A Philosopher's Blog

Contingent Faculty

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2013
Tenure (film)

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When I began my career as a professor, I worked as an adjunct. There are many downsides to being an adjunct, not the least of which is that employment is entirely contingent. That is, an adjunct can be let go simply by not offering a contract for the next semester. It is also not uncommon for adjuncts to begin work with only the promise of a contract-a promise that sometimes turns out to be empty.

After being an adjunct, I became a visiting professor. This is rather better than being an adjunct, since it comes with better pay, benefits and the contract length is longer (a year or sometimes longer). However, visiting professorships are (by their very nature) limited in duration. Visiting professors also do not, as visiting faculty, earn tenure.

After being a visiting professor, I was able to get into a tenure track line and eventually earned tenure. There are various misconceptions about tenure, such as the notion that tenured faculty cannot be fired. This is not true-tenured faculty can be fired. Unlike contingent faculty, a tenured faculty member can not be simply let go. Rather, a tenured faculty member can only (in general) be fired for cause.

While tenure is presented as its detractors as a means by which inept faculty can avoid being fired as they coast towards an easy retirement, this is not its intended or actual purpose. One purpose of tenure is to serve as an incentive for success. That is, if a faculty member works hard for the better part of a decade and achieves professional success, then she can get the security of tenure. Naturally, this is not as lucrative as the rewards ladled out to comparable levels of success in the financial or business sectors-but people who go into academics tend to have somewhat different values. To steal a line from the folks who argue relentless against depriving the wealthy of even a fraction of their wealth, to remove tenure would punish success and destroy incentive. After all, if the job creators would be broken and demoralized by tax increases, then presumably the faculty would also be broken and demoralized by the loss of tenure. But perhaps significant incentives are only fit for the job creators and no one else.

A second reason for tenure is to protect academic freedom. Once a faculty member has tenure, then she has a degree of protection that can allow her to express intellectual ideas without (much) fear of being simply disposed of in retaliation. To be honest, once a person has spent years grinding away towards tenure, she has obviously learned to work within the system. One rarely sees a faculty member suddenly emerging from the caterpillar state of being tenure earning to become a radical butterfly once getting tenure. However, tenure still serves a valuable purpose by protecting intellectual freedom more than a lack of tenure would.

As might be imagined, some are opposed to tenure. These people tend to favor the business model of academics in which one key goal is to reduce labor costs. By removing tenure, faculty can be let go and replaced with cheaper faculty as needed. Also, faculty perceived as “troublesome” (such as union organizers) could be fired, thus reducing the threat of a powerful faculty union.

Some people also oppose tenure on more philosophical grounds. One common view is that employers should have the right to fire employees at any time, even without cause or reason. Going along with this view, obviously enough, is the idea that employees do not have any right to be employed. Interestingly enough, many of the same folks who hold this view also contend that the risk-takers in business should have the chance for massive rewards because of the risks they take. Interestingly, they seem to fail to see that people working without job security are rather big risk takers. After all, everyday is a day they risk being fired because their employer wants to cut expenses to boost profits.

Folks who support this view often tend to point to live outside of academics where most workers lack job security. A standard refrain is “why should tenured faculty have the job security that other workers lack?” But, a better question might be “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?”

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21 Responses

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  1. WTP said, on January 16, 2013 at 9:23 am

    but people who go into academics tend to have somewhat different values.

    And that’s as far as I got. Preening narcissism. Not that I’m asking for such, but shirtless pictures of yourself were at least more to the point.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on January 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    I agree with most of Mike’s post, although he lost me when he started implying that employees have a “right” to be employed.

    The fact of the matter is that to some extent the faculty run the university. The faculty determine the curriculum, form hiring committees, etc. This is known as faculty governance and tenure is essential to make it work.

    • WTP said, on January 17, 2013 at 7:37 am

      So you don’t have a problem with Mike’s arrogant implication that academics have values that differ from those of us in the real world or that the “levels of success” are comparable?

      • T. J. Babson said, on January 17, 2013 at 11:04 am

        I took that as meaning that people don’t become teachers in the expectation of making a lot of money. How did you take it?

        • WTP said, on January 17, 2013 at 3:18 pm

          Oh, come on. It’s not like Mike doesn’t constantly take cheap potshots at those who make good money. Or do you believe that the phrase “rewards ladled out” has no connotations to it? Those who work in the real world do not get their rewards “ladled out”. The money they make has been earned based on what people in a market are willing to pay. “Ladled out” would more appropriately be applied to those who take their pay from government work. Which leads into the context of “values”…Why should the values of either group be different. I mean I would agree that in our current context that the values of those in academia have diverged considerably from mainstream or perhaps I should say real-world society. But there’s no reason that the two groups would have different values. Differences in job satisfaction, perhaps. In most cases this would be nitpicking, but in the context of the politically slanted statement the folks who argue relentless against depriving the wealthy of even a fraction of their wealth, it comes across to me as condescending, preening narcissism. YMMV, I suppose.

          • T. J. Babson said, on January 17, 2013 at 4:14 pm

            I agree that the vast majority of the people O and the Dems regard as wealthy (>$250K) work damn hard at high stress jobs for their money and do it so they can provide a good standard of living for their families. I don’t see anything wrong with the value system of someone who does that, and Mike probably does not either.

            What bothers me is that people earning in the $250-500K range are lumped in with the “millionaires and billionaires” on Wall Street and in Hollywood, many of whom don’t work hard for their money but either by birth or by luck found themselves in a position to earn a lot without working very hard or having any special talent. Chelsea Clinton working at a hedge fund, for example.

            If you make $250K per year it will take you 4000 years (= 50 lifetimes) to earn a billion dollars. Really not fair to lump these together.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 17, 2013 at 6:01 pm

              I don’t. I have many friends who own small businesses ranging from real estate to contracting. They work very hard for their money. For example, my friend Randy works seven days a week when he has a contracting job and puts in crazy hours each day. He does good work, too.

            • WTP said, on January 17, 2013 at 6:17 pm

              What difference does it make how hard someone works? It’s what they produce that matters. And I don’t begrudge Sean Penn his millions so long as he’s come by them honestly. Additionally, many a CEO of large corporations work long, hard hours, as do many on Wall Street. Many work much, much harder than those in academia and produce far more wealth for society and are thus far more deserving of their pay. Now I may not think that some of them are worth that much money, but that’s just my opinion. And even if I don’t value them at being worth a couple mil a year, I see no reason to disparage their value systems. The bottom line is they didn’t TAKE their money from anyone, nor did they have anyone TAKE the money they earn from someone else.

            • T. J. Babson said, on January 17, 2013 at 6:32 pm

              WTP, what about ex-government officials who cash in because of their connections rather than anything they produce? What about people like the Solyndra folks who received millions from the government because they were buddies with Steven Chu, pocketed lots of money, and all along knowing full well their company was going to go belly up?

              These people did not break any laws, but they did not produce anything, either.

            • biomass2 said, on January 17, 2013 at 6:34 pm


              In the fiscal cliff agreement, both sides agreed that taxes would remain the same for those individuals earning up to $400k. That’s more than 1/2 way between $250k and $500k.My own thinking was that the arbitrary line should have been around $750k—simply to avoid a lot of political posturing and media commotion, but clearly, making that the defining amount might have led , through so-called “negotiations”, to taxes being raised for only those earning $900k or more. That would have been unacceptable to me—esp. since the “raise” in taxes was merely a reinstatement of the pre- Bush tax-cut rates anyway.

              My point: The definitions of ^middle class^ and ^wealthy^ are pretty slippery, and they depend on many things:

              “The American Heritage Dictionary defines the middle class as follows: “The socioeconomic class between the working class and the upper class, usually including professionals, highly skilled laborers, and lower and middle management.
              “Most Americans, however, generally consider the United States to be a classless society and associate the group with factors ranging from income and occupation to hobbies and lifestyles. Doctors, teachers, lawyers and plumbers can all belong.”

            • WTP said, on January 17, 2013 at 6:56 pm

              TJ, I agree with you in regard to the Solyndristas and Chus not deserving the wealth, but the problem lies not in those individuals selling their services but in our allowing the government to have such control over the markets. Power that exceeds what is necessary to maintain open, fair (and by “fair” I do NOT mean what Mike calls “fair”) markets. Power corrupts.

              BTW, meant to add above that I do have some discomfort with the inherited wealth scenarios but again I see that as a moral issue for those who are leaving behind tremendous wealth. They have a responsibility to dispense with the wealth in a manner that does not create future David Rockefellers, Theresa Heinz Kerrys, etc.

              “The parent who leaves his son enormous wealth generally deadens the talents and energies of the son,” steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote in 1891. Carnegie gave away the equivalent of $3.5 billion in today’s money to libraries and other causes, and left his daughter, Margaret, born when he was 62, less than 10% of his fortune. Some of today’s magnates have accepted the truth of Carnegie’s thinking;and intend to follow his example.


            • WTP said, on January 17, 2013 at 7:06 pm

              I don’t. I have many friends who own small businesses ranging from real estate to contracting. They work very hard for their money. For example, my friend Randy works seven days a week when he has a contracting job and puts in crazy hours each day. He does good work, too.

              And again, Mike weasels around the point. I suppose we are to presume that Mike’s several “small business” friends in contractnig and real estate make over $250K. Not that it’s impossible nor that we could prove it one way or the other, but I find it highly unlikely given the way Mike talks about milionaires and the wealthy in general. Do you TJ? And more to my point above, what difference does it make how much one makes so long as they come by it honestly?

              God, I just read the sentence after that…

              After all, if the job creators would be broken and demoralized by tax increases, then presumably the faculty would also be broken and demoralized by the loss of tenure

              TJ, does this line sound like anything anyone who understands where wealth comes would say? Again, Mike’s glaring ignorance of the subject of economics.

            • T. J. Babson said, on January 17, 2013 at 7:36 pm

              I agree that Mike does not seem to have much empathy for those who employ others and have to try to meet a payroll every week and keep their business afloat. My Dad owned small restaurants and bars his whole life and hardly ever was able to take a vacation. He always told me that I would be way better off working for a big corporation than owning a small business.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 17, 2013 at 8:38 pm

              I do have empathy for small business owners. My small home town had small businesses. I grew up going to the corner store and worked at a small business after college. If you ever get to Old Town, stop by the Old Town Trading Post and buy some hunting and fishing gear from Dave.

              I even have empathy for the idle rich.

            • T. J. Babson said, on January 17, 2013 at 8:54 pm

              I have yet to see you take the employer’s side over the employee’s side on any issue.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 18, 2013 at 10:17 am

              I would side with an employer who is in the right against employees-such as firing someone who engages in wrongful behavior. However, employers generally have an advantage and one only occasionally hears of employees exploiting or abusing employers.

            • Douglas Moore said, on January 18, 2013 at 3:03 am

              Mike needs to read A Message to Garcia.



            • T. J. Babson said, on January 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm

              Via the Instapundit:

              In reality, the Democrats are the party of the plutocrats and big banks, while the “rich” that the GOP represents are the “petty rich” of small business owners and successful professionals — unsurprisingly, it’s the “petty rich” that Obama’s tax increases have targeted. Turn that around.


        • biomass2 said, on January 17, 2013 at 4:12 pm

          I took it that way, too. Why? When I was teaching (in the early years, especially) ,that was usually the excuse given as to why low pay for teachers was acceptable. It was usually delivered as the speaker fondled his wallet.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 17, 2013 at 5:57 pm

          Exactly right.

          • WTP said, on January 17, 2013 at 6:20 pm

            Exactly right

            And again Mike demonstrates his self referential objectivity. Unless, of course, you are replying to my post as the comment cascade seems to imply.

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