The Incredible Shrinking Tenure

For a variety of reasons, but mainly because of cost, tenure has become a focus of debate in recent months. Given the trends in hiring and working conditions, though, one wonders why, for the fact is that tenure has been squeezed into an ever-smaller portion of the instructional employee population for years.

Two charts in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s almanac this month display stark numbers against it.  In 2009, the rate of teachers in four-year colleges who were “full-time tenure” stood at 25 percent.  The rate of those on the tenure-track stood at 11 percent.  That means that nearly two-thirds of instructional personnel didn’t have tenure and didn’t expect to win it, either.  The breakdown was:

  • Non-tenure-track, full time                        15 percent
  • Part-time                                                 25 percent
  • Graduate assistants                                 25 percent

The other chart details what happened in the previous decade.  It shows the growth in numbers of teachers by tenure status.  Every category went up, including the number of tenured professors, as one would expect at a time when the full-time undergraduate population swelled by an extraordinary 45 percent.

But growth rates differed drastically.  For all four-year colleges, while “Tenured, full-time” rose seven percent and “Tenure-track, full-time” rose 20 percent, the rest exploded:

  • Non-tenure-track, full time                         56 percent
  • Part-time                                                49 percent
  • Graduate assistants                                  47 percent

Because non-tenured instructors are so much cheaper than tenured and tenure-track instructors, the discrepancy is unlikely to change.  And administrators can continue it in a process that is more or less painless to the most powerful instructors—those with tenure.  If a full professor retires and the dean offers the department only a lecturer as replacement, are the other 50- and 60-year-old eminences going to protest? Unlikely, as long as their working conditions aren’t affected.  After all, lecturers, adjuncts, and graduate assistants make their lives easier.  Indeed, if courses are over-enrolled and the dean provides only funds to pick up three adjuncts instead of a new tenure-track line, won’t the former plan ease the burden on existing professors more than the latter plan?

This isn’t the abolition of tenure, just the reduction of it, slowly but steadily, with no real forces of resistance to stop it.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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