Evaporating tenure

Evaporating tenure

January 29th, 2010 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Dr. Victoria S. Steinberg, associate professor of French at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, teaches a class at Brock Hall. In 1960, 75 percent of college instructors were full-time tenured or tenure-tracked professors, but today that number is only 27 percent.

Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

In the midst of researching and teaching French at UTC, Victoria Steinberg has become fluent in a much more complex tongue.

After 15 years at the school, she has perfected answers to questions such as, "I know I'm one semester from graduating, but is it too late to change my major?" and, "My parents want me to study business, but my real passion is ceramic pottery. Help?"

"Teaching is so much about cajoling, encouraging them to believe in themselves," said Dr. Steinberg, a full-time, tenured professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "I can find that example that is going to connect with a student and send that glimmer of intrigue."

But some of that expertise may be eroding on campuses such as UTC, where a growing number of part-time instructors with day jobs is replacing tenured faculty.

Even as the UTC faculty has grown over the last decade to accommodate a swelling student population, the number of tenure or tenure-track faculty members is in decline. In 2001, 19.2 percent of full-time instructors were hired with no promise for tenure. By last fall, 25.8 percent of full-time faculty were non-tenure track, documents show.

At the same time, the ranks of part-time faculty are multiplying and will continue to grow, officials said, as budget cuts force schools to look for cheaper teaching alternatives.

In the last five years, the number of adjunct faculty members at UTC increased by 23.5 percent, from 243 instructors in 2004 to 300 instructors in 2009. These adjunct instructors cover a workload equivalent to 113 full-time professors, documents show.

"I do not deliberately seek to move away from tenured faculty. I want them here," UTC Chancellor Roger Brown said. "But budget pressures and enrollment pressures are pushing us in this direction."

national trend

UTC is no anomaly. Universities across the country are adding part-time teachers and shedding tenured faculty.

UT Interim President Jan Simek has said the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, like UTC, will be forced to replace many tenured faculty members who leave or retire with part-time teachers as federal stimulus funding runs out in the next two years.

The American Association of University Professors reports the percentage of part-time teachers on college campuses jumped from 30.2 percent in 1975 to 50.3 percent in 2007. In the same time period, the number of tenured professors dropped from 36.5 percent to 21.3 percent, documents show.

"Today (the tenure system) has all but collapsed," a report by the association states. "The tenure track has not vanished, but it has ceased to be the norm for faculty."

pros and cons

Some faculty, Dr. Steinberg among them, compare the steady shift away from hiring expensive and sometimes controversial tenured faculty members to watching a slow train wreck.

They worry the trend will affect the academic freedom that tenure was intended to protect and stunt student learning.

Dr. Steinberg said the French department has hired an adjunct teacher to replace a faculty member whose full-time position disappeared with the most recent budget cuts.

"I think that having the adjunct gives us so much less flexibility in the classroom," said Dr. Steinberg. "They don't know the whole curriculum. They can't teach the class to anticipate what the kids will need next."

Other faculty say it may be time for universities - which must educate more students with less money - to re-examine the practice of lifetime employment.

"Here we are in Tennessee, where we have people worried about whether they are going to work or not, and I don't think that they are very sensitive about professors complaining that they don't have job security," said Stuart Benkert, a music professor at UTC, who is tenured. "Why should professors or teachers be guaranteed job security when no one else has it? I think that is something that puts a distance between us and our public."

a link to reality

Dr. Brown said tenure status doesn't measure whether a faculty member is an excellent student counselor or adviser.

Even with tenured professors traditionally holding the lion's share of appointments, UTC's current graduation rate is only 42 percent, he said.

Besides, part-time teachers can bring real-world expertise and excitement to a classroom, Dr. Brown said. Students need jobs after graduation, and adjunct faculty often are the connections to those jobs, he said.

"Adjunct faculty don't know as much of the system, of course, but they know as much or more about the professions they are teaching and how to get into them," he said.

The UTC College of Business has capitalized on this model for some time, bringing in working accountants to teach accounting or business executives to teach management.

Ray Ryan, an investment manager at Patten & Patten who teaches speculative markets and portfolio management at UTC, said even though he is on campus only one night a week and busy with a full-time job, he still has a chance to reach students.

"The feedback I get is positive, because they like the fact that I offer real-world information about what I teach," he said. "What I teach I actually do in my profession."


"I don't think it bodes well for education for us to stray far from having full-time instructors. I think no matter what business you are in, it helps to have people working for you who are invested in your organization. There is something of pride in ownership."

Stuart Benkert, professor of music at UTC

"Over time it will erode our ability to have kids prepared for the next level. We will have to spend more time on remediation, and that is time lost in pure learning."

Victoria Steinberg, associate professor of French at UTC

"The feedback I get is positive, because they like the fact that I offer real-world information about what I teach. What I teach I actually do in my profession."

Ray Ryan, adjunct faculty at UTC, investment adviser at Patten & Patten

"I don't like them using so many adjuncts because they don't have a set schedule if we need to meet with them. We have to e-mail them, and some times they don't get back to us in time."

Taneshia Petty, sophomore majoring in nursing, has an adjunct teacher in English

"My adjunct teacher is very knowledgeable in the subject he teaches. They are teaching what they are doing. It's not like a professor who is just teaching you what they learned way back when."

Ryan Sachs, sophomore majoring in business and marketing, has an adjunct teacher in accounting


Faculty 2004 2009

* Total full-time 377 391

* Tenured 207 211

* Tenure track 79 79

* Non-tenure track 91 101

* Adjunct 243 300

Source: U.S. Department of Education

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