The embattled president of the University of Texas (Austin) recently gave a speech reflecting on that institution’s status. In William Powers’ “State of the University Address 2014” we can find many useful ideas. For now, I’d like to focus on how that president openly advocates for increasing the proportion of adjuncts in Austin’s faculty.
Powers is very clear about his goal:
American higher education has been de-tenuring itself, that is, unleveraging itself, for the last 20 years. My point here is that we need to do this in a purposeful way that is aligned with our large-scale teaching and research goals in ever more detailed ways… [emphasis added]
De-tenuring (adjunctification) is already part of the landscape. So let’s keep doing it, but more effectively, more strategically. The campus won’t break from the adjunctifying herd. That’s clear enough.
So how do we set about furthering the transformation of the professoriate?
One way of accomplishing this is by assessing academic disciplines in their broader economic context:
We need to use tenure when it is most needed: where competition is the keenest and where research is more central to the enterprise. It is less necessary where those two features aren’t present.
Let me unpack that a little. First, tenure is a way for the university to lure researchers from the private sector. If business can’t compete with a campus, then tenure isn’t really needed. For an example, think microbiologist versus medievalist. We can determine which fields business doesn’t value highly, then remove tenure from them on campus.
Second, tenure is about research, not teaching. If we accept this, then faculty whose primary function is teaching (and this can be determined through a variety of ways) aren’t really cut out for tenure status. This takes the two-tier structure of adjunct vs tenure-track and deepens the divide.
Another useful way to further reduce tenure is by appealing to financial constraints. Note how Powers addresses state funding for his public institution:
we are at or near the bottom of our peer group in terms of per-year, per-student state resources, including general revenue, Available University Fund proceeds, and tuition. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, America has fallen from second to 10th in research and development expenditures in just 20 years.
He cites his local case, then embeds it in the national scene. He appeals for more funding, but doesn’t seem to expect it, nor outline a way to achieve it. Instead economic pressure appears as part of higher education’s landscape, like detenuring. That adds enormous force to increasing adjunctification.
There’s one more way Powers offers for reducing tenure. He sees it as inflexible for the institution and the populations it works with:
The institution of tenure has served American universities for a long time. It certainly is a necessary tool for individual schools to compete for the best faculty. But we need to be realistic by recognizing that it also has costs. It’s a form of institutional leverage, just like debt or any long-term contract, that locks an institution into a long-term arrangement that might be out of kilter with the needs of a changing student body and changing research needs. Coupled with the federal law that we can’t have a mandatory retirement age, it can present a barrier for young aspiring scholars to embark on teaching careers.
I’m not sure if that last bit suggests detenuring older scholars in order to create t-track lines for younger ones. But in that sentence Powers describes the latter as heading into teaching, which he’s already established doesn’t need tenure. The main thrust here is to hold detenuring as a strategic management tool for campus leadership. Hence the main goal: “We will be more productive and more efficient.”
Let’s see if these arguments appear elsewhere in American higher education. Our campuses are diverse, of course, but the analysis Powers advances can easily be taken up by other public institutions. Private campuses can use a version of this as well.
(photo from the UT site; link thanks to a fine person on Twitter, although I can’t find the tweet…)