In the last decade, conservatives have launched high-profile attacks on faculty tenure in higher education. As we understandably focus on these episodes in states such as Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin, we too readily ignore slow and steady developments that may well end up destroying faculty tenure in California and other progressive states.
I approach this subject as a tenured full professor at San Francisco State University, part of the California State University system, the largest four-year public university system in the United States. With 23 campuses, nearly 500,000 students and more than 55,000 faculty and staff, the CSU system positions itself between the elite University of California system and the state’s many community colleges. This is consistent with the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, which distinguished carefully among the state’s three tiers of colleges and universities. If current trends continue, faculty tenure in the system’s middle tier (and perhaps in the others as well) will disappear in the coming decades. Our route to that destination may be different from the ones taken by states and institutions that are openly challenging the faculty tenure system, but the destination will be the same.
First, a short primer on the two main classes of faculty in the CSU system. Tenure-track faculty are typically hired by departmental committees after months-long national or international searches featuring multiple interviews, research/creative presentations and teaching demonstrations. Most tenure-track faculty begin as assistant professors and effectively are on probation for six years before a series of faculty committees and administrators decides whether to grant them tenure—decisions that are based heavily on student evaluations and external assessments of their scholarship, research and creative activities. Most of those who are denied tenure are terminated. Most of those who are granted tenure become associate professors, at which point they only can be fired in extreme situations.
By contrast, non-tenure-track faculty—called lecturer faculty at my institution—are typically hired by department chairs after local searches with no presentations or demonstrations. They are permanently on probation and do not enjoy the privileges of academic freedom.
Tenure-track faculty typically enjoy a number of privileges compared to their lecturer counterparts, among them job security, higher salaries and lower teaching loads (six versus 10 courses per year for most full-time faculty at my institution). Those privileges also come with obligations. In contrast to lecturer faculty, who are only paid to teach, tenure-track faculty are expected to perform in three distinct areas: (1) research, scholarship and creative activities; (2) teaching; and (3) service, including student advising and administrative work to help run the institution. In most departments, only tenure-track faculty can teach graduate courses; supervise graduate students; chair departments; participate in hiring, tenure and promotion decisions; and take on other major administrative roles.
Over the course of the last several decades, tenure density—the proportion of faculty in tenure-track positions—has been declining in the United States. This decline now constitutes the greatest threat to higher education that the United States has ever experienced.
Lecturer faculty are generally outstanding teachers, and many also excel (even without compensation) at research, scholarship, creative activities and service. But can we truly expect a lecturer faculty member who teaches 10 courses per year at one or more institutions to have the same amount of time and energy to devote to their students as a tenure-track faculty member who teaches four, five or six courses per year? Can we really expect a lecturer faculty member to remain up-to-date in their field, devoting the necessary time and energy to learn about new knowledge, new methodologies and new paradigms? Can we genuinely expect them to retain their enthusiasm for and their ability to teach students about cutting-edge research, scholarship and creative activities if their employers do not compensate them for engaging in these activities? Can we fairly ask them to advise the students in their classes when they are not compensated for this work? Can we reasonably think that their grading practices and their handling of plagiarism cases will not be affected by the likelihood that negative student evaluations will lead to their termination?
In 2016, the CSU’s Academic Senate recognized the threat posed by declining tenure density when it recommended that then chancellor Timothy P. White establish a task force on tenure density. Chancellor White did so, appointing CSU Monterey Bay president Eduardo M. Ochoa as task force chair. In 2018, White accepted the “Report of the Task Force on Tenure Density in the California State University,” which recognized, in quite modest and understated terms, that “inadequate tenure density may adversely affect educational quality.” The report documented the system’s failure to achieve the 75 percent tenure-density target adopted for the CSU by the state Legislature in 2001. It also recommended a set of “best practices” for improving tenure density, one of which was to “develop a campus-specific tenure density plan (that should include targets).” Most of the task force recommendations have not been adopted, and tenure density across the system has continued to fall.
Here are some numbers on tenure density supplied by the CSU Chancellor’s Office, calculated as a proportion of full-time-equivalent faculty. From 2002 to 2020, tenure density in the CSU system declined from 64.2 percent to 56.3 percent, a drop of 7.9 percentage points over all (and an average of 0.4 percentage points per year). From 2009 (after the Great Recession) to 2019 (the most recent year before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic), tenure density declined from 66.4 percent to 55.3 percent, a drop of 11.1 percentage points (and an average of 1.1 percentage points per year). If that decline persists, we can anticipate that the last tenure-track faculty member in the CSU system will teach their final class in 2069—47 years from now.
For San Francisco State, the picture is somewhat different. San Francisco State’s tenure-density rate declined from 66.2 percent in 2002 to 62.1 percent in 2020, a drop of 4.1 percentage points. In this case, too, the trends since 2009 are more substantial. From 2009 to 2019, tenure density at SFSU declined from 74.4 percent to 59.5 percent, a drop of 14.9 percentage points (an average of 1.5 percentage points per year). If that decline persists, we can anticipate that the last tenure-track faculty member at SFSU will teach their final class in 2059, 37 years from now.
For both the CSU system and San Francisco State, alternative means of calculating tenure density—using numbers of courses taught or numbers of students taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members—would likely show even lower levels of tenure density, perhaps lower than 50 percent, meaning that a majority of courses and a majority of students are taught by lecturer faculty.
If these trends continue, the CSU system likely will move closer to the models that are currently found in California’s community colleges (where most faculty are not expected to engage in research, scholarship, creative and service activities) and further away from the models that are currently emphasized (though also weakening) in the University of California system. With respect to service, we are already seeing the results of declining tenure density in areas such as student advising, student retention, student equity gaps, curricular reform and service on departmental, college and university committees. In turn, these transformations have great implications for CSU teaching, which has long been based on the models of the teacher scholar and teacher artist, and for faculty diversity, equity and inclusion. As for research, scholarship and creative activities, the CSU mission statement begins by noting that one of the central goals of the university is “to advance and extend knowledge, learning, and culture, especially throughout California.” The statement also notes that to accomplish its mission, the CSU “provides an environment in which scholarship, research, creative, artistic, and professional activity are valued and supported.” That may be true in theory, but in practice the system’s support for these activities is steadily weakening.
Critics can quibble with some of the calculations used above, especially if we select different years to begin and conclude the analysis, but there should be no denying that tenure density is declining at San Francisco State, in the CSU system and in the country at large. Unfortunately, there has been a reluctance to confront the challenges posed by declining tenure density. At times, this takes the form of denial, with statistics manipulated to challenge the notion that tenure density is declining. At times, it takes the form of resignation, with acknowledgment of the problem but denial that anything can be done about it in the context of declining public funding for higher education. At times, it takes the form of campaigns—often led by unions—to improve compensation for lecturer faculty without linked efforts to address declines in tenure density. At best, this approach will yield minor improvements for a professoriate that will feature fewer and fewer tenure-track faculty.
At my institution, which has suffered enrollment declines in the last several years, there is a great deal of talk about the need for us to improve student retention and reduce graduation gaps, especially among our many first-generation, immigrant and working-class students. This is rarely accompanied by acknowledgment that perhaps these indices of institutional success might be negatively affected by declining tenure density. Educational administrators, many of whom enjoy the advantages of faculty tenure, rarely seem to entertain the possibility that we are witnessing enrollment declines because the quality of what we offer—education by highly trained faculty experts who teach a manageable number of classes and students—is suffering because of declining tenure density. Yet when I talk to students about their experiences in higher education, I hear story after story that points to this as a major reason for student difficulties.
As for what happens when I talk to faculty about this, there is a level of resignation and despair that does not bode well for the future. I will be long retired before these developments come to fruition, but here’s what I think, strategically, is the best set of moves. First, we have to do everything possible to respect, retain and improve financial compensation and job security for our current lecturer faculty, who have performed heroic work in spite of the many challenges they have faced. Second, we have to reduce our reliance on new lecturer faculty in the future, which means (a) resisting the urge to replace tenure-track positions with lecturer faculty positions, (b) resisting the pressure to hire large numbers of new lecturer faculty and (c) using whatever funds are available to hire tenure-track faculty (and selectively move lecturer faculty into tenure-track positions). At some point, I realize, this might mean reducing our course offerings, which in turn might mean that more students will experience difficulty in finding the courses they need to complete their degrees. This is as it should be. Colleges and universities have to stop making it seem as though they can forever do more with less. State politicians, state voters and state taxpayers have to see that declining public funding for higher education will inevitably reduce higher education quality.
None of this will be easy. College and university administrators are not commonly hired based on their ability and willingness to say to state officials and state voters, “No, I will not destroy my institution by going along with reductions in tenure-track faculty positions, which are made necessary by your funding cuts. No, we will not expand access to our institutions if doing so means damaging the quality of what we offer. No, we will not boost our enrollment if you refuse to provide us with the material resources necessary to do so.” Most educational administrators are pragmatic realists, not educational visionaries. But if they continue to make under-the-radar decisions that reduce tenure density, they will destroy higher education.