Over the past several decades, higher education has slowly developed into a two-tiered system made up of tenure-track/tenured faculty and contract faculty. The latter of which work increasingly long hours often without great compensation or benefits. However, contract faculty work in these conditions because “at least it’s work” and/or “it’s a foot in the door.” I’ve been there as have many of my colleagues with dreams of making a career of teaching in higher education contexts. In her blog post on Inside HigherEd, Carolyn Betensky tries to make sense of how the two-tier system came to be through her own experiences:
How did we let it happen? Speaking for myself, I was so busy trying to find a job after completing my doctorate in 1997 that I didn’t pay much attention to the bigger picture. All I could think about was my own situation. Even though I understood that the odds of getting a tenure-track position were against me, I spent my time trying everything I could think of to improve my chances. Getting a job was up to me, I told myself. Oblivious to the highly individualistic ethos implanted in me in graduate school, I figured that if I was good enough, I would succeed. I did not think of the many other graduates who were also desperate to find tenure-track jobs — except for when I wanted to make myself feel better about the jobs I didn’t get.
I found a job — a three-year term position that turned into a six-year term position — whereupon I devoted myself to becoming even more irresistible as a job candidate the next time I had to go on the market. When I finally got an assistant professorship at the institution that employs me today, my thoughts turned to getting tenure.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but even though I disapproved of the treatment of contingent faculty, I just wasn’t paying attention to the way the naturalization of their exploitation was taking place concurrently with my own professionalization. I never thought of myself as having any say in the matter: without a stable position from which to voice my opposition, I just looked on as administrations chipped and hacked away at humanities programs across the country, cutting costs by depleting programs of their tenure lines and replacing them with adjunct slots. Like most people I knew in the humanities, I felt helpless to do anything about the seemingly irreversible decline of the profession.
Betensky calls on tenure-stream faculty (since they have job security) to get “vocally involved at every level of governance in the ways that our institutions hire, compensate and retain educators.” She argues:
Tenured professors have considerably more leverage than graduate students or adjunct instructors in our institutions; it’s up to us to come together to put pressure on our administrations to make the many invisible positions we fill under the table into “real” jobs. We need to do it for all of our students, present and future, undergraduate and graduate, academe bound and otherwise. If many of us are already working under austerity conditions at our institutions and feel our own jobs imperiled, so much the more reason to act now to secure a living wage for all who teach at the university level. It is in the interest of all faculty members to band together to demand a future for higher education.
Betensky’s blog post has provided a lot of food for thought. What are your feelings on the rise of the two-tiered system in higher education?
Read Carolyn Betensky’s entire blog post here: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/06/28/tenured-faculty-should-help-battle-opportunities-graduate-students-and-adjuncts