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Trends show increase in non-tenured faculty across U.S.

By Charlotte Harris, Contributing Writer

Recent trends indicate that universities across the country have been cutting back on hiring tenure-track professors, likely in order to save money in tighter economic times.

Tenure is a position offered to qualified professors that allows them a certain amount of job security, including that they cannot be fired without due process in addition to better pay and benefits. Always a topic of debate, perceptions and stereotypes concerning the quality of tenured and non-tenured professors are everywhere. Many are wondering if these hiring trends hold true at UNH and how the changing status of the professor will affect the education.

A common stereotype holds that non-tenured professors are overworked and underpaid, and thus incapable of delivering a high-quality education. The other end of the spectrum sees tenured professors as less likely to work as hard since they have more job security.

But this opinion is largely inaccurate. According to the surveys cited by the National Education Association, tenured professors work on average 52 hours a week, with responsibilities including teaching, research and serving on academic committees.

Lawrence Prelli, professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts, has been on tenure since 1991. Contrary to popular belief, Prelli maintains that tenure does not necessarily ensure a job for life, nor does it indicate an ability to slack off on the job. Responsibilities of tenured faculty extend beyond teaching and research. Tenured professors are also responsible for overseeing curriculum and developing courses and service responsibilities.

Being on tenure, according to Prelli, also can actually “spur you in your work, whether it’s teaching or scholarship.”

“I don’t put my feet up. My days are really long,” Prelli said, stating that he typically puts in six days of work. He said he is not an exception. “I look around at my colleagues in this department, and they’re all doing active work.”

Prelli agrees with the common perception of untenured faculty as underpaid and overworked but said that, at least in the College of Liberal Arts, “the Office of the Dean is trying to improve the pay and benefits.”

Another issue often discussed concerning tenure is the increasing percentages of non-tenure-track faculty being hired in universities. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), as of 2014, three out of four hires nationally are non-tenure-track.

This proportion has risen dramatically in the past two decades — in 1993, according to the American Association of University Professors, the non-tenure-track faculty only accounted for about half of all faculty appointments. This shift in hiring trends is undoubtedly affected by the landscape of the economy today.

With many universities dealing with harsh budgetary cuts, non-tenured faculty are less expensive than tenured positions. The AACU reports that non-tenure-track faculty accounts for nearly 70 percent of all faculty members. 

The economic challenges universities face shape their decisions on hiring less tenure-track professors. Large portions of universities’ finances go towards administrative growth, construction and care of facilities and athletics. Prelli calls this “corporatization” of the university, which ultimately “shows the priorities” by not placing investment in education first.

It is difficult to say with certainty if this trend of hiring more non-tenure-track faculty is occurring at UNH. With arts education budgets tighter than ever, many wonder if UNH’s arts departments (including theatre and dance, art and art history and music) are cutting back on hiring tenure faculty.

David Kaye, the head of acting and directing in the theatre and dance department, says the department currently employs eight tenure-track and seven non-tenure-track faculty. According to Kaye, there is no recent increase in the proportion of non-tenure-track faculty hired.

“We have stayed very consistent since the point about five years ago when we turned many of our adjunct faculty who were teaching multiple courses each semester into lecturer positions,” Kaye said.

Eileen Wong, a student services assistant in of the department of art and art history, which has 11 tenure-track and five non-tenure-track faculty, said they have had the same number of lecturers “for a few years now.”

Higher proportions of non-tenure-track faculty don’t appear in the department of music either, which, according to their web page, employs 19 tenure-track faculty and only six non-tenure-track faculty.

An increase in non-tenured faculty raises concern for some people who believe that educational value is compromised. An issue that potentially compromises the education from non-tenured faculty is free academic judgment.

Prelli characterizes the non-tenure-track professors as “vulnerable,” due to less job security. He notes that non-tenured professors may be more tempted to censor their teaching so as to not “push” students. The problem here is that many academic subjects are inherently controversial, and shying away from these topics detracts from the purpose of education: to present thought-provoking points of view to students and induce critical thinking.

The tenure system is frequently questioned, particularly in light of these new trends that indicate a larger proportion of non-tenured faculty in universities. Differing opinions and perspectives make it difficult to draw a solid conclusion as to whether the increase in non-tenured faculty is negative or inconsequential.

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