The growing number of positions without tenure is damaging higher education, said Maria Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct faculty advocacy organization.
“Essentially, tenure as we know it is evaporating before our eyes and that is to the detriment of higher education,” she said.
Maisto said tenure is often misunderstood and does not prevent faculty members from getting fired.
“Tenure is nothing more than a guarantee of due process — which means you cannot be fired for an arbitrary reason,” she said. “There has to be a process by which your termination is reviewed, if necessary, and overturned, if necessary.”
Tenure allows professors to practice academic freedom and encourage difficult and challenging conversations, Maisto said.
“When faculty are not respected, not supported, not given the institutional support they need, it has a detrimental effect on students no matter how wonderful the faculty are,” she said.
Altha Cravey, a UNC geography professor and member of the Faculty Forward Network, said it is discouraging to see how the lack of tenure positions has undermined the classroom.
“Putting people in such insecure jobs with low pay and almost nonexistent benefits means that they are scrambling to attempt to teach a lot of students and a lot of classes,” she said.
Being a professor is no longer a secure job like it once was, Cravey said.
Maisto said this research is important because it underscores neglected trends in the higher education workforce.
“And that is that this contingent employment model is disproportionately affecting faculty who are women and faculty who come from underrepresented minority groups,” she said.
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Although more females and underrepresented minorities have been employed, these increases have not translated to actual equity, Maisto said.
“The vast majority of those people who come from those diverse backgrounds are in the most precarious positions,” she said. “It’s sort of giving with one hand while taking away with the other.”
Jack Schuster, a professor at Claremont Graduate University and a co-author of the study, said the data shows how much work is still needed to achieve diversity in higher education.
He said opportunities to hire diverse faculty members are not abundantly present because, in general, higher education is under increased financial pressure.
Finkelstein said increased enrollment coupled with decreasing funds has put colleges and universities in a difficult situation when hiring faculty members.
“The public appropriations for higher education, particularly at the local and state level, are declining,” he said. “So, there is less money and you know, of course, most of the money — 80 percent of the instructional budget for instructional universities — is for faculty positions.”
Maisto said increasing the number of part-time faculty positions has also exacerbated the problem.
“The use of adjunct faculty in some ways started out as a short-term solution to budgetary challenges,” she said. “But, because I think people found it was so easy to find people who were qualified and willing to teach, it sort of exploded.”
Maisto said faculty working conditions are students’ learning conditions — and reform is needed.
“No matter how great you are, you can’t do your best when you are in conditions that are unprofessional,” she said.