Tenure Isn't the Answer

October 7, 2010

In a recent essay at Inside Higher Ed, Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, underlined the new policy position of the association that all long-term adjunct or contingent faculty who have taught at least six years be granted tenure. He urged his tenured colleagues to show "solidarity" with their currently untenured colleagues.

This is a far cry from previous positions of the association, which reflected little sympathy for their contingent faculty members. It represents an important step in the continuing fight for social and economic justice within universities and colleges.

In advocating tenure for all faculty, however, Professor Nelson emphasized that such a policy could be implemented at no cost to institutions of higher education, thereby making it more appealing to college administrators who claim their budgets are strained. He stated that greater job security and academic freedom would eventually lead to greater pay and benefits to adjunct faculty. In doing so, he invited colleges to give tenure without bringing newly tenured adjuncts to comparable levels of pay and benefits -- effectively keeping alive a two-tier system. In short, he argued that institutionalizing tenure for all must precede demands for higher pay, reasonable benefits and better working conditions for adjuncts.

While this approach may be the path of least resistance, such a strategy is likely neither to gain tenure for all adjuncts in the short run, nor to do anything to eliminate the horrendous working conditions under which contingent faculty currently labor. It certainly will be easier to persuade tenured teachers to support tenure for all than it would be to mobilize them for the much tougher fight to gain greater pay and benefits for their untenured colleagues.

Even with greater solidarity between tenured and nontenured faculty, the struggle for universal tenure will take a good deal of time. College administrations can be counted on to oppose such a drastic change in their relationship with contingent faculty, even if this change doesn’t cost them anything. It would mean giving up a great deal of control and power. Many deans currently enjoy their authority to end the contracts of adjuncts they don’t like, a power they would not be able to exercise with tenured adjuncts.

Nor will tenure necessarily provide job security and academic freedom in these tough economic times. Tenured jobs are currently being sacrificed before the altar of budget cutbacks and faculty layoffs. Downsizing seems to make few exceptions.

The prolonged fight for tenure at no cost to universities and colleges means that the current conditions under which adjuncts teach and suffer will not improve. In fact, they may get worse as colleges continue to tighten their purses. A growing number of adjuncts are slowly being pushed to poverty’s doorstep. A number are relying on food stamps or selling their blood to put bread on their family tables. Under such stress, it is increasingly difficult for them to maintain high teaching standards. Since a large majority of all the teaching in higher education is performed by contingent faculty, there is a danger that many students may not receive a quality education.

If adjuncts are to receive better pay and reasonable benefits, they will have to begin now to challenge college administrations, policy makers and college trustees to change current practices. They cannot afford to wait for tenured positions that may never materialize. Hopefully, they will be strongly supported by unions, tenured professors, AAUP and other educational associations.

The AAUP statement and Professor Nelson seem to take the colleges’ word that they cannot afford to spend more on adjunct salaries and benefits. That is not the case. University and college administrations are bloated with enormous costs for CEOs and high-level administrators. In the coming year dozens of CEOs will earn compensation packages of over $1 million, while the salaries of top administrators are increasing at a furious pace. Many administrative positions could easily be eliminated. Others could have their compensation packages reduced to bring them in line with more normal academic practices.

Our higher education institutions continue to lavish money on high-priced new facilities, many of them not essential to quality higher education, and on dubious research. They rob undergraduate education to pay for graduate studies. Expensive athletic programs also absorb a growing portion of university budgets.

The more than 1,500 private foundations that support public universities and colleges sit on some $300 billion in assets. Instead of supporting many unnecessary activities and expenditures at their schools, they could instead be supporting decent pay and benefits for their adjunct faculty.

Although economically strapped, universities and colleges could easily come up with the money needed to raise the salaries of and provide benefits to their contingent faculty. It is a question of priorities. Shouldn’t teaching be the highest priority of higher education?

That is the reason why tenured faculty, if they care about the quality of teaching in higher education, should fight to substantially narrow the gap between their compensation packages and those of their fellow adjuncts. Across the board pay and benefit hikes will not accomplish that goal; they will only widen the gap between tenured and adjunct faculty. Adjuncts need to receive compensatory salary and benefit increases to begin to narrow this immense, unjustifiable difference in pay and benefits.

Only through organizing pressure, mobilizing supporters among both adjuncts and tenured faculty and engaging college trustees and policy makers can adjunct faculty change the conditions that make them the "untouchables" of our higher education caste system.

Professor Nelson and the AAUP should by all means fight to gain tenure for their adjunct colleagues. But if they are truly interested in the well-being of the latter, as well as in the sound education of college students, they must join the active struggle to achieve higher pay, reasonable benefits and better working conditions for contingent faculty. That struggle cannot wait. It must precede tenure, not follow it.


Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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