From Tenured Professor to Lumpenproletariat: The State of Higher Ed Faculty in America

James Moore’s recent epistle in this space, “The Rise of the Pseudo Faculty,” has jolted my aging brain to suggest an economist’s view on why college and university faculty have lost clout in their institutions over time. But first, a little history. If you asked a professor on an American campus 100 years ago, “Are you tenured?” he likely would not have understood the question. Although the American Association of University Professors was founded in 1915 and developed a strong stance favoring academic freedom, it wasn’t until its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (jointly developed with the Association of American Colleges, now known as the American Association of Colleges and Universities) that tenure became a regular part of professorial employment arrangements.

The boom in college and university enrollments over the next three or four decades was the Golden Age of collegiate tenure. For example, enrollments more than doubled in the sixties. For a time, they grew faster than the production of new PhDs, so faculty were desperately needed and, accordingly, had a decent amount of power on campuses. I got my own PhD in that period and had no trouble getting a nice job. Within four years of being employed, I had tenure. Colleges and universities were politically favored, and successful politicians promoted higher education. At the state level, that meant big appropriations increases for existing institutions and the creation of many new ones. At the federal level, a major increase in research funding in light of post-Sputnik, Cold War–era concerns about American scientific production, along with the growing desire of middle- and lower-income Americans to get postsecondary training, led to federal legislation like the Higher Education Act of 1965, as well as vastly expanded federal student financial assistance, culminating in the creation of a Federal Department of Education in the late 1970s.

Contrast that to the modern experience. Nationally, enrollments have been falling for over a decade. Public political support for higher education has declined, and politicians are talking more about funding non-college programs, such as non-degree vocational certificate training. The move within the academy to more militantly leftish thinking—which is often more obsessed with issues of race and gender than with learning and discovery—has turned off many Americans, with voters in even highly progressive California decisively turning down attempts at promoting racial preferencing in colleges and universities. Today, politicians who want to win electoral popularity often do better calling for restrictions on collegiate excesses, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, than they do calling for massive increases in governmental support.

During the Golden Age, colleges and universities worked feverishly to create new PhD programs. After all, it was argued, the professoriate needed to grow to meet rising enrollments. Faculty were particularly keen to support prestigious PhD programs, as they wanted to teach small seminars to bright graduate students instead of large lectures to the Great Unwashed. We can make our advanced graduate students “teaching assistants.” Teaching loads generally fell for the academically elite, tenured faculty. Fewer than 10,000 doctoral degrees were awarded in the 1960 academic year; within a generation (1984), the number passed 100,000 (ten-fold increase) and is expected to double again (to 200,000) this year. The demand for doctorates is pretty stagnant (at least in higher education), but the supply has grown robustly, so the bargaining power of professors in many disciplines is in decline.

[Related: “The Rise of the Pseudo Faculty”]

An increasingly politicized faculty tacitly endorsed the decrease of academic funding through their support of such expensive administrative expansions as DEI bureaucracies. The share of college and university budgets going to support instruction fell. What Johns Hopkins’ Benjamin Ginsberg calls the “all-administrative university” increasingly controlled the allocation of university resources.

As professors became politically weakened on campus and figuratively “a dime a dozen” in the academic marketplace, their total compensation stagnated, including fringe benefits like tenure. Tenure provides substantial job security to professors, and ridding a school of a tenured faculty member tends to be very expensive. Administrations successfully sought to reduce faculty costs by replacing retiring tenured faculty with cheaper adjunct instructors without tenure, so the share of classes taught by tenured faculty has steadily declined.

As the political dynamic has changed, such that attacking academia is often more effective than supporting it, we have heard more calls to abolish tenure. A big move has been to strengthen “post-tenure review,” which requires colleges and universities to seriously reevaluate tenured professors periodically (maybe every five years) to see if they are adequately performing. As in many other areas, Florida has been a leader in this movement—most recently through HB 999—but it is far from alone. For example, the ultra-cautious Ohio legislature is seriously contemplating tenure reforms with its SB 83.

As a professor who sometimes offered highly controversial policy suggestions that offended powerful politicians, I have seen how the job security of tenure can be viewed as important. But I also see how colleges and universities naively assume that they are entirely independent of the body politic. In reality, institutions and their denizens are wards of the state—even most so-called “private” schools. Nearly all funding is at least indirectly derived from the government, even tuition fees that often are financed by government loans or grants. In pursuing leftish political agendas far outside of the mainstream, faculty and others in the university community endanger the funding that provides them a relatively good life.

Faculty were once extremely powerful at growing colleges and universities. Now they often are what Marxists call the lumpenproletariat: relatively unproductive and nonconsequential members of university communities in decline. They have fallen far, but they are partially to blame.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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7 thoughts on “From Tenured Professor to Lumpenproletariat: The State of Higher Ed Faculty in America

  1. Thank you for the compliment, Richard. You have provided a fine and thought-provoking article. When I find just the right context and audience for the usage of “Lumpenproletariat,” I will provide due credit.

  2. I am a full professor in Texas (35 years). The question I have always asked is why are the conservative legislators, who distrust or have distain for professors, so supportive of administrative bloat? One would think that fiscal conservatives would be suspicious and hostile to growing administrative salaries. Is it because legislators frame the issue in their own minds in terms of management versus labor? Managers being good (even DEI managers) and labor being shiftless and bad. Do they not realize that while a handful of professors may see themselves as social justice warriors, most of the social engineering/social services/social justice initiatives come from a plethora of administrative offices.

  3. I wish my teaching load has gone down. I’m a tenured full professor and every year have more students. The administration has grown dramatically while the faculty has not. Administrative salaries have increased at a much greater pace than faculty salaries. The HR Department constantly thinks of new training we need – and the meetings are crushing. You are correct about the use of adjuncts. Their pay is shamefully low.

    1. But, in fairness, haven’t faculty salaries increased in excess of inflation over the past 40 years?

      Also, aren’t professors teaching fewer classes than they were 40 years ago?

      1. No, they are not teaching fewer courses. The public only hears about the extreme cases—e.g., (now) Senator Elizabeth Warren receiving $400,000 her last 3 semesters at Harvard while teaching only one class—and extrapolates that to all professors.

        My university, a public university, says professors can be assigned up to 7 courses to teach per academic year. For the record, I teach 6 per year. I’m tenured, but over the last 5 years my department has increasingly relied on adjuncts.

  4. I ruefully agree with much of what Professor Vedder has to say. But I think there is more to the story than just the things faculty have done to undermine themselves.

    First of all, not all schools are downsizing the tenure-track faculty. Where I work, in recent years there has been a move to have a larger share of courses taught by tenure-track faculty. This has meant downsizing the non-tenure-track faculty, including full-time “career faculty” as well as the unfortunate “adjuncts.”

    Second, a big part of the picture is the “corporatization” of the university. There was a big push for this some years ago, and to a large extent, it has succeeded. So the president (CEO) of the corporatized university, and his administrative staff, together with the trustees, have taken much more power, at the expense (financial and otherwise) of the faculty.

    This hasn’t hit just academia. A lot of “conservatives” seem to be rueing the rise of the “woke corporation” along with things like the offshoring of much of the economy. Market rule hasn’t worked out quite the way anticipated. It’s not too much of a stretch to relate what is going on in the private for-profit economy with what’s happening in the universities.

  5. If I am not mistaken, in the era before tenure, no one ever thought that it was necessary as universities were largely self governing with administrators coming out of the faculty and often going back into it afterwards.

    People forget the specific issue that stirred this all up — Stanford University was largely founded by the Stanford family, whose only child had died. And after Leland Stanford had died, his widow did not appreciate the fact that a Stanford Economics Professor was saying that Leland had exploited Chinese labor in building his railroad (which he had).

    As I understand it, she had ordered that the professor be fired, and he was — and that’s what got everything (including the AAUP) going. Tenure now had an actual need because an existing line had been crossed, a benefactor ordering the firing of a professor.

    But only during the “anything goes” era of, roughly, 1966-1978 (which corresponds to the bulk of the baby boomers being age 18-22), that tenure became the license to do whatever one damn well pleased with impunity. It shouldn’t have been allowed then, and can’t be afforded now.

    Leland Standford died in 1893, and one needs to remember that in the early 20th Century, California was a very different place than it is today. Not only were persons of Chinese ancestry despised and subjected to flagrant racism, but Leland Stanford was viewed as a hero, with the university bearing his name having strong academic programs in railroad design and management, at a time when new track was still being laid.

    Hence a professor saying that Leland Stanford had exploited Chinese labor in building his railroad would have been about as popular there & then as a professor supporting Donald Trump would be today — when you look at how much the Chinese were hated at the time, also saying that the White Supremacists aren’t being treated fairly…

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