Tenure and Adjuncts at YU: A Flawed System for Students and Professors
By: Yitzchak Schultz
Administrators use tenure as an incentive, while teachers can work a lifetime towards it. But many students remain unaware of its far-reaching effects. At best, a student might think that tenure is yet another “professorial issue,”alongside pushing for a new piece of lab equipment or flying out to academic conferences. However, the “trickle-down effect” of tenure is real, and that which affects the professors will affect the students in a profound way. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let’s look at why modern universities almost universally implement a system of tenure, and what it means to be a tenured professor.
Take a walk in your professor’s shoes for a moment. There you are, standing in front of a class full of fresh-eyed students eager to learn. But think about yourself for a moment, and how you came to be where you’re standing. You buried your nose in your high school textbooks as a child, hoping that you would get a scholarship to attend a school of your choice. Once there, you burned the midnight oil to keep your GPA competitive, never falling below your own very high expectations. All that hard work paid off, and you got into a PhD program at one of the top programs in the nation and even worked alongside some of the most respected researchers in your field. Now that you’re done proving to the world that you could, it’s time to show these students what they can achieve as well.
But hold on one moment there! You didn’t really think you had time to focus on teaching as a brand-new faculty member? Well, the joke’s on you because your journey is far from over. You see, the university you’re teaching at has been going through a bit of a rough patch, financially speaking. In fact, when they hired you two years ago they only gave you a three-year contract, with the option to renew at the end of your term. Now that the school has a freeze on hiring more teachers, you’re understandably a little anxious about your job security. You go see the head of your department to voice your concerns, and they dismiss them by saying that you still have the option to sign on for another three years at the end of your current contract.
As you walk out of their office, you think to yourself: that’s all well and grand, but what happens at the end of those three years? And the three years after that? As a novice professor, you’re at the bottom rung of the pay scale. You had hoped to be able to save up enough money to start a family, but a pay raise is nowhere in your future. You thought that your initial three-year contract would be enough to get a foot in the university’s door for an eventual full-time position, but that idea seems downright naïve to you now. You can either stay on faculty at this school with an uncertain future or try your hand at another school and hope for a tenure-track position there. What will you choose?
If any of the above sounds oddly familiar, then congratulations! You’re a professor at YU. You may not be facing the same life crisis as our poor graduate, but the facts remain the same for many professors in the United States. Now that we’ve walked a mile, it’s not difficult to imagine that being hired at a university isn’t a one and done deal. In fact, all universities and colleges have what’s called a “probationary period,” or a certain length of time before a staff member can even be considered for tenure.
Prior to the 20th century, University professors assumed a tenured position when appointed as professor by the school’s board of trustees. Occasionally, a specific professor could be removed if a major donor to the school insisted upon it, but such cases were rare. In 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was founded because of an incident that occurred a few years prior at Stanford University. Noted economist Edward Alsworth Ross (who was employed as a professor at Stanford) made public his opinion that Chinese laborers should not be employed at American railroad companies. This position was unpopular with the University, as its founder, Leland Stanford, had been one of the principal investors in the Central Pacific Railroad. After Leland Stanford’s widow pushed to have Ross removed from his position, the University decided to fire Dr. Ross.
Following these events, the AAUP was created to allow university staff to express their beliefs without fear of dismissal from their position. Today, the AAUP boasts 47,000 members and acts as a sort of “union” to which members can turn if they feel their academic freedoms have been compromised by their university employers. In 1940, the AAUP set forth a standard for academic tenure that is still largely followed today. It consists of a seven year probationary period during which new professors are assessed for suitability for tenure. Additionally, the 1940 report states that professors may only be dismissed in the case of “extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies.” Some academic freedoms that were previously extended only to those professors who held tenured positions were given to untenured professors as well, after the Supreme Court decision in Perry v. Sindermann. Robert Sindermann was a professor at Odessa Junior College (OJC) when he publicly disagreed with certain policies of the Texas Board of Regents. After his dismissal, he took the Board of Regents to court, claiming that they violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. After a long legal battle, the court found that though Sindermann did not have tenure at OJC, he should have been afforded the due process he would have been given by the university had he been in a tenured position.
While the intentions of the AAUP in demanding that certain rights be given to tenured professors were certainly pure, in modern practice we find that the business of tenure is a dirty one. Universities use the promise of eventual tenure as a carrot to keep new professors in line with their dogma, and even tenured professors are not given the full academic liberties as imagined by the founders of the AAUP. For the purposes of this article, the author interviewed a range of professors currently employed by Yeshiva University. Almost categorically, they asked that their names not be used in conjunction with this article. Since some of the professors interviewed were working towards tenure, they may have been afraid that the school would deny them tenure if they disagreed with certain policies of the school. While the author does not blame them for their hesitancy, it may be indicative of the poor state of academic freedom at Yeshiva.
In the average university, tenure is a means to an end. That is, a professor will work towards getting tenure so that they have the job security to pursue various avenues within academia—be it research, teaching, or even taking time to write a book. Ordinarily, tenure is given to professors who meet their university’s requirements, which vary slightly from institution to institution. However, this may not be the case here at Yeshiva. Currently, there is a hiring freeze imposed across the undergraduate schools, which means that as professors choose to retire, there may not be someone qualified to take their place. How, then, could a school function with such a stretched faculty? The answer is adjunct professors. An adjunct professor differs from an assistant or university professor in a variety of ways. As a temporary employee, adjuncts don’t have the same job security or financial benefits relative to a tenure-track assistant professor, who themselves are by no means living large. According to the AAUP, the median salary for adjunct professors is $2,700 per three credit course. Assuming the average professor can teach three, or at most, four three credit courses a semester, this would mean the median salary for an adjunct professor would range from $8,100-$10,800 per semester, or $16,200-$21,600 a year. Even at the high end, a salary of $21,600 would put a family of four below the poverty line. Combine this number with the likelihood of student loans to pay off, little to no job benefits, retirement packages, or health insurance, the picture is bleak indeed. In fact, just last year the death of an adjunct professor at Duquesne University caused an outcry in the academic world. Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French for 25 years, died penniless and without heat in her home, after failing to keep her finances in check due to expensive cancer treatments. L.V. Lawrence of Slate, expressed her sympathy for Vojtko, and says that
“Hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track faculty is unquestionably great for a university’s bottom line. From every other perspective, though, it’s a scourge. This is not just a question of adjuncts toiling away in relative penury. Overworked, underpaid adjuncts are also bad for students: Professors who don’t have their own offices, often must work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and sometimes find out whether they’re teaching shortly before the semester starts simply cannot devote as much energy and time to their students as they would like…And, money aside, adjuncts are bad for universities themselves: Hiring adjuncts anew every semester is inefficient, and managers’ lack of accountability for how they treat these employees leaves them vulnerable to discrimination suits.”
While a university might hire adjuncts as a sort of stopgap, ultimately, the school may suffer from relying on these temporary workers. And they are, indeed, temporary.
But a person hired as an adjunct professor shouldn’t victimize his or herself by bemoaning the state of university hiring ethics. Because the treatment of adjunct professors by universities is appalling on many levels, a person planning on making a living wage as an adjunct is probably better off becoming a barista at Starbucks. A writer for LA Times proposes that
“I have a better suggestion for…ill-treated part-time faculty: Just say no. Don't be an adjunct. Or rather, be an adjunct only if you have a day job, or you're retired, or if you have a family to raise and a breadwinning spouse. If you love to teach, teach high school. Or get some other kind of real job. Let the law of supply and demand do its work, because drastically reducing the supply of academic victims is the only way colleges will stop victimizing them.”
Someone who plans on going into academia as a profession should take a good, long look at his or her job prospects ten years down the line. Of course, if teaching is a passion of theirs, then the low potential for career advancement shouldn’t serve as a deterrent. However, most people want a return on their educational investment, though the glut of PhD’s means that their services are in low demand. Once the market for adjunct professors dries up, universities will be forced to look at other means of employing teachers in a way that is fair to all involved parties.
So let’s say your professor does have tenure. Does this necessarily ensure that they are an expert teacher? Unfortunately, universities don’t place an emphasis on good teaching as a prerequisite for getting tenure, as much as they do on research and peer-reviewed articles. Since a professor who is able to secure large federal grants for their work is more valuable to a university from a financial perspective, this becomes a larger factor. One theoretical physicist I spoke to brought up the issue of his research involving simply a piece of chalk and chalkboard, which wouldn’t bring in large research grants. His counterpart, the applied physicist, might need expensive equipment to perform research, which brings along with it grant money. A board member of the university would be more inclined to offer tenure to the latter professor, although both may be making great strides in their respective fields of research. This issue can be found at nearly every level of tertiary education. In an article titled “The Truth About Tenure in Higher Education”, The National Education Association agrees that “[r]ecent studies indicate that research is valued too much, and good teaching too little, in getting the best salaries at many four-year colleges and universities. This imbalance is not created by uncaring professors but by fierce institutional competition for government and private research dollars. Generally—and depending on the college's mission—our unions believe there should be a greater emphasis on good teaching in tenure and promotion decisions and that there should be other rewards for good teaching as well.”
Another issue with professors who are in tenured positions is the lack of incentive to perform. If a people doesn’t have the “threat” of the school not renewing their contract, then they may grow indolent in their capacity as teachers and researchers. It’s incredulous that almost every other career is based on merit: if you perform your duties, then you keep your job. If you don’t, then you run the risk of being fired. Since professors who have tenure can only be fired in extenuating circumstances, then what motivates them to get up in the morning and teach? The potential to be moved to a less roomy office? Their own academic integrity?
Ultimately, there is no real answer to these questions. We have created a system with the intent to protect educators, but have instead created a class divide between them. The Perelman Medical School at University of Pennsylvania has recently created the position of “tenured clinician,” where those who are involved in teaching instead of research can still rise to a tenured position. Perhaps it is time for Yeshiva University to reexamine the way they hire and treat their staff, so that our professors can do what they do best—teach.