U trims budget, tenure-track faculty

Since 2003, the number of tenure-track faculty has decreased by 20 percent, with many jobs being filled by contract faculty.
Geology professor Robert Edsall in his office Friday in the Social Sciences Building.
By
  • Conor Shine and Brad Perlich
May 03, 2010
Correction: Originally this story had the incorrectly stated the number of tenure-track professors in CLA compared to 2003. The error has been corrected.

Robert Edsall is like most other professors in the University of Minnesota Department of Geography.
He teaches two classes a semester. He does research — his involves cartography and the use of interactive maps. But at the end of next year, Edsall may find himself looking for a new job.
Although Edsall is a professor at the University, he is not on the tenure track, and his three-year contract will expire at the end of the 2010-11 school year. There’s no guarantee he will be rehired by the University.
“The uncertainty is always over my head,” he said.
Edsall is part of a University-wide shift away from tenured and tenure-track faculty.
According to analysis performed by The Minnesota Daily on faculty data obtained from the University Office of Institutional Research, the number of non-tenure-track faculty at the University has increased 15 percent since 2003. This increase has been mirrored by a 20 percent drop in the number of tenure-track faculty.
Overall, the University added 409 faculty over the past seven years, but there are only 510 tenure-track faculty now, compared to 559 in 2003.
This trend of favoring non-tenure-track and contractual employees has played out nationally over the past 20 years. Around the country, cash-strapped universities are looking to save money wherever possible, and tenured faculty are considerably more expensive than their nontenured colleagues.
Full-time, nontenured faculty at the University make on average about $51,000 over the nine-month school year, about half as much as a full-time tenured faculty member. Non-tenure-track faculty also give the University, which is facing a $132.2 million budget shortfall, more financial flexibility because their jobs can be cut.
The hiring pause, which went into effect in November 2008, has accelerated this trend, making it nearly impossible to hire tenure-track replacements for faculty who retire or leave the University.
The predicament opens up the University to losing quality faculty members to other institutions that can offer tenure-track positions.
“I have been looking for tenure-track positions since I arrived here, because that is more desirable,” Edsall said.
As the University sheds faculty, students could face larger class sizes, courses could be dropped and departments could be merged, resulting in fewer degree programs offered.
Some think that if faculty cuts continue, fewer students will end up attending the University.
Why tenure matters
Tenure is an institution unique to academia. Faculty who are hired on the tenure track generally spend a six-year probationary period teaching and researching at the University, said Karen Miksch, co-chairwoman of the University Senate Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.
At the end of the period, the faculty member faces intensive review from within the department, and if approved, his or her application works its way up several levels of the University hierarchy. If it is approved at each step, it eventually goes before the Board of Regents, where a final vote takes place. If tenure is not granted, the professor is given one more year at the University before being forced to find a job elsewhere.
With tenure comes an indefinite contract to teach and research, which can only be revoked under extreme circumstances. The indefinite contract allows professors to take on long-term research projects and also allows for more freedom to cover controversial issues in classrooms, said Miksch, who is also a tenured professor in the College of Education and Human Development.
Although faculty at the University are protected by the Board of Regents’ academic freedom policy, tenured faculty protect and strengthen academic freedom, she said.
“Tenure protects academic freedom in a way that a contractual employment relationship wouldn’t,” Miksch said. “It allows you to do something that is unpopular or to do something that is controversial, whether it’s in your teaching or your research.”
Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs Arlene Carney said tenure helps create a long-term faculty body that can form relationships with and mentor students. Faculty with tenure are better positioned to do the type of research that brings large grants and contributes to the University’s prestige.
“If you have an institution that has too many people who have just a tenuous connection to the university, they can sort of come and go and it doesn’t impact the institution,” she said. “If you have a group of tenured and tenure-track faculty in a department, they’re committed to the curriculum and growing the students.”
For students, the difference between a tenured professor and a nontenured professor isn’t always obvious, but Ryan Kennedy, a graduate student at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said students benefit when a professor has years of experience working at the University.
Kennedy, who is the incoming president for the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, said it’s apparent when a professor has been teaching a subject for a long time. It’s also easier to build relationships with faculty who are around for the student’s entire stay at the University, Kennedy said.
Eva von Dassow, a tenured professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, said having fewer tenure-track faculty causes programs to become stale because they are taught by people who don’t know how long they will be at the University.
Because of this uncertainty, faculty are unable to grow programs and introduce new courses, she said.
“If we continue … to reduce faculty positions, then there is no way that we can offer the same number of courses,” she said.
With fewer interesting programs and fewer long-term faculty members, von Dassow said she thinks the University will become a less attractive option for students applying to college.
“[Students] would not have a reason to come here,” she said. “They would say, ‘If I can get the same education at a MnSCU [Minnesota State Colleges and Universities] college that’s cheaper, why would I go to the University of Minnesota?’ ”
A new financial reality
As budgets across the University shrink, college administrators are grappling with how to maintain the quality of their programs with fewer faculty members.
In this fiscal year, faculty salaries and benefits will cost $543.5 million, about 18.5 percent of the University’s total budget, according to the Office of Budget and Finance.
Jay Bell, associate dean for academic programs and faculty affairs in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, estimated his college could have 30 to 40 fewer tenure-track and tenured professors over the next several years in order to meet the budget. CFANS has already seen a 20 percent decrease in the number of tenure-track professors since 2003.
“Frankly, at this point, it’s not necessarily how do you replace them; it’s how do you figure out how to work around the gaps,” Bell said.
The College of Liberal Arts is already planning to move forward with fewer faculty and fewer departments.
CLA departments had 44 searches open for tenure-track faculty in 2008 but reduced that number to less than 10 after the hiring pause went into effect. Overall, there are 47 fewer tenure-track professors in the college compared to 2003, even though the college has 88 more faculty positions.
Carney said the University has enough tenured and tenure-track faculty to accomplish its goals in research and education, but the administration is watching the situation and planning so it will be ready if further cuts are needed.
In a planning document released in April by a CLA task force, the group said that in order to maximize its shrinking teaching body, the college will have to offer half the degree programs it currently offers by 2015.
“We all have to figure out how to be more efficient with our teaching overall,” Bell said.
The School of Public Health is one of the few exceptions to the trend. The college has 56 more tenured faculty and four more tenure-track faculty now than it did in 2003.
John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health, said his college has seen a large increase in tenured faculty because it runs on a more “entrepreneurial model” than other colleges.
Finnegan said that in the School of Public Health, professors are expected to obtain at least 60 percent of their funding from outside sources, like the National Institutes of Health.
“The reason that we’ve been able to grow, even during a time of relative financial difficulty, is that we have had relatively little investment of state money in our college over the years,” Finnegan said.
Life on track
Unlike Edsall, Mark Borrello is on the tenure track at the University. After working on a yearly basis for Michigan State University, Borrello, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences’ History of Science, Technology and Medicine program, took a tenure-track position at the University in 2004.
He said the opportunity to receive tenure was a major factor in his decision to come to the University. After six years on the track, he will become a tenured professor if the Board of Regents approves his application at its May 15 meeting.
Borrello specializes in the history of evolution and genetics in the 20th century — topics that are often controversial.
“I’ve always used controversial ideas in science to motivate my students. They seem to like it,” he said.
Borrello said he thinks the extra level of academic freedom afforded by tenure allows professors to research and teach ideas that may not be accepted in the mainstream. But he thinks one of the biggest advantages to tenure is the commitment tenured professors are able to make to the University.
“You’re fully vested in the University and can be fully participatory and contribute to the positive direction of the University,” he said.
For nontenured faculty, fully committing to a university they may not be working at the next year can be difficult, Edsall said.
“You are doing the research and trying to excel as a professor, but it’s primarily for your own career advancement,” Edsall said.
Working on a contractual basis increases the pressure for researchers to do projects and write articles in a shorter time frame to prove their productivity.
“I’m working on projects that are shorter term,” he said. “It’s not ideal, for sure. It limits my choices. I can’t do five- or seven-year projects.”
Ken Kozak, a tenure-track professor in CFANS’ Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, said he feels a similar pressure when doing research.
Kozak, who is also a curator at the Bell Museum, still has a few years before he can be granted tenure, but he thinks having tenure will allow him to pursue research that may be riskier or may not produce results as quickly.
“When people don’t have to worry about taking risks, from a research perspective, that’s often where some of the greatest breakthroughs are made,” he said.
No simple solutions
There is no end in sight for the budget crisis and the decline in tenured and tenure-track faculty that comes with it.
All administrators can do is stay aware of how the faculty body is changing and plan around those changes in order to minimize the effects, Carney said.
“I think what we have the opportunity to do when we hire contract faculty for a couple of years … is we don’t make a long-term commitment to an area,” she said.
She said the University can still offer quality programs with slightly fewer faculty, and with planning, colleges will be well-positioned to act quickly and grow programs when the financial situation stabilizes.
Bell also sees similar positives to the financial struggles his college and others are going through.
“I think, historically, these contraction periods are actually opportunities, because you sort of shrink down, and when it comes back up, you figure out where to invest, and you can be a little more targeted,” he said.
But with fewer faculty resources to devote to students in the interim, Finnegan said the University may have to consider admitting fewer students.
“Rather than just try to jam more and more students into classes, I think we ought to take a very careful look at enrollment management. Are we admitting too many students?” he said. “I know every person in Minnesota thinks their children should have the God-given right to go to the University of Minnesota, but you know, that hasn’t been true for a long time.”
Over the next several years, administrators will be faced with tough decisions and the possibility that funding levels — and consequently faculty levels — will never rise back to where they were.
“We’re going to have to change the way we do business a little bit, and we don’t have our head around that yet,” Bell said.

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