The University of Colorado at Boulder’s College of Arts and Sciences dean said this week that he hopes to replace 50 tenured and tenure-track faculty members with 25 instructors who will teach more and earn less. His goal is to build more flexibility into the college’s post-COVID-19 budget.
The faculty positions are hypothetical and the numbers are just examples, James White, interim dean, said in an interview Thursday. About 60 professors are taking incentivized retirement as part of an effort to cut the college’s budget by 8 percent. No one is getting laid off. But going forward, White believes that employing relatively more non-tenure-track instructors means the college can provide midcareer and other support to the tenured professors it retains.
“Cutting is hard but growing back intelligently can be even harder,” White said. “Never waste a good pandemic.”
To many, White’s proposal read as an attack on tenure, shared governance and the notion of higher education as a public good.
Rob Rupert, professor of philosophy and chair of Boulder’s Arts and Sciences Council, said the plan -- if it happens -- is part of a years-long trend away from tenure-track hiring that would “rob UC-Boulder of its legitimacy as a research university.”
In the research university tradition, institutions gain the “intellectual and moral authority” to offer courses and confer degrees by employing faculty members who are “active practitioners” in their disciplinary areas of expertise, Rupert said. So purposely denying swaths of the faculty time and resources to do active research puts Boulder on the path to becoming a “middle-of-the-road regional school,” leaving Colorado without its flagship university.
"So far as I can tell, the faculty has not been consulted about this in any meaningful way," Rupert said of shared governance.
Robert J. Ferry, associate professor of history and chair of Boulder’s Faculty Assembly, said that he hadn’t been involved in any discussions about the proposal thus far but that future consideration “needs to have full involvement of the faculty.”
White plans on holding an all-faculty Zoom meeting later this month. He said he's already discussed his plan with faculty chairs and that any decisions will be made through a collaborative process. But his note to faculty members this week was the first time that most professors heard about his plan.
“At the core is a critical fact: The college budget is primarily salaries,” White wrote in the memo. So in order to avoid cutting programs in the event of another economic downturn, “we propose to rebalance the ratio of tenure-track faculty to instructors,” from about 3.3 to one to 2.8 to one.
Doing so would free up $6.2 million for the college annually, he said.
Bigger picture, Boulder lost about $69 million in the spring due to the coronavirus, and the 2021 budget includes about $97 million in cuts (about 10 percent) from the previous year. The 2020 annual academic general fund for all colleges at CU Boulder is $342 million, and arts and sciences spends about half that.
White said that the college needs about 60 tenured professors to retire soon to meet a 5 percent budget reduction goal. Another 3 percent cut came from furloughs and temporary pay reductions.
Rather than reinvesting in tenure-track positions with any related savings, White continued, “we should invest in more flexible ways than we now do.” Examples are more staff hires, better support for research and creative work, travel and an “excellent new ideas” fund, he said.
Arts and sciences faculty must envision the college “of the future, 5 to 50 years from now,” White wrote. “That college should better support its tenured faculty and teaching professors. It should also be nimbler -- fiscally and programmatically -- better able to withstand the inevitable economic downturns and better able to invest in great new ideas.”
White told Inside Higher Ed that his plan is not about hiring non-tenure-track instructors just to terminate them at the next recession. Financial flexibility would instead come from the faculty support funds, which could be suspended as needed.
Alex Wolf-Root, an adjunct instructor of philosophy who’s published research on COVID-19 and sports under his Boulder affiliation but with no institutional support, questioned the university’s financial precarity. He pointed out that Colorado has consistently ranked last in higher education spending per student, compared to other states. So the university's crisis has unfolded predictably over time, he said, and rather than cutting away at the faculty, universities should push back on the state Legislature and say there’s nowhere left to cut.
Wolf-Root, who is a member the United Campus Workers Colorado union, encouraged his colleagues across academe to join or form unions, as “just asking nicely doesn’t change anything.”
Rupert said that White has been interim dean for four years, an unusually long time, without going through formal appointment processes that would have required faculty participation.
Asked about concerns that his plan chips away at tenure, White said, “That horse left the barn a long time ago. We weren’t the ones who did it.”
He added, “We have culture in higher education where our value as departments revolves around how many tenure-track positions we have and how many graduate students we have,” and “we need to think about whether that is sustainable in the long run.”
Jonathan W. Wilson, an adjunct instructor of history at several institutions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who has written about the adjunctification of higher education, said, “Things like this news from CU Boulder don't surprise me at all. We're going to see more and more stories like this.”
Once colleges proved that contingent workers were an “acceptable substitute” for full-time professors in the classroom, “once the pool of excellent underemployed academics became big enough, and once public pressure and financial pressure built up enough, it was just a matter of time for many colleges to start dispensing with even the pretense of tenure," he said. "It's an expensive anachronism. Contingent faculty members teach our courses for a small fraction of what tenure-track academics cost. And we're much easier to fire if you don't like the job we're doing in the classroom.”
Like Wolf-Root, Wilson said that many contingent faculty members "do engage in research and publication. But mostly we do it on our own time and our own dime. It usually doesn't result in any job security or recognition." Colleges and funding sources "don't actually care much about scholarship," though, he added. "If they did, they would pay for it. Today, we're just waiting for a coming wave of retirements to allow them to dispense with the pretense."
L. D. Burnett, a professor of history at Collin College, said that Boulder's move sends students the message that “their education doesn't really matter.”
It's not that non-tenure-track instructors aren't good teachers, of course, Burnett said, rather that “getting rid of tenured professors means getting rid of a teaching faculty who have stability, time and resources to devote to students … It basically says that an education in the arts and humanities isn't worth much.”
That kind of thinking, in Burnett’s view, is the “result of a deliberate, long-running propaganda campaign to try to persuade the public that using tax dollars to support the study of history or sociology or political science is a waste of money. But history, sociology and political science, and other disciplines like them, are the very areas of knowledge that our citizenry desperately needs right now.”