Monday, September 17, 2012

Why are there so few tenured professors?

Virginia Postrel remarks on the decline in tenured professors in academia:

About 30 percent of faculty members are either tenured or on the tenure track, compared with about 57 percent in 1975. The rest are “contingent faculty”: About 19 percent work full time, usually on contracts lasting one to three years, and more than half work part time. (These figures omit graduate students who also teach classes.) Along with a lack of job security, contingent faculty members receive lower pay and fewer, or no, benefits. They frequently don’t have offices and may not even get library cards. 

Why the change?  Tenure makes it very difficult for academia to respond, and adapt to a changing external environment.  And there are few industries changing as rapidly as academia (see past posts:  Failing to Educate,  How should universities respond to rising costs, declining demand, and the emergence of cheap alternatives?, Making Research more Relevant, Irony: do business schools practice what they preach?, Incentive pay for professors, Agents vs. principals: the strange case of Dartmouth, Dartmouth governance, again).

Competition favors lower cost organizational forms, so it is not surprising that we see a decline in its use. 


  1. It was beyond the scope of my column, but when I asked Jim Monks, a University of Richmond economist who has written a lot on the growth of contingent faculty, why contingent faculty had grown he said, "Institutions employ contingent faculty because they are less expensive and offer greater flexibility in controlling cost versus tenure/tenure track faculty." But, I responded, that was true in the 1970s, when my mother worked as an adjunct. There has to be a change in the *difference* over time. One possibility is that the surrounding environment has gotten more dynamic, as you suggest above. Monk speculated that the differential had significantly increased because of the rising cost of benefits, especially health insurance, for permanent faculty, although he was careful to say this was just speculation.

  2. I blame the Internet. In the old days, only the faculty members in the area were sufficiently well-informed to evaluate job candidates. But if they hire some hot-shot, they could soon be overshadowed. Senior faculty might "poison the well" so as to make themselves look relatively better. One reason for tenure that has been put forward in the past is that it provides proper incentives to senior faculty to hire productive junior faculty without worrying about the consequences for their own career.

    But now it is difficult to find any academic (who is still active) who does not have her own web page with a prominent link to her CV. Anyone who can read and has an inkling for how the business is run, even Deans, can evaluate prospective hires. So at many universities, especially mid-tier schools, the hiring decisions were simply taken out of the hands of the faculty. We still have search committees and make recommendations, but administrators can pretty much hire whomever they want. As a consequence, this incentive compatibility justification for tenure is reduced.