The Threat to the Faculty

AAUP says COVID-19 and years of unstable funding have led to “an existential threat to shared governance and academic freedom.”

July 19, 2021
 
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The American Association of University Professors sees "an existential threat to shared governance and academic freedom" resulting from the economic and other hardships facing most faculty members, according to a new report.

The report builds on a report the AAUP issued in April on faculty salaries for the year (which fell, when adjusted for inflation, for the first time since 2011-12) but adds additional information on how COVID-19 affected the faculty and an analysis of trends affecting adjunct faculty.

“Decades of divestment and chronic underfunding at the state and federal level have brought higher education to a precarious tipping point,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the AAUP and a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University.

The report is a reminder to academe not to judge the health of institutions (or faculties) on the basis of news coverage of the wealthiest institutions. Generally, those colleges and universities -- public and private alike -- did well. But other colleges did not fare as well. For example, the top 10 private universities in faculty salaries in 2020-21 all had average salaries of over $200,000. Columbia University led the way at $280,800.

But according to the report, more than half of all colleges and universities froze (or cut) salaries in response to the pandemic, and more than a quarter cut benefits.

In a survey with 650 respondents, the AAUP found that:

  • Almost 5 percent of institutions terminated the appointments of at least some full-time tenure-line faculty members.
  • Almost 20 percent terminated the appointments of or denied contract renewal to at least some full-time non-tenure-track faculty members.
  • Almost 10 percent of institutions had furloughs.
  • More than 40 percent instituted tenure-clock modifications.

"The actions listed in the survey were by no means intended to encompass all of the ways in which institutions have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic," the report said. "We limited the choices to actions that most faculty compensation survey respondents would be well positioned to know about, and we can only speculate that differences between institutional types may be related to factors such as higher levels of unionization in public institutions and temporary declines in state fiscal support for higher education."

The AAUP says it didn't ask about the financial impact on part-time faculty because survey respondents wouldn't know about changes to the economic status of part-time faculty members.

The AAUP report also cautioned about some figures in its faculty salary report.

"This is not a normal year, however, and we have encountered numerous situations where changes in salary distributions have distorted findings," the report said. "For example, we observed cases where institutions laid off non-tenure-track faculty members and the result was an increased average salary at their ranks, even though salaries for the remaining tenure-track faculty members at their ranks were frozen or even reduced."

And even with those changes, the AAUP report said that "average salaries decreased at 42 percent of colleges and universities surveyed, and inflation-adjusted salaries decreased at 68 percent of colleges and universities completing the survey."

There were also fewer faculty members to pay. The AAUP survey calculated that 26 percent of colleges reported having shrunk their faculties by 5 percent or more, 29 percent by 1 percent to 5 percent, and 7 percent from 0 percent to 1 percent.

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"The decreases reported represent 8,037 full-time faculty members who are no longer employed at those institutions," the report said.

Adjunct Faculty Issues

A major issue in the report was non-tenure-track faculty, a group that suffered layoffs from many colleges during the pandemic.

The report noted that almost two-thirds of faculty are adjuncts -- some of them working full-time. The percentage is greatest at community colleges, where 79 percent of faculty have contingent appointments. But even at institutions that award doctorates, the AAUP found that adjuncts make up 51 percent of faculty appointments.

In fact, the AAUP found that the rate of growth in adjunct hiring is greatest at doctoral institutions. The percentage of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members increased from 17.5 percent in fall 2009 to 22.6 percent in fall 2019.

"Doctoral institutions now have the highest proportion of full-time contingent faculty members," the report said.

At some institutions, the AAUP said, there are positive developments for some adjuncts.

“In recent years, we have witnessed a proliferation of ranked full-time contingent appointments with titles such as ‘teaching professor’ or ‘professor of practice,’” the report said. “At a glance, these appointments may appear to be a form of appeasement, and sometimes that may be an accurate characterization … But it is not always just about the professorial titles -- some institutions have implemented innovative policies that grant contingent faculty members decision-making authority and opportunities for promotion normally associated only with tenure-track faculty members. Other institutions have extended contract lengths for some full-time contingent faculty members, improving their job security and making them feel more connected to the institution. Some institutions even have policies that allow for conversions to tenure-track appointments.”

The AAUP said these developments are a “step in the right direction, although they fall short of the recommendation from a past AAUP report to ‘bundle the employment and economic securities that activist faculty on contingent appointments are already winning for themselves with the rigorous scrutiny of the tenure system.’”

Conclusions

The report concludes by calling for a major investment in higher education by the state and federal governments.

"Faculty members have taken on increased course loads, converted face-to-face classes into online classes, and assumed more service responsibilities, all without additional pay," the report said. "There is an urgent need for governing boards, legislators, and other policy makers to provide funds for a substantial readjustment of academic salary levels to avoid irreparable harm to the U.S. higher education system."

The report also noted the lack of data on part-time faculty members (at many institutions).

"An abundance of anecdotal evidence indicates that part-time faculty members -- already the worst remunerated in higher education -- have endured terrible economic hardship this year, but without more data we can only speculate."

The report also urged faculty members to become more familiar with the AAUP's standards for declaring financial exigency, something the AAUP requires for institutions to eliminate the jobs of tenured faculty members. (Most institutions that lay off tenured faculty members don't declare financial exigency.)

"In the current economic setting, it is important for faculty members not only to become familiar with those standards and procedures but also to be able to distinguish between a perceived budgetary hardship and an actual budgetary crisis," the report said.

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