Three simple solutions to the 'professor problem' at UIUC
By Denise Cummins
American universities are undergoing an unprecedented upheaval, and as the Feb. 18 News-Gazette article on the role of nontenure faculty shows, the University of Illinois is no exception.
During the economic downturn, state universities faced budget crises that put them between the proverbial rock and hard place. On the one hand, they received less money from the state to pay salaries and keep the lights on. On the other hand, they could not reduce their faculty because the majority were tenured. And so they chose to encourage senior faculty to retire and hired Ph.D.s on "temporary" contracts to take their place. Because the academic job market was as dismal as every other job market, there was a glut of Ph.D.s with excellent credentials who were willing to take jobs at lower pay and no hope of tenure downstream.
Nationally, these nontenure-stream faculty are now "the new faculty majority," and they are demanding greater opportunities, responsibilities and benefits. As The News-Gazette article reported, the Urbana-Champaign campus' response is to spawn new job titles, and to micromanage which rights, duties and opportunities are included in those titles and which are not.
The solution to the problem lies in acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the untenability of tenure.
Tenure was established in the late 1700s to protect academic freedom at religious schools, but as the recent firing and reinstatement of Adjunct Professor of Religion Kenneth Howell shows, one need not have tenure to protect academic freedom.
Tenure was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1988. Yet British universities continue to enjoy high rankings, according to the Times Higher Education, which lists the top 200 universities in the world. A survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 38 percent of faculty (and almost half of women faculty) agreed that "tenure is an outmoded concept." The abolition of tenure has been promoted by such illustrious tenured faculty as Professor Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia University and author of "Crisis on Campus," and Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus of the Department of Political Science at Queens College and co-author of "Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It."
So here are three suggestions for reforming the UIUC professorship.
1. Abolish tenure for the reasons laid out above. In the U.K., those who already had tenure did not lose it. But no new cases of tenure were awarded. Ironically, I suspect those currently in nontenure positions will fight such a move because they still hold hopes of landing a tenure-stream position. Such an outcome is unlikely; I predict that few of the 500 tenure-stream positions outlined in the UIUC Visioning Report will be awarded to faculty who are currently outside the tenure stream. Their lack of research productivity (a natural outcome of carrying heavy teaching responsibilities) will be cited as evidence that they simply do not make the grade.
2. Define the term "professor" broadly to mean "academic employee who engages in teaching, research and/or service," and allow flexibility in how these three duties are distributed. There should be a single promotion framework with promotions and salary raises dependent on annual reviews of teaching, scholarship and service. Tailor the distribution of these three duties to match the individual's strengths, not to a particular, restrictive job title.
Professors (particularly at major research institutions such as UIUC) don't just teach the knowledge that is in the textbooks. They create the knowledge that is in the textbooks. Service is also a vital part of a professor's job: They serve in internal governance and review committees, and they edit and review submissions to scholarly, scientific and professional journals.
Currently, UIUC tenure-stream faculty are supposed to perform all three duties, yet this is rarely the case. They monopolize research and governance duties, while teaching as little as possible (e.g., one to two courses annually in the sciences, as opposed to four to six courses taught by nontenure science faculty). The "new faculty majority" of nontenure faculty are forbidden to serve on governance committees or to compete for research resources, and are essentially restricted to teaching. Yet promotion, raises and the ability to secure a job elsewhere depend entirely on research productivity. Excellence in teaching means nothing.
3. Require continuing education for professors. Most people are not aware that physicians and other professionals are required to complete a state-mandated number of hours of continuing education in order to maintain their licenses to practice. Not so professors. Because of the tenure system, professors are not required to demonstrate that they have kept abreast of recent developments in their fields.
Implementing these three changes would ensure three things: that professors employed by UIUC are quality teachers, productive researchers and active participants in university and professional service. They would also end the deplorable exploitation of credentialed professionals, a practice that has grown unchecked and for which faculty and administrators alike now must answer.
Denise Cummins is retired adjunct professor of psychology and philosophy and author of scientific journal articles and books. Her most recent book is "Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think" (2012, Cambridge University Press). Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.