On Being Nontenured

When an institution like the University of Michigan, which prides itself on academic freedom and excellence, warns against "systematic substitution of non-tenure-track instructional faculty for tenured and tenure-track faculty," it's time to sit up and take notice. And that's exactly what the May 1999 report prepared by a university-wide committee and sponsored by the University of Michigan Office of the Provost was designed to do: Take a good look at what has become a nationwide trend toward increasing numbers of nontenured faculty in the ranks of academia.

The University of Michigan report does point to certain advantages of nontenured positions. For example, such positions accommodate faculty who "prefer to teach and do not want the attendant research responsibilities of a tenure-track position." And they might allow for "the most efficient response" to unforeseen teaching needs.

Two of those needs have been driving the increases in numbers of nontenured faculty, says Pamela Raymond, associate provost for academic and faculty affairs at the University of Michigan. First, undergraduate student enrollments, particularly in healthcare-associated areas, have been going up quickly. And second, universities are looking for faculty who can impart to students the benefits of their "real-life" experiences, teaching, for example, as they practice law in a courtroom or medicine in a physician's office.

Moreover, the opportunities for students coming out of Ph.D. programs are "increased by having different kinds of career pathways from which they can choose," says Raymond. Although nontenured positions are usually not considered permanent jobs, they are often offered on 2- or 3-year renewable contracts, which in today's volatile job market can take on an aura of permanency.

But the risks to both faculty and students, such as whether nontenured faculty may lose long-term opportunities for advancement and development as scholars and whether their teaching might suffer from not being able to do research in fast-changing fields, loom larger than any benefits. More important, says Raymond, is the need to "preserve the academy," which she defines as a long-term commitment between a university and its faculty.

Smaller institutions are concerned about the trend toward nontenured faculty, too. A recent report on the use of part-time and nonpermanent faculty from Tufts University, for example, cautioned against Tuft's loss of an image and reputation--"our undergraduate students are taught by tenured and tenure-track professors"--upon which it prides itself.

Still, the ranks of faculty in something other than a traditional tenure-track position continue to grow. And many are comfortable with their decision to pursue this track. "I'm happy with how things worked out," says Margaret Lynch, a lecturer in biology at Tufts, although she states she "doesn't know of any thesis advisors who would tell their students to do this."

Up until a few years ago, Lynch's career in science had followed a typical "mostly research" path of graduate school at the University of Colorado, followed by a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School. It was during her postdoc days, says Lynch, that she took part in curriculum development for middle-school students and discovered she "really, really" liked teaching. That experience, says Lynch, changed the way she looked at her career in science.

Lynch is now "very satisfied" with her current position, in which she teaches two classes per semester to Tufts undergraduates, attends department meetings, and, compared to her tenured colleagues, lacks only the opportunity to vote on tenure decisions. Lynch believes her training in research makes her a better teacher and, although she still feels that her present appointment is not "as prestigious" as a tenured appointment would be, not having to run a research lab gives her the advantage of more personal time.

Christie Howard, assistant professor of biology at the University of Nevada, Reno, would seem to agree, at least for the most part. Howard recently moved into a tenured faculty position after spending 3 years in a nontenured position in the same department. Howard says that at the time she took the nontenured position, she "wanted some experience teaching." Howard is grateful for that initial experience in a nontenured position, because, she says, it allowed her to get accustomed to the role of faculty member. It "makes you a lot more savvy" when you get to the tenure-track, in which, she says, there is "a lot more pressure" to juggle research and teaching.

Those pressures and the trials and tribulations of meeting criteria for tenure are well known to anyone who has been even remotely associated with a colleague or friend going through the process. Even though "there is a lot of concern" about the current tenure model--the "do-it-all" track in which "the bar seems to be raised ever higher" for excellence in both research and teaching--Raymond sees the present system remaining in place for the foreseeable future.

Now having been a faculty member on both sides of the tenure fence, Christie Howard would cast her lot with the tenure system. "You feel like you are part of the long-term goals of the institution, and you are protected" against the possibility of lay-off, she says. The increased job security, Howard believes, makes it easier to pursue scholarly activity, usually a long-term endeavor. In taking the long view, which is, after all, the basic modus operandi of the university system, tenure seems to have been put into place for good reason. As Raymond points out, there is "a rolling permanence" to a tenured university faculty that benefits both faculty and students.

And that is perhaps the main reason why the University of Michigan report, while acknowledging that nontenured positions can have certain advantages, urges that the tenure system should not be allowed to die.

We at Next Wave would like to continue this dialogue on the future of the tenure system, and so invite you to share with your peers your thoughts, perspectives, and experience at a forum discussion we have initiated for this purpose. And if you have specific ideas for additional articles on this topic, please let us know.

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