The Decline of Academic Tenure

American colleges are increasingly reluctant to hire people for tenure-track positions. According to a piece in the Huffington Post:

65 percent of provosts at public and private schools said their college relies “significantly on non-tenure-track faculty for instruction.”

Most provosts said in the survey they believe their institutions will continue at about the same pace for reliance on non-tenured faculty, and twice as many “expect greater reliance” on non-tenured instructors. For public universities, 58 percent said “future generations of faculty in this country should not expect tenure to be a factor in their employment at higher education institutions,” and 68 percent of community colleges said that to be true. The picture was slightly rosier at private nonprofit colleges, where 53 percent agreed with that statement about future faculty.

This discussion about tenured faculty, however, seems to ignore the fact that this is a labor market.

In the next few years, obviously, there’s nothing aspiring professors can do to demand that universities grant them tenure. But 58 percent of public college provost saying that “future generations of faculty in this country should not expect tenure to be a factor in their employment at higher education institutions”? Well, that’s only true as long as American universities continue to produce dramatically more PhDs than there are academic positions available.

Between 2005 and 2009 American universities spit out 100,000 new doctoral degrees, for 16,000 open jobs. No wonder colleges aren’t offering tenure to their instructors. They don’t have to.

The American Association of University Professors recommends no more than 15 percent of a college’s instructors should be non-tenure-track. About two-thirds of college professors don’t have tenured positions and, if one counts graduate students, about 73 percent of college courses are now taught people who don’t have tenure.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer