenure-track jobs -- stressed dual goals. They said that they wanted to see a far greater percentage of jobs go to tenure-track faculty members. But they also said that those who teach off the tenure track must have better salaries and benefits. The AFT's campaign on these issues is called FACE, for Faculty and College Excellence.

Here are the numbers from the report, which come from the federal data prepared by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics

Distribution of Teaching Positions in Higher Education, 1997 and 2007

Job Type 1997 2007
All Institutions    
--Full time, tenured or tenure track 33.1% 27.3%
--Full time, non-tenure track 14.2% 14.9%
--Part time 34.1% 36.9%
--Graduate assistants 18.6% 20.9%
Public doctoral granting universities    
--Full time, tenured or tenure track 34.1% 28.9%
--Full time, non-tenure track 14.1% 14.4%
--Part time 14.3% 15.8%
--Graduate assistants 37.5% 41.0%
Public four-year colleges and universities    
--Full time, tenured or tenure track 51.0% 39.0%
--Full time, non-tenure track 9.0% 10.9%
--Part time 33.6% 43.9%
--Graduate assistants 5.7% 6.3%
Public community colleges    
--Full time, tenured or tenure track 20.6% 17.5%
--Full time, non-tenure track 13.4% 13.8%
--Part time 64.7% 68.6%
--Graduate assistants 1.2% 0.0%
Private doctoral-granting universities    
--Full time, tenured or tenure track 34.9% 29.2%
--Full time, non-tenure track 17.3% 17.9%
--Part time 29.9% 31.3%
--Graduate assistants 17.9% 21.6%
Private four-year colleges and universities    
--Full time, tenured or tenure track 39.3% 29%
--Full time, non-tenure track 15.6% 17.2%
--Part time 42.3% 52.2%
--Graduate assistants 2.9% 1.6%


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