As States Take Aim at Public College Tenure, Adjuncts May Come Out on Top

by John A. Neilsson

Iowa State Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, again has filed a bill seeking to end the tenure system at Iowa’s three state universities. Sen. Zaun has filed the bill before, but this year Senate File 41 may get more attention with Republicans controlling the Senate. The bill also would ban tenure at community colleges. The bill would allow universities to fire any member for “just cause, program discontinuance and financial exigency.”

Iowa joins Wisconsin in the legislative effort to end tenure and promotion systems at colleges and universities. On its surface, the move may appear to be an easy opportunity to save costs in compensation and retirement benefits. But colleges will likely lose a significant portion of the talent which attracts federal research dollars, encourages graduate school enrollment and builds the institutional profile in media and industrial circles.

University of Iowa officials say using adjunct professors, who teach part-time and don’t receive benefits, is one way the university is saving money during the budget crisis. Adjuncts are the fastest growing position at the UI, increasing 19 percent in the last five years. The number of permanent faculty increased 6 percent in the same time. In the fall of 2009, the the University of Iowa employed 2,351 adjunct faculty members, only one of whom was full-time. That’s roughly 150 more than permanent professors.

At Iowa State University, over 50 percent of ISU’s academic departments have adjuncts teaching loads that exceed national standards set by the American Association of University Professors. For instance, in both ISU’s computer science department and the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, adjuncts teach nearly 50 percent of section course credits.

Non-tenured faculty employed by Iowa State University are unionized, but the union contract does not guarantee job security for the union’s members. So the loss of tenure would mean non-tenured and formerly tenured faculty at that institution would be on the same footing where job security was concerned.

Wisconsin Legislature Targets Tenure

Despite strong opposition from faculty across the system, in March 2016 the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents approved a new policy that will make it easier to lay off tenured faculty because of programmatic changes or poor performance.

The Racine Journal Times reported regents voted near unanimously in favor of the tenure policy, which gives administrators the power to discontinue academic programs or lay off faculty to reallocate funding, as well as a new post-tenure review policy, which makes it easier to discipline or fire low-performing faculty.

Under the new rules, UW officials will have the authority to discontinue academic programs and lay off tenured faculty for educational or financial reasons — such as if administrators decide other “higher priority” programs need funding. Professors could also face discipline, including firing, if they are found to be falling short of expectations under a new policy for post-tenure review.

Previously, full-time faculty could only be fired for just cause, or in the event of a campus-wide financial emergency.

The number of instructional staff, as opposed to faculty, has risen sharply at UW-Madison over the past 25 years, mirroring the national trend. Today there are nearly as many instructional academic staff teaching students as there are tenure-line and tenured faculty members.

In 2014, there were 1,762 instructional academic staff at UW-Madison, compared to 2,085 faculty members, according to UW-Madison’s office of Academic Planning and Institutional Research. Instructional staff was up 20 percent from a decade ago and more than 160 percent from 25 years ago. The number of faculty in contrast, has dropped by just over 5 percent since 1989, inching up some 1.5 percent in the last decade. At UW-Madison, there is a complicated salary structure and a policy in place that requires some full-time lecturers at the top of the pay scale to be compensated at 85 percent of what a full-time faculty member would be paid.

Instructional staff start work at UW-Madison with no job security, and may be hired to teach a course on a semester-to-semester basis. Campus policy prohibits instructors from teaching in the same department for more than three successive years on that basis. Many full- and part-time lecturers are contracted to work on a fixed-term renewable basis. Some get “rolling horizon” appointments that run one, two or three years and require prescribed periods of notice if they are not renewed.

The end of tenure in the UW system would not impact the fixed-term renewable or multi-year appointments offered to non-tenured instructional staff.

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