‘Never waste a good pandemic,’ says dean eyeing fewer tenured faculty

Dean at University of Colorado Boulder plans to replace tenured and tenure-track faculty with instructors, but critics say the move tells students that ‘their education doesn’t really matter’

十二月 7, 2020
Future unclear road sign
Source: iStock

The University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Arts and Sciences dean said this week that he hopes to replace 50 tenured and tenure-track faculty members with 25 instructors who will teach more and earn less. His goal is to build more flexibility into the college’s post-Covid-19 budget.

The faculty positions are hypothetical, and the numbers are just examples, James White, interim dean, said in an interview. About 60 professors are taking incentivised retirement as part of an effort to cut the college’s budget by 8 per cent. No one is getting laid off but, going forward, Professor White believes that employing relatively more non-tenure-track instructors means the college can provide mid-career and other support to the tenured professors it retains.

“Cutting is hard, but growing back intelligently can be even harder,” Professor White said. “Never waste a good pandemic.”

To many, Professor White’s proposal read as an attack on tenure, shared governance and the notion of higher education as a public good.

Rob Rupert, professor of philosophy and chair of Boulder’s Arts and Sciences Council, said the plan − if it happens − is part of a years-long trend away from tenure-track hiring that would “rob UC-Boulder of its legitimacy as a research university”.

In the research university tradition, institutions gain the “intellectual and moral authority” to offer courses and confer degrees by employing faculty members who are “active practitioners” in their disciplinary areas of expertise, Professor Rupert said. So purposely denying swathes of the faculty time and resources to do active research puts Boulder on the path to becoming a “middle-of-the-road regional school”, leaving Colorado without its flagship university.

“So far as I can tell, the faculty has not been consulted about this in any meaningful way,” Professor Rupert said of shared governance.

Robert J. Ferry, associate professor of history and chair of Boulder’s Faculty Assembly, said that he hadn’t been involved in any discussions about the proposal thus far but that future consideration “needs to have full involvement of the faculty”.

Professor White plans on holding an all-faculty Zoom meeting later this month. He said that he has already discussed his plan with faculty chairs and that any decisions will be made through a collaborative process. But his note to faculty members this week was the first time that most professors heard about his plan.

“At the core is a critical fact: The college budget is primarily salaries,” Professor White wrote in the memo. So, in order to avoid cutting programmes in the event of another economic downturn, “we propose to rebalance the ratio of tenure-track faculty to instructors” from about 3.3 to 1 to 2.8 to 1.

Doing so would free up $6.2 million (£4.6 million) for the college annually, he said.

Boulder lost about $69 million in the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the 2021 budget includes about $97 million in cuts (about 10 per cent) from the previous year. The 2020 annual academic general fund for all colleges at CU Boulder is $342 million, and arts and sciences spends about half of that.

Professor White told Inside Higher Ed that his plan is not about hiring non-tenure-track instructors just to terminate them at the next recession. Financial flexibility would instead come from the faculty support funds, which could be suspended as needed.

Asked about concerns that his plan chips away at tenure, Professor White said: “That horse left the barn a long time ago. We weren’t the ones who did it.”

He added: “We have a culture in higher education where our value as departments revolves around how many tenure-track positions we have and how many graduate students we have…we need to think about whether that is sustainable in the long run.”

Jonathan W. Wilson, an adjunct instructor of history at several institutions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who has written about the adjunctification of higher education, said: “Things like this news from CU Boulder don’t surprise me at all. We’re going to see more and more stories like this.”

Once colleges proved that contingent workers were an “acceptable substitute” for full-time professors in the classroom, “once the pool of excellent underemployed academics became big enough, and once public pressure and financial pressure built up enough, it was just a matter of time for many colleges to start dispensing with even the pretence of tenure,” he said. “It’s an expensive anachronism. Contingent faculty members teach our courses for a small fraction of what tenure-track academics cost. And we’re much easier to fire if you don’t like the job we’re doing in the classroom.”

L. D. Burnett, a professor of history at Collin College, said that Boulder’s move sends students the message that “their education doesn’t really matter”.

It’s not that non-tenure-track instructors aren’t good teachers, Burnett said, rather that “getting rid of tenured professors means getting rid of a teaching faculty who have stability, time and resources to devote to students…It basically says that an education in the arts and humanities isn’t worth much”.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.



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