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Posted with permission. This paper was originally published in
National Forum, The Phi Kappa Phi Journal, Volume 79, Number 1, Winter 1999 

James T. Richardson, J.D., Ph.D.

President, AAUP


Tenure is a much-maligned and misunderstood concept in today's world. Its ultimate function, the protection of academic freedom, is not appreciated by many who seem unaware of the history of academic freedom and its importance to maintaining the quality of a higher education system that is the envy of the world. Thus, tenure, and also therefore academic freedom, are suffering many direct and indirect attacks in the contemporary America. This brief sociologically-oriented writing is offered to remind people of the importance of tenure, and to make them more aware of what is happening to academic freedom in America. First, some brief historical comments are in needed to set the stage for my analysis.


At the risk of over-simplifying, I will paint a picture of American higher education that fits what most people think of when traditional higher education is mentioned. The time is pre-WWII. Higher education is much smaller and more elitist than it is now. Most people do not go to college or the university, and when they do, their choices are much more limited than currently in the case. Those who go to college are typically from the upper classes in America, often continuing a family tradition by so doing. Phrases like affirmative action and minority access, or student aid, are virtually unheard of during these supposedly halcyon days of American higher education.

But, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the AAUP and its early founders, the phrase "academic freedom" was also an increasingly apt descriptor of this age in American higher education during these pre-WWII decades. And the word "tenure" had come to have a definite meaning, as well, indicating that many professors could expect reasonable job security as they practiced their profession. The firing of a economics professor in the early part of this century at Stanford University because Leland Stanford's widow disagreed with his economic theories had led to a meeting of some 700 leading scholars of the day to establish the AAUP to fight for academic freedom. Led by intellectuals such as John Dewey (AAUP's first president) and Arthur Lovejoy, the work of the AAUP had, over the subsequent decades, made tenure and academic freedom watchwords of American higher education.

Then came WWII, and afterward the GI Bill. Millions of potential new students made their way to college, after our society's leaders decided that this was a good way to reward returning GIs, as we demobilized from the huge war effort. With these students came a huge demand for many more faculty, and for new institutions as well. All over America decision makers were deciding how to handle the rapid influx of new students. The decisions tended to follow a common pattern, easily discernable for those with even a slight sociological bent.


What happened is that we did build many more institutions, but we collectively decided in most states to make them much larger, and to hire comparatively fewer faculty to teach in those new and growing institutions. Thus, a massive structural change took place in American higher education, not just in numbers served, but in how that service was delivered. Here are some numbers to illustrate what I mean, taken from a recent article by Ernst Benjamin, former General Secretary of the AAUP (Benjamin, 1998).

Between 1949 and 1992 the number of students being taught in institutions of higher education increased 5.4 times. The number of institutions increased 2 times, and the number of faculty increased by 3.4 times. These numbers mean that the collective wisdom of our society's political and educational leaders was usually to have much larger campuses on which the numbers of students per faculty member increased dramatically. Student/faculty ratios rose over this time period from about 11:1 to 17:1, an increase of over 50% in just over 40 years.

Thus decisions were made that led to the mega-campuses we now see in a number of states, with tens of thousands of students congregating in one location. Decision makers apparently accepted the view that there were efficiencies of size, or perhaps they just decided not to hire more faculty, for whatever reason.

Our society could have decided to hire many more faculty, keeping the student faculty ratio at the level it was in the earlier decades. Maintaining those lower S/F ratios would have, of course, allowed much more contact between students and faculty and more personal attention in smaller classes, both desirable goals. But, this was not to be, and today policy makers argue for more focus on teaching, often without understanding the historical decisions that led us to the present structural situation of having many fewer faculty than needed for the numbers of students we are expected to educate.

Some of the cause of increased S/F ratios was, of course, lack of supply of trained faculty members, at least initially. However, that shortage was eventually rectified, but no collective society-wide decision followed to lower S/F ratios by hiring more faculty. Indeed, the pressure was often the other way, and those ratios have tended to creep upward because of budget priorities around the country, especially in public institutions (where 80% of all higher ed students are located). Worse yet, as I will describe, that adequate (some would say over) supply of potential faculty that developed has ended up being used against the academic profession itself, leading to fragmentation of the academic labor market.

This fragmentation represents yet another major structural development to take into account, one with very far-reaching consequences in terms of traditional academic freedom and tenure. I refer here to the systematic restructuring of the academic profession that has occurred in recent times in America, a restructuring that should be viewed as directly under-cutting academic freedom.

Not too many decades ago nearly all faculty were tenured, or on tenure track, headed, they hoped, toward tenure. Those faculty were afforded academic freedom by virtue of the protections of tenure. There were a few nontenure track people teaching on campuses, usually in professional schools, but this was the exception rather than the rule. But in recent decades the situation and the rules have changed, with some of the changes systematically undercutting the notion of a homogenous faculty more easily able to speak with one voice. The lack of a unified faculty voice has itself contributed directly to the weakening of traditional concepts of academic freedom and tenure. I will again rely on Ernst Benjamin for some key data.

Benjamin presents data from the U.S. Department of Education that shows the following changes that have occurred in the make-up of the professorate between 1975 and 1993:

* The number of faculty has increased by 43%, from 783,000 to 1,118,293.

* The number of full-time faculty has increased by 25%, from 435,000 to 546,000.

* The number of part-time faculty has increased by 97%, from 188,000 to 370,000.

* Within the full-time faculty category, the number of tenured faculty has increased by 23%, from 228,000 to 279,000.

* Within the full-time faculty category, the number of nontenure track faculty has increased by 88%, from 81,000 to 152,000.

* Within the full-time faculty category, the number of probationary faculty has decreased by 9%, from 126,000 to 114,000.

Thus we see that part-time faculty numbers have increased at four times the rate of full-time faculty since 1975. Part of this growth comes from the rapid growth of community colleges, of course, with their higher dependency on part-time faculty. But, even when community college growth is taken into account, there has been a significant shift toward part-time faculty among the rest of American higher education. Also, tenured and probationary (tenure track) faculty now constitute only 35% of all those who teach on our campuses (if one includes the graduate assistants who teach, and 43% if one leaves grad assistants out of the calculation).



Downward pressure on salaries for most academic professionals has developed because of the large number of available academic workers forced to work for less. Also, many fewer purely academic jobs are available than previously expected because: (1) many such positions are being absorbed by the high costs of the push toward more use of technology; (2) a general growth has occurred in academic bureaucracies relative to faculty numbers; and (3) faculty lines on many campuses are being turned into a multitude of part-time faculty positions, positions with few if any benefits. Job protections have been taken away even for many full-time faculty, and they can often be "fired at will," a concept as far from the idea of academic freedom and tenure as one can imagine.

Temporary employment, or part-time employment with no benefits has become the order of the day for many who desire a career in teaching and research. The term "freeway flyers" has become a part of the lexicon of higher education, and a sad way of life for many of the brightest and best educated in our society, as part-timers rush from one campus to the next to teach enough courses to scrap out a meager living.

Thus faculty ranks have been turned in what Richard Moser, a national AAUP staff person, calls a "multi-tiered" system of employment. We have various groups of faculty competing for the same or at least similar work. We have tenured faculty and nontenured but full-time faculty in competition, plus we have the huge growth in part-time faculty undercutting all the full-time categories. The competition is stiff, caused by a perceived over- supply of apparently qualified people and by budgetary pressures that cause administrators and politicians to look for the cheapest short-term fix, with little attention being paid to the long term consequences of such expediency.

Competition between the various faculty groups has sometimes become intense, thus weakening the power of the faculty as a whole. Certainly concepts such as academic freedom and tenure suffer under such circumstances. If some academic workers are willing (or feel compelled) to work without job security, then short-sighted administrators, themselves often under pressures from politicians and budget officials, may move in the direction of a more transitory and malleable workforce. Such developments leave the hallowed and historically functional notions of academic freedom and tenure in the dust of history.

What sociologists call "split labor theory" has some application here. This theory, first proposed by Edna Bonacich, a UC Riverside sociologist, was intended to explain what happened when labor groups, particularly of different races, competed with one another for jobs and resources. The result of the sometimes fierce competition was to allow those making the decisions about resource allocation a much freer hand in those decisions. Such theories help explain why the American working class has never been able to exert itself politically as well as has its counterparts in European countries where the working classes traditionally have not been divided by race and ethnicity. The U.S. working class has always been divided along lines of race, a situation exploited and even promoted by some industry leaders in our society. Thus the use of strike-breakers of a different race has been a common tactic in the history of labor strife in America. And the threat of using such strike-breakers has deterred many a job action in America's history.

It seems clear that academia now has its own version of split labor theory. Full-time faculty fight to retain their position of relative privilege, while part-time and nontenure track faculty fight to increase their share of the salary and benefits pie. And many politicians and administrators are all to willing to say that the pie is limited, and that re-allocations must be made. Regrettably, sometimes one faculty group is willing to attack another faculty group directly in these reallocation fights, thus allowing faculty groups to be played off against each other.

These are sad times for many in academe, but some still seem unaware of how bad the situation has gotten in some places. Faculty are suffering, as many lose purchasing power, and as they are demoralized from being attacked at every turn for being "the

problem" with American higher education. Those who would aspire to be faculty members are seeing their potential careers vanish, as they are forced to consider a life of relative poverty if they want to pursue the scholarly life. Higher education institutions are changing in ways that suggest we have decided that higher education is only another business that must attend only to the "bottom line." Students' educational experience is suffering, as well, sometimes dramatically, as they are crowded into classrooms, or forced to use unproven technologies for growing segments of their education. And the long term consequences of this restructuring for our democratic society are apparently not being contemplated by many who are pushing for these sorts of changes in how higher education operates.

There are some bright spots, to be sure, where enlightened administrations, working with foresightful faculty groups, have stemmed the tide of change, at least momentarily or in part. And there are some politicians who sense that something important is at stake, and that the rapid changes in higher education need to be more carefully considered. But, the overall picture is grim, especially in most of the public sector where the vast majority of students are being educated.

Certainly the top private institutions and some of the elite public universities will maintain tenure systems and therefore have a semblance of academic freedom. Otherwise these top institutions cannot compete for the best of the academic profession. But what of the rest of American higher education? Are we to allow such a class structure to dominate higher education and thereby limit educational opportunities for millions of students?



Sociologists spend much of their time studying the unintended or latent consequences of decisions made in human societies. Max Weber, the famous German sociologist spoke of the "ironies of history," which was his way of referring to the unintended twists and turns of human history. This notion certainly has application to the current debate about tenure.

Some well-meaning leaders in our society, including some in higher education, are working hard to undermine tenure and academic freedom, seemingly quite oblivious to the long term consequences of what they are doing to higher education and to our democratic society. The corporate mentality that seeks only short-term gains views the apparent over-supply of faculty as an opportunity to destroy a monolithic faculty that has stood fast over decades against the inroads of political expediency and administrative fiat. So, the systematic effort at undermining tenure has begun, sometimes through direct attacks, but more often through the gradual chipping away of tenure and academic freedom by hiring nontenure-track faculty and part-time faculty instead of regular tenure-track faculty.

Instead of trying to hire more faculty with true academic freedom key decision makers have decided that academic freedom is an unneeded luxury. Term contracts are offered, and often snapped up because of the sad state of the academic job market, even as those accepting them know that they do not have true academic freedom if they are being considered for reappointment virtually from the day they start their contractual service.

So, instead of our society taking advantage of it vast wealth of educated people who could be hired into academic positions in numbers that would allow reasonable student/faculty ratios in all institutions, those same thousands of educated people desiring an academic career have been turned into itinerant laborers, with little hope of economic security. What a tragic loss it is for the long-term well-being of our democratic society for this to happen!

The stunning changes in the make-up of faculty and the way of life of those in the academic profession have implications that should be considered by all informed citizens and political leaders. Given the lower numbers of faculty in tenure track slots, it will not be long before we see an absolute and perhaps dramatic decrease in the number of tenured faculty in American higher education. Thus, those faculty who have the full protections of tenure, and thus real academic freedom, appear to be decreasing in American higher education!

And, as Benjamin states, the information on restructuring of the faculty "... also portends a decline in professional opportunities for new faculty and further declines in faculty access to future students." (p. 724). The professorate is becoming an unattractive profession for those who might otherwise aspire to live the life of a researcher, scholar, and teacher.

One of reason for this growing unattractiveness is simply the loss of many full-time positions that might have otherwise been available had society's decision makers not chosen another path for higher education. But, another element of the growing unattractiveness is the strictures that can be placed on the life of the mind in an academic world devoid of the protections of tenure. Limited opportunity, insecurity, and frustration have become the new watchwords for faculty in American higher education, replacing terms like academic freedom in the minds of many, including future academicians.

The implications of the growing unattractiveness of the professorate for the well-being of our society should be discussed in depth by our society's decision makers. Those concerned about the value and importance of America's higher education system to societal well-being should consider the negative implications of these data for the future of the academic profession. Those who take pride in our system of higher education, which is valued by citizens around the world who flock here by the tens of thousands, should take pause, and consider where we are headed. The direction of limited academic freedom is not the way American higher education should be moving, if we are to maintain our position as the world's premier system of higher education.

America needs its best minds being attracted to the academic profession, something that will continue to happen only if such individuals think they can have productive careers in academia. Academia without academic freedom will not seem attractive to those whom our society needs to contribute to its future knowledge base and maintain our higher education system. The hour is late for a re-thinking of what we are collectively doing and allowing to happen to American higher education. Hopefully it is not too late to change course and move again toward the protection of academic freedom as a hallowed value, with all the good things that flow from such a decision for our democratic society.


American Association of University Professors (1995). Policy Documents & Reports. 1995 Edition. Washington, D.C.

Benjamin, Ernst (1998). "Declining Faculty Availability to Students is the Problem - But Tenure is Not the Explanation." American Behavioral Scientist 14: 716-735.

Bonacich, Edna (1979). "The Past, the Present, and Future of Split Labor Market Theory." In Cora Marrett and Cheryl Leggon (eds.) Research in Race and Ethnic Relations Vol. 1. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press 

Kurland, Jordan and Daniel Pollitt (1998). "Entering the Academic Freedom Arena Running: The AAUP's First Year." Academe: Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors Vol.84(4): 45-52.

Moser, Richard (1998). "The End of the Mid-Century Social Contract and the Adjunct in the History Department." Paper presented at the New England Historical Association annual meeting.

Richardson, James and Eugene Grotegut (1976). "In defense of Faculty Involvement in University Governance." Phi Kappa Phi Journal LVI (Summer): 13-18.


i  See the latest edition of the famous "Redbook" of the AAUP (1995) which contains the many policy documents developed over the years by the AAUP, including its most well-known and often-cited,"1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure," which has been endorsed by over 150 professional academic organizations. For information on the turbulent early history of the AAUP see Kurland and Pollitt (1998).

ii  This number includes 160,000 graduate assistants in 1975 and 203,000 graduate assistants in 1993.

iii  I say "perceived" because if our society’s leaders decided to fund higher education more gully, then the apparent over-supply of faculty might disappear in a hurry.

iv  See Richardson and Grotegut (1976) for an early discussion of such issues and the part faculty should play in their resolution.

[About Jim] [Statement] [Curriculum Vitae] [Collective Bargaining] [Gender] [Governance] [Lobbying] [Tenure]