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The percentage of nonmedical, “instructional staff” faculty members at public and nonprofit private colleges and universities who work full-time but aren’t on the tenure track has almost tripled since 1987, relatively steadily increasing from 5 percent to 13 percent.
That’s according to a new American Association of University Professors analysis of federal data, out today. The report also says the number of nonmedical graduate student workers—including those with and without teaching responsibilities—rose 44 percent over roughly the past 20 years, compared to only 19 percent increases in the numbers of nonmedical full- and part-time instructional staff faculty members.
“The [graduate worker] numbers have been soaring—they’ve been hiring more and more, but we don’t know how many of them are teaching,” said Glenn Colby, senior researcher at AAUP and author of the report. “It’s not possible to count that at this point.”
Colby placed graduate workers in their own category, so, them aside, the report only looks at instructional staff faculty members. The federal definition of those says they’re individuals whose primary occupation includes instruction.
“The U.S. academic workforce has shifted from mostly full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty to mostly contingent faculty, including full-time non-tenure-track, full-time with no tenure system and part-time faculty,” the report says. “Over two-thirds (68 percent) of faculty members in U.S. colleges and universities held contingent appointments in fall 2021, compared with about 47 percent in fall 1987.”
“The earliest we can go back with confidence is like 1987,” said Colby, who said data before then aren’t comparable but likely would have shown even higher levels of tenured and tenure-track faculty.
“It started becoming apparent that there was a shift occurring in the ’70s, early ’70s,” he said.
Reports that tenure is declining in the U.S. aren’t new, but Colby highlighted the AAUP’s new “Academic Workforce” tab at data.aaup.org. There, those interested can look at the data in ways not shown in today’s report—and Colby said he plans for the online system to be updated annually.
“This is the first time we put out a report that explicitly points at that data website as a way to get updated numbers, so we don’t have to put out another report next year,” he said.
“If a reader wants to know what the numbers are for a particular state or region or whatever breakdown the reader wants, the reader can do that on that website, as opposed to us producing like a 100-page report that has every possible breakdown,” he said.
The growing ranks of graduate employees and contingent faculty members are continuing to unionize, a method that can win them job protections and benefits they lack.
Joseph van der Naald said the increases in these types of workers “is a choice on the part of the universities to switch to a model that is lower-cost, frankly, so there’s also a concurrent decrease in the hiring of tenure-track faculty.”
“It means lowering labor costs, frankly, and part of the way to do that is to get graduate workers to teach more classes,” said van der Naald, a Ph.D. candidate who also teaches courses at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.
To look all the way back to 1987, the AAUP used estimates from the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, a series of nationally representative surveys. After 1998, though, the data aren’t based on surveys but instead on census data from the U.S. Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
These combined data show part-time faculty have made up about half of all nonmedical instructional staff faculty in public and private nonprofit colleges and universities since 2002 (the report didn’t look at for-profit institutions). Before that year, this proportion had ramped up significantly—part-timers were only an estimated third of all faculty in 1987.
Full-time tenured faculty have made up roughly a quarter of nonmedical instructional staff faculty since 2002, but that’s down from 39 percent in 1987.
And full-time tenure-track faculty—the pipeline to maintain the institution of tenure—have slowly become a smaller share of faculty, declining from 14 percent back in 1987 to 9 percent in 2021.
“Tenure is the primary means of protecting academic freedom and exists not only to protect individual faculty members but also to benefit students and serve the common good by ensuring the quality of teaching and research in higher education,” the report says. “Overreliance on contingent appointments, which lack the protection of tenure for academic freedom and the economic security of continuing appointments, threatens the success of institutions in fulfilling their obligations to students and to society.”
Also, the report notes, women and “under-represented minorities”—faculty members from the categories American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander and two or more races—are currently more likely to be part-time and less likely to be tenured or on the tenure track.