U.S.

Two Numbers: Downgrading Professors

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12/26/14
In the Magazine
Asaf Hanuka

As colleges and universities compete to attract students, they frequently advertise their star faculty members—acclaimed intellectuals or business and professional leaders, maybe even a few Nobel Prize winners. What they don’t say is that more and more teaching is done by a growing underclass in academia: part-time and contract workers receiving low pay and little job security.

Today almost two-thirds of faculty at all accredited colleges and universities in the United States are nontenured, according to the Center for the Study of Academic Labor at Colorado State University. That wasn’t always the case. Nontenured faculty made up less than half of faculty employed at degree-granting institutions in 1975, according to the American Association of University Professors. (AAUP)

At the same time, the cost of college has been rising. Over a 10 year period ending in 2012, average tuition, including room, board and fees for full-time undergraduate students at all degree-granting institutions, increased 33 percent, to $19,339, after adjusting for inflation, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Most nontenured faculty positions are part time and pay a few thousand dollars per course, without any health or retirement benefits. Pay for nontenured faculty can vary widely, but a full-time instructor, who is typically on a non tenure track, earns on average 40 percent of the average pay of a full professor, according to the AAUP.

“Although tuition and student debt keep rising, universities are cutting spending on their core educational mission by substituting poorly paid contingent faculty for tenured faculty,” said Steven Shulman, head of the center for the Study of Academic Labor and professor and chair of the Department of Economics at Colorado State University. “This is bad for anyone thinking about university teaching as a career path, and it’s certainly bad for students.”

It’s interesting to note that a college or university may have a high level of tenured or tenure-track faculty on staff yet the majority of teaching is still done by nontenured faculty. Colorado State University, for instance, with undergraduate enrollment of 22,000, employs 1,050 tenured or tenure-track faculty members out of a total of 1,700, according to its website. That means that 62 percent of its faculty is tenured or tenure-track. Yet in 2013-2014, tenured and tenured track faculty taught only 37 percent of undergraduate student credit hours, according to the university’s public records. That compares with 51 percent of undergraduate hours taught by that same group in 2001-2002.

So at Colorado State University, the reliance on nontenure-track faculty to teach undergraduates has jumped from half to almost two-thirds in just over a decade. And Colorado State University is not alone. The trend is the same at public and private colleges across the country.

Of course, a nontenured professor may be just as good a teacher as a tenured professor, but if she is, shouldn’t she be paid accordingly?