The Balance of Power: “Education in the Balance”

Data from the two surveys show that between 1995 and 2005 the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in US postsecondary education remained almost unchanged, while the number of non-tenure-track faculty members, both full-time and part-time, increased dramatically. These data about changes in the number and especially the mix of full- and part-time, tenure-line (tenured and tenure-track) and non-tenure-line faculty appointments should be considered in relation to the growth in student enrollments in higher education that occurred over the same period. … We recommend that there be a regular survey and update on staffing practices in English and other modern language departments at least every ten years, so that changes in staffing patterns and the categories of faculty employment can be tracked and reported. Reports about the composition and characteristics of the faculty in English and other modern languages should also be developed from the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF) as further studies in the NSOPF series become available…

Between fall 1995 and fall 2005, student enrollments in degree-granting postsecondary institutions grew by more than 3,225,000 (22.6%), from 14,261,781 to 17,487,475 (Digest, table 175 and table 190)…

Given what is essentially zero population growth in the tenure-line faculty, increases in student enrollments are being accommodated by increases in the non-tenure-track faculty. Although across higher education, tenure lines have not been eliminated in favor of non-tenure-track positions, in the context of a student population and a non-tenure-track faculty that continue to increase, a tenure-line faculty that never grows becomes a diminished, and diminishing, segment of the faculty. As a result, tenure-line faculty members become an intellectual and educational resource rationed out in scarcer portions to an ever larger student body.

“Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English

In the 1990s Graduate Student Union activists, myself among them, made a lot of noise at the MLA each year, protesting the growing use of part-time and graduate student teachers in universities. Among other things, we convinced (forced) the MLA to gather a factual portrayal of employment in our field. We thought these numbers would convince many who just thought graduate students were bothersome kids.

Not surprisingly, each survey demonstrated that the activists were correct. Step by step, universities were de-skilling their workforce. As this report emphasizes, this is largely done by omission rather than commission. As the universities grow, in other words, new non-tenure track positions are created. In effect, the U.S. university system, long plauged by heirarchies of race and gender, has created a hierarchy on top of a hierarchy.

At the top are the tenure track professors with generous salaries and benefits, including, among other things, the ability to avoid teaching lower division courses. At the bottom of the top, as it were, are part-time faculty (many if not most without Ph.D.s) and graduate students. They still benefit from the facilities and they can, if they are graduate students and very fortunate, attempt to leverage their experiences into tenure track positions.

“In general,” the report concludes, “it appears that an MA or an MFA is accepted across all institutional sectors, four-year as well as two-year, as an appropriate degree qualification for teaching the lower division.” The emphasis here, of course, is on “lower division.” The conservative view is that there are too many Ph.D.’s out there for what is needed. As the report makes clear, the glut is created by administrations’ hiring practices.

There are differences between Ph.D. granting institutions and M.A. granting schools and so on. Nonetheless the pattern is consistent: “…the full-time positions are part of a larger argument about … a teaching faculty (largely off the tenure track and outside the tenure system, located in the lower division) and a research faculty (almost exclusively tenured or tenure-track and charged with the preparation of majors and graduate students).”

One layer down, in two-colleges, the trend is the same: no growth in tenure track Ph.D.s and more part-time and non-tenure track employment. The report may suggest that we’ve fought this trend to a standstill. Or, more cynically, that the privileged tenured professors are adept at protecting their positions but either uninterested or unskilled at stopping the (unfortunate) transformation of their field.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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