Plutocratic Insurgency Note No. 4

Plutocratic Insurgency Note No. 4: Silencing the Middle Class—The Gradual Extinction of Tenure in American Universities

Pamela Ligouri Bunker and Robert J. Bunker 

Key Information: Douglas Belkin, “Faculty’s New Focus: Don’t Offend.” The Wall Street Journal. 28 February 2017: A3, (Mirrored at

…Conservatives seized on this shift and used the term politically correct to connote what they saw as a creeping relativism and an attack on truth.

The meaning took on additional nuance in the past decade as college prices skyrocketed and parents began to expect more protection for their children on campus. Those expectations prompted schools to hire more university administrators to look after students’ well-being, not to teach them, said Dr. Zimmerman. That shifted the conversation about what is politically correct from the realm of the intellectual and cultural to the psychological and emotional…

…The unintended consequences come in the classroom where some faculty say they are now pulling their punches, particularly those without the job protections of tenure.

Renee Fraser, an adjunct who teaches western civilization at Moorpark Community College in California, said she is deeply concerned about receiving a bias complaint when she delivers a lecture this semester about nationalism.

“If you describe nationalism, you’re describing Donald Trump, ” she said, noting that students in her school are mostly conservative. “I’m embarrassed that I don’t let the students have more freedom because I’m afraid for my job.”

Andrea Quenette, who teaches communications at the University of Kansas, says she was on track for tenure until the fall of 2015 when students accused her of being racially insensitive…

Key Information: Douglas Belkin, “Universities, Facing Cuts, Target Tenure.” The Wall Street Journal. 15 February 2017: A3, (Mirrored at

…The institution of tenure—which provides job security and perks like regular sabbaticals—began in the U.S. early in the 20th century as a bulwark against interference from administrators, corporate interests and politicians who might not like professors’ opinions or agree with their research.

Attacks on tenure have become commonplace in the wake of the recession as reductions in public support for colleges led to steep tuition increases that have driven up student debt and magnified scrutiny on the business practices of universities. Conservative lawmakers also have expressed mounting displeasure with university professors, saying they indoctrinate impressionable students with a liberal point of view…

…In 1975, 45% of faculty at public and private schools was tenured or tenure-track; the 2014 figure is 29%. The balance of the jobs are now filled by part-time adjunct professors who make, on average, less than half the salary of tenured professors, enjoying few of their benefits, and are excused from much of the administrative work. While the average salary of a full professor is $142,141, according to the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts are typically paid between $1,500 and $5,000 a course.

Schools across the country, mostly small, private colleges like Wartburg College in Iowa and the College of Saint Rose in New York, have been offering buyouts to cull their ranks of longtime faculty. Other schools have eliminated entire academic departments…

Key Information: National Center for Education Statistics, “Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty.” May 2016 Update,

…From fall 1993 to fall 2013, the number of full-time faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 45 percent, while the number of part-time faculty increased by 104 percent. As a result of the faster increase in the number of part-time faculty, the percentage of all faculty who were part time increased from 40 to 49 percent during this period….

…In academic year 2013–14, approximately 49 percent of institutions had tenure systems. A tenure system guarantees that professors will not be terminated without just cause after a probationary period. The percentage of institutions with tenure systems ranged from 1 percent at private for-profit institutions to almost 100 percent at public doctoral institutions. Of full-time faculty at institutions with tenure systems, 48 percent had tenure in 2013–14, compared with 54 percent in 1999–2000. From 1999–2000 to 2013–14, the percentage of full-time faculty having tenure decreased by 5 percentage points at public institutions, by 4 percentage points at private nonprofit institutions, and by 58 percentage points at private for-profit institutions…

Key Information:  Andrew Hibel and Gregory Scholtz, “Tenure in Academia, the Past, Present and Future.” HigherEdJobs. 30 September 2013,

Hibel: In a recent Bloomberg Business article, the author states, “Academic freedom is the esteemed argument made for tenure. This rationale dates back to the late 18th century, when professors at religious schools needed protection from trustees and donors who might demand termination of those faculty who taught outside the accepted doctrine.” He goes on to say that “academic freedom is protected under the First Amendment and therefore tenure is not necessary, at least at public universities.” Please explain the role and purpose of tenure in today's higher education system. Also, what are your thoughts on his comments?

Scholtz: As I stated previously, the role and purpose of tenure in American higher education is to protect academic freedom in order to promote the discovery and dissemination of knowledge and thus serve the common good. Academic freedom, as understood by the AAUP, is a professor's freedom “to teach, both in and outside the classroom, to conduct research and to publish the results of those investigations, and to address any matter of institutional policy or action whether or not [one is] a member of an agency of institutional governance. Professors should also have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence” (From the executive summary of a 2009 AAUP report on the fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos).

According to academic freedom and Constitutional experts, the First and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual faculty member at a public university from government interference that is external and based on content. They do not protect that faculty member from administrators and governing board members—or, indeed, from other members of the faculty—who would interfere in their teaching, their scholarship, or their speech about institutional matters and matters of public concern. For further elaboration, see Walter P. Metzger, “Profession and Constitution: Two Definitions of Academic Freedom in America” (Texas Law Review 1265 [1988]), David M. Rabban, “Academic Freedom,” in Encyclopedia of the American Constitution 12 (1986); and Neil Hamilton, Zealotry and Academic Freedom: A Legal and Historical Perspective (1995), 187-194.

In other words, constitutional academic freedom in some ways falls far short of professional academic freedom, as commonly understood in American higher education. So the idea that tenure is not needed to protect academic freedom at public colleges and universities because Constitutional protections are adequate is incorrect. To understand the importance of tenure for protecting academic freedom at such institutions, all one need do is to talk to their faculty members who do not have tenure. And, as the Bloomberg author acknowledges, these Constitutional rights do not apply to faculty members in their professional capacities at private colleges and universities…

Key Information: Adriana Kezar and Daniel Maxey, “The Changing Academic Workforce.” Trusteeship Magazine. May-June 2013,

…The large and growing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty throughout higher education has resulted in such faculty members now accounting for approximately 70 percent of the faculty providing instruction at nonprofit institutions nationwide. Yet, most campuses ignore the needs of this group, operating as though tenure-track faculty members are the norm. As non-tenure-track faculty have been hired in greater numbers, institutions have often not considered how their faculty policies and practices—and the working conditions encountered by adjuncts, particularly those working part time—may carry deeply troubling implications for student learning, equal-employment opportunities and nondiscrimination, and risk management…

…In 1969, tenured and tenure-track positions made up approximately 78.3 percent of the faculty, and non-tenure-track positions accounted for about 21.7 percent, according to The American Faculty, published in 2006 by Jack H. Schuster and Martin J. Finkelstein (Johns Hopkins University Press). By 2009, data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System show these proportions had nearly flipped; tenured and tenure-track faculty had declined to 33.5 percent of the professoriate, and 66.5 percent of faculty were ineligible for tenure. Of the 66.5 percent, 18.8 percent were full-time, non-tenure-track, and 47.7 percent were part-time. While the numbers of non-tenure-track faculty have grown the most at community colleges, they make up a large portion of the faculty at all institutional types…  

Who: Faculty in American colleges and universities who are increasingly becoming either full-time professors ineligible for tenure or adjunct and part-time professors with short term teaching contracts.    

What: The elimination of tenure-track and tenured faculty in American higher education.

When: The shift towards hiring non-tenure track professors has progressed since the 1990s and continues today.

Where: Within the United States.

Why: Primarily implied to be a cost cutting measure at American non-profit universities. In the case of for-profit universities, which have proliferated in student numbers since the 1990s, adjunct and part-time professors form the basis of the business model to maximize corporate profits.         

Analysis: While some disagreement exists concerning the rate of the shift of tenured and tenured-track faculty to contract and part-time (adjunct) faculty, the overall trend is not in dispute. The tenure system is slowly devolving and may at some point be in effect only in the most prestigious—read ‘economically well-endowed’—private universities and a few select public hybrid institutions.  The gradual demise of tenure on American college campuses mirrors the thinning of a middle class no longer required for 20th century based mass industrial production and conventional warfare utilizing large standing armies. With public support for colleges drying up and tuition bills rising, higher education has increasingly shifted from a public good to a commodity competing in the free market economy. Since tenured faculty are costly to maintain, they became a natural target of cost savings measures. Increasingly, powerful administrators—whose growing numbers have long been commented upon—have become complicit in this drive to limit the job security and salaries of PhD labor for the benefit of their university employers. While some perspectives portray tenured professors as extreme liberals out of touch with reality, or worse as non-productive deadwood contributing little to meaningful academic debate, in their justification to end university tenure, this is a simplistic and polarized view of the institution itself. The major benefit of the tenure system in higher education is to allow the middle class to have a voice—free of governmental, religious, administration, and plutocratic corporate interests—concerning the health and trajectory of American society. Without free and open debate, even criticism, of contemporary issues negatively impacting that class strata, its socio-economic and political interests are not advanced. The gradual silencing of the middle class in US public debate due to the increasing elimination of tenured faculty is a little recognized systemic phenomena. Still, numerous individual instances of contracted and tenure-track faculty fearing to offend students or even raise controversial subjects in the classroom—which could lead to a bias complaint and potentially dismissal—have been identified thus resulting in de facto self-censorship. The loss of the middle class voice at the intelligentsia level is another troubling component of plutocratic and sovereign-free economic practices hollowing out American society. Unfortunately, the process may be so well advanced, although generally unrecognized, that it is already a fait accompli. This fact along, with the knowledge that the American two party system has become increasingly divisive with the injection of emotive populism, suggests that not only are reasoned middle class debates disappearing but also any form of centrist political agreements themselves.

Further Reading

James L. Bess and Jay R. Dee, Bridging the Divide between Faculty and Administration: A Guide to Understanding Conflict in the Academy. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Jack H. Schuster and Martin J. Finkelstein, The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

All opinions are strictly those of the authors and in no way reflect the viewpoints of any U.S. Governmental, academic, or corporate entity.        

Your rating: None


I think the analysis doesn't give enough credit to the sheer cost of tenure-track faculty, relative to the output of graduated students. As an undergrad in the early '80s, one just didn't see full professors until upper-level classes...and in my line, not even all of those. Tenured faculty was there for the research and some lectures -- graduate student teaching assistants and adjuncts did most of the actual instruction. From your own figures, an adjunct teaching two courses a quarter is making a third -- or less -- than a tenured professor...can't say I ever saw a full professor teaching more than two courses a quarter, and most less than that.