In the last decade, conservatives have launched multiple attacks on faculty tenure in higher education. As we understandably focus on these episodes in states such as Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin, we too readily ignore slow and steady developments that are destroying tenure in California and other progressive states.
I approach this subject as a tenured full professor with an endowed research chair at San Francisco State University. SFSU is part of the California State University system, the largest four-year public university system in the United States. With twenty-three campuses, nearly half a million students, and more than fifty-five thousand faculty and staff members, the CSU system positions itself between the elite University of California system and the state’s community colleges. This is consistent with the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, which distinguished carefully among three tiers of colleges and universities. If current trends continue, faculty tenure in the system’s middle tier (and perhaps in the others as well) will disappear in the coming decades. Our route to that destination may be different from the ones taken by states that are openly challenging faculty tenure, but the destination will be the same.
I began my faculty career in the 1990s with four years of non-tenure-track jobs at three institutions in two states. I was relatively fortunate—these were well-paid positions with reasonable teaching loads; the only thing missing was job security. In those years I applied for hundreds of tenure-track and well-paid one-year positions, but never for “adjunct” positions to teach single courses; the going rates for those jobs were $1,000 to $5,000 per course in the region where I lived. I then was appointed as a tenure-track professor at York University in Toronto, where I worked for sixteen years, first as an assistant, then as an associate, and finally as a full professor. I moved to SFSU in 2014.
The CSU’s two-class faculty structure has distinctive features, but in broad strokes it is similar to the systems used by many other colleges and universities. Tenure-track faculty members are typically selected by departmental faculty committees after national or international searches featuring multiple interviews, presentations of research or creative work, and teaching demonstrations. Most begin as assistant professors and are on probation for six years before faculty committees and administrators decide whether to grant them tenure; these decisions are based heavily on anonymous student evaluations and external assessments of their research, scholarship, and creative activities, known in the CSU system as RSCA. Most of those granted tenure become associate professors, at which point they can be dismissed or their appointments terminated only in extreme situations. After meeting further benchmarks and undergoing another review, many associate professors become full professors, but even if they do not, tenure protects their academic freedom and provides long-term job security. The appointments of those denied tenure are terminated.
In contrast, non-tenure-track faculty—most of whom are called lecturer faculty at my institution—are typically appointed by department chairs after local searches with no RSCA presentations or teaching demonstrations. Chairs commonly lack expertise in the relevant subject specialties; some lack strong equity commitments; and most are forced to make decisions without seeing or hearing the potential faculty member perform. Search procedures for these contingent faculty positions are routinely rushed because of late-breaking developments in course offerings and faculty staffing. Lecturer faculty are more vulnerable to decisions made by chairs and deans and are relatively unknown to their colleagues. They are permanently on probation and do not enjoy the privileges of academic freedom.