Three simple solutions to the 'professor problem' at UIUC

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

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Alexander wrote on February 23, 2014 at 7:02 pm

First of all, abolishing tenure in the entire country (Britian) cannot be compared to abolishing tenure at one university in a competitive marketplace. Second, she should know that the Times Higher Education rankings (produced in Britian) are notoriously biased towards British universities. Third she should also know that British universities essentially hire with tenure, rather than have a tenure track process -- so the comparisons with US schools are even more untenable. I could go on, but these flaws in her reasoning already are sufficient to question her conclusions (and her ability to draw conclusions about said subject matter).

I assume she's on the Republican payroll, but honestly, her analysis is among the weakest (or perhaps just simply most dishonest) I've seen from an ``academic'' in some time. 

I noticed that Cummins' coauthor (and perhaps, based on their respective CV's, also spouse), Robert Cummins was tenured at UIUC (but according to his website "which I do not wish to associated"). So I guess she was OK with tenure while he had it, but not now (at least at UIUC), since he is "unassociated". Sour grapes?




dcummins wrote on March 05, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Alexander, I appreciate your posting your comment. From the tone and content, I assume you are a tenured professor, and so your comment is a shining example of the manner in which some tenured faculty speak to nontenure faculty. I can't help but notice that you did not sign your full name. It is indeed much safer and easier to criticize behind the mask of anonymity.

Let me address each of your points.

With regard to your first point, it is indeed the case that abolishing tenure institution by institution is a daunting task, which is why Britain abolished it at the national level across all universities. This is the future, so those in the tenure stream might as well get used to the idea.

With regard to your second point, the Times is a respected source of information regarding international rankings of universities. But other sources also show that British universities have not dropped in their rankings as a result of abolishing tenure. See, for example, the QS World University Rankings

With respect to your third comment, please note that it contradicts your first comment: You agree that Britain abolished tenure at the national level, then state that British universities hire with tenure. You can't have it both ways. Tenure was in fact abolished in Britain 20 years ago. Here is a recent Nature article that discusses the little impact the move had on academic quality:

Fourth, I am not a Republican, but accusing someone of being a Republican (or being in league with the Koch brothers, as some commenters below have) is the typical knee-jerk reaction academics have when someone points out the inequities, inefficiencies, and other drawbacks to the archaic tenure system. This is because tenure stream faculty consider themselves models of liberal politics. So the issue of the proper treatment of adjuncts is truly problematic for them. Tenure stream faculty at first welcomed non-tenure stream faculty because they liked the idea of these people taking teaching burdens off their shoulders. They purposively remained ignorant of the fact that these "little people" were being mercilessly exploited and kept in dead-end positions with no chance of getting on the tenure track or of promotion off the tenure track. Now that these "little people" are rising up and demanding equity, they have no idea whose "side" to be on. To be against these "little people" seems politically incorrect and against their liberal politics. But to give these "little people" what they are demanding means cutting even further into strapped resources that have traditionally been restricted to "tenure stream only". It is indeed a mess. But I have little sympathy for tenure stream faculty such as yourself who cry foul when they see people whom they perceive to be "beneath" themselves reaching for resources that they firmly believe should be restricted to
those in the tenure stream.

With respect to my affiliation, I was a UIUC adjunct professor of Psychology and Philosophy with an international reputation as a scientist and scholar who regularly made the teaching excellence list. My husband is an internationally  distinguished Philosopher who was indeed a tenured professor at UIUC.  Like many of his colleagues across the university who have consciences, he, too, is critical of the excesses afforded tenure stream faculty at the expense of those off the tenure track. Although eligible for emeritus status when he retired, he chose instead to sever his affiliation with a university that seemed to be more interested in shoring up the privileges of the tenured than in building programs or distributing resources more efficiently and equitably.

If you would like more information about me, simply Google me, or go to

thinks wrote on February 24, 2014 at 12:02 am

I appreciate Ms. Cummins' thoughtful suggestions to the "crisis in higher education" as it relates to the University of Illinois. However, I do want to challenge the assumption that contingent faculty are a recent phenomenon. It has taken 40 years or more for the number of contingent faculty to reach the current levels nationally. Certainly, the poor recent economy and the waning of state support at public universities is a factor in the increase in recent years (the trend has been to go up and up). See here for example:

The reason for this, however, is not solely economic. I believe that as new tenure-track hiring slowed and graduating Ph.D. numbers remained high (despite the fact that the number of academic positions for them was shrinking for a number of reasons including the extended tenure of baby boomers), some tenured faculty at institutions of higher education of all types saw an opportunity to teach fewer general education courses and more specialty courses and, (particularly at research institutions) to devote a greater amount of time to research, which is the undoubted coin of the realm. Tenured faculty who allowed this to go on without greater resistance and without raising an outcry were complicit. We cannot simply blame administrators.

Now, the number of contingent faculty has begun to erode tenure and, as in the present letter, even the case for and sympathy for tenure. BTW, the case for tenure, a pardigm I continue to support, is one for shared governance and academic freedom -- it is essential for preserving a system of higher education that recognizes excellence of thought and risk-taking innovation. Given the current state of affairs--to draw a loose social analogy from Pastor Martin Niemoller's excellent poem, "First They Came"--when opposing social forces come for tenured faculty, and for the institution of tenure itself (and they have not gained as much force yet as they might), there may no longer be anyone left to speak for them.

It is high time that tenure-track and tenured faculty expressed solidarity with contingent faculty and worked hard to ensure fair and equal treatment for their fellow teachers. What is more, it is also high time that university programs reduced their number of doctoral candidates. When there are so few academic positions for them to fill, taking them on in such numbers undermines the old model of the academic apprenticeship system and becomes a means of providing more underpaid, overworked grist for the teaching mill.

dcummins wrote on March 06, 2014 at 10:03 am

Thanks for your comment, thinks. With respect to the acceleration that I described in my article, it is apparent in the AAUP data you posted.

Looking at the figure to the extreme right, notice that in 1975, the ratio of core to contingent faculty was 57 to 43. By 1993, this had shifted to 43 to 57. But by 2011—following the downturns of 2000 and 2008—it had grown dramatically to 70 to 30—7 contingent faculty for every 3 core (tenure stream) faculty.

Here are numbers from UIUC in decade increments from 1992 to 2012 taken from the Gray Book. Notice that the number of students climbed 25% during that period. During that same period, core faculty declined by 11% while contingent faculty grew by 61%.

Head Count                1992     2002     2012

Undergraduates        26,366  28,373  31,988

Grad & Professional    9,082  11,067  12,076

Total                           35,448  39,440  44,064


Head Count    1992   2002   2012

Core Faculty   2,045   1,921   1,812

Contingent           531     672     853


Sid Saltfork wrote on February 24, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Two responses to the author's article regarding tenure.  The first holds on to the archaic, and costly notion; and the second offers more insight.  The author makes a valid, and valuable point of ending tenure.  Make public higher education more competitive, and less expensive by ending tenure is necessary.  Less scandals would result from it also.

Now, I have to get back working on my book regarding 16th Century sign painters.  Hopefully, there still is coffee; or I will have to tell the clerical to brew another pot.  

Alexander wrote on February 24, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Sid -- You want some insight? Here's some -- the same groups of Koch funded people who are working to destroy your pension are exactly those who want to ruin public education. So go ahead and spew your "anti-elite academic" viritrol. The very same arguments you use will be turned on your pension rights.

I could discuss the point of tenure, but I doubt I'll convince you so I'll stop there.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 24, 2014 at 7:02 pm

I don't disagree with you regarding the Koch brothers.  Yes, big money has been paid to demonize public employee pensions.  I am retired; but I still pay my union dues.  I am not thrilled with the union; but it, and other unions are fighting back at least.  What are the academics doing to fight back?

If you have tenure, your one of the fortunate last ones.  Tenure will end.  Tenure was created in 17th century Europe as a way of defending the "academic" freedom of speech.  That is not the case in the U.S. today.  Great Britain has stopped tenure since freedom of speech is protected without it.  Other countries have followed suit. No other occupation guarantees a job for life.  That guarantee breeds a caste system, and mediocrity in employment.  Replace it with a mult-year teaching contract.  Tenure will not protect your pension.  Why are those with tenure so adament about the harm that an academic union would do?  Please, explain it.

All groups faced with being demonized, and scapegoated by big money, special interests should be banding together instead of hiding in an ivory tower.  Yes, I spent almost 30 years on campus.  I know the "elitist" few.  I, also, know the people who make the university function daily.  Tenure means a job for life unless the tenured committ a crime, or substantially rock the boat.  

Alexander wrote on February 24, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Don't you get it? The Koch brothers and their GOP friends want everyone stupid so that they can be controlled. So when you ask "what are academics doing", it's a nonsensical question -- they're the group that can and DO do a lot: do you really want me to start listing everything every academic has done? Start with Krugman for a famous example. Look up today's news about the GOP in arizona and one senator's views on teaching basic math. If it were up to them, we'd have no child labor laws. 

Read my original post about tenure in Britian -- it's a fallacy. They don't have tenure because people hired into "tenure track equivalent positions" get tenure on the spot. Also note her idiotic suggestion that UIUC **alone** removing tenure.  

Tenure or no tenure, my original point is that the author of this opinion piece is at best disingenuous with her arguments. Maybe peanut butter and anchovies doesn't make for a good sandwich, but arguing peanut butter causes cancer is not an argument. Pointing out some dumb special examples also doesn't make for an argument. 

I don't have anything to say about the union; you brought it up, I didn't.

Tenure does protect professors. Yes, some people do abuse it and become deadwood. But many others take advantage of it to work on riskier projects -- it's exactly those risky projects that have the greatest potential for society. Does every professor engage in a potentially world altering project? No. But you need an environment so that some might.

The Koch brothers and their puppets would like you to forget those points and only remember the ones the suit their purpose. Just think about how they do it for pensions. Do you buy their money saving ideas there? Did you work 30 years for the state for nothing? If you were told at the beginning there was no pension, wouldn't you think twice about working for the state? Are you a lazy welfare case like the Koch's want everyone else to believe? If NO, then maybe you should think twice about what you have to say about tenure.

thinks wrote on February 25, 2014 at 9:02 am

Sid, your argument about tenure no longer being needed to protect academic freedom does not make sense. The protection for faculty is from one's employer / colleagues and forces in public and research communities that might pressure them. If, for example, a tenured scientist was pressing on the boundaries of accepted science, but had already been established via the tenure process as an effective researcher, he or she could continue that work and publish, no matter how controversial the hypothesis or experimental results. One might counter that by the time a faculty member has been vetted and approved for tenure any risk-taking individuals and those with risk-taking impulses have been removed, but one cannot really make a sensible case for this being a simple freedom of speech issue. Tenure is what enables for challenge to received ideas within fields of academic research, whatever you may think of them. And not all people who embrace the notion of tenure are against faculty unionization or have achieved the privilege of tenure themselves.

Tenure can seem elitist and it does come with privileges, but it also has a practical function within the academy. I do not believe tenure will end entirely, myself. I believe that premier institutions of higher learning will retain tenure as they currently also focus on educational practices that are truly meant to train thought leaders. The rest of our colleges and universities will eliminate tenure and continue to serve up what passes for higher education and uses the rhetoric of training thought leaders, while they are actually vocational schools certifying basic credentials for a workforce in a 21st century information economy. There will be occasional students educated in these schools who advance beyond this, but they will be the exception. The rest will not have learned to think critically, to read analytically, to solve problems creatively, or to write effectively. (See, for example, the mounting evidence cited in critiques of higher education such as _Academically Adrift_).

dcummins wrote on March 05, 2014 at 6:03 pm

thinks, this is the usual argument that is advanced with respect to the necessity of tenure--to protect academic freedom. But as I pointed out in the article, there are ample evidence that tenure is not needed to protect academic freedom. The case of Adjunct Professor Kenneth Howell at UIUC is a case in point. He was fired for teaching the Catholic doctrine concerning homosexuality in an Introduction to Catholocism course. He threatened to sue, and the university reversed its decision.

To follow your argument, the people who really need tenure are high school biology teachers who are trying to teach evolution to their students. Yet most university professors are highly critical of K-12 tenure (or tenure of community college professors).

Although the intent of tenure may be to protect academic freedom, it has instead turned into a guaranteed job regardless of job performance. That is why there are large segments of the tenure stream that is occupied by professors who are essentially retired at full pay. That is not academic freedom. It is freedom to freeload on a very strained system.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 25, 2014 at 2:02 pm

A 60's oldie, but goody, came to mind; "Don't Rock the Boat".  It must be the theme song for those who are tenured.  They have the "academic freedom of speech" to "influence" students off-hand while pursuing a narrow band of worthwhile knowledge.  That is their great struggle against the special interests like the Koch brothers?  At the same time, they gleefully accept grant money to pursue knowledge for corporate sponsors.  Some of the corporate sponsors are the special interests in politics also.

Sorry guys; but admit what you are, and don't try to snow the rest of us.  You do it for money just like everyone else.  The difference is that you have a job for life even if you are no longer needed.  Your pensions are on the line just like mine, and thousands of others.  When the spokespeople of the conservative right corporations come to town; the brothers and sisters of all of the unions show up to boo.  Not you guys.  Your special, and don't need unions to protect you since you have tenure.  You would rather let the peons fight your pension fight for you.  Admit what you are; and don't try to blow smoke past experienced ears.  Save it for the inexperienced students.

For those in academics who do not have tenure, know that it is unlikely you will get it.  If you want to help yourself, and your families; form a union, and work with the other unions to rebuild the middle class.

Alexander wrote on February 25, 2014 at 7:02 pm

I tried to explain things, but I see you're back to your mumbo jumbo response.

Trust me, people don't go into academia for the money. Yeah salaries look pretty good, but factoring in the years of graduate school and postdoc years with crummy salaries, it is far from a lucrative job direction. PLUS, you have to take the risk knowing that you might not make it at all. So, basically, you don't know what you're talking about.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 26, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Your saying that after years of school training in a narrow subject matter, you are entitled to a job for life via tenure. 

It would be beneficial to others for contractual agreements to be used.  A professor would sign an academic contract for a specified number of years.  The salary would be based on the expertise needed by the university.  If the professor's expertise is no longer needed, or has become rusty; the next academic contract would reflect that if one were offered.  It would end the defense of unsavory academics also.  It is simply "supply, and demand" economics which every other occupation follows.  There is nothing "mumbo jumbo" about it.  

You have tenure; and you want to keep the guarantee of life time employment.  There is nothing "mumbo jumbo" about that either.  Your concerned about only you.  Hope you make it to retirement whatever that will be.  Sooner or later, tenure will be obsolete.  A rapidly changing, cash strapped America cannot afford it in public institutions of higher learning.