School leaders questioning tenure faculty ratio

Some professors say a policy to keep the balance in check isn’t getting the attention it needs.

Haley Hansen

The ratio of tenure and non-tenure track faculty at the University of Minnesota is a delicate balance, which some say isn’t watched closely enough.

Though University policy states the majority of each college’s teaching staff should comprise tenured faculty, some professors say the rule is unclear and has gaps that could cause some departments to have an uneven distribution of tenure and non-tenure track faculty.

“If no one is watching the balance of tenure-track faculty appointments and all the other kinds of faculty appointments … then it becomes too easy for units to decide — in the name of flexibility or convenience — to underinvest in [tenure-track] faculty positions,” said Joseph Konstan, computer science and engineering professor and chair of the University’s Faculty Affairs Committee.

Tenure is important because it secures faculty members’ freedom to disagree with administration without worrying about losing their jobs, he said.

According to the policy, non-tenure track faculty shouldn’t make up more than 25 percent of each college’s faculty members.

Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Al Levine said the policy provides guidance on the University’s faculty makeup.

While the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee has the responsibility of reviewing each college’s makeup to ensure it complies with the rules, Konstan said, the policy itself is confusing.

He said it’s challenging to determine which faculty members count as teachers, making it difficult to review colleges’ percentages.

Departments with low numbers of non-tenured faculty could “camouflage” others with higher percentages when the data is drawn from a whole college, Konstan said.

He said the appropriate number of non-tenure track faculty members varies by department. Disciplines such as architecture, law and languages typically require more non-tenured faculty, he said.

Students may feel the effects of an uneven distribution of tenure faculty, which some faculty members say is concerning.

Jerry Cohen, horticulture science professor and representative on the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, said students who attend the University are expecting to be taught by experts in their field.

“It’s kind of false advertising to have a vast number of our classes taught by people who are not themselves University faculty who have been vetted that way,” he said.

Cohen said tenure allows academics to push boundaries within their disciplines.

Additionally, it also provides a commonality between the professor and the University, he said, where they’re invested in one another.

“We’re in this together. My success is [the University’s] success,” Cohen said, who has tenure. “And when you break that link, it changes the formula for why [professors are] here.”

Financial strain has led many universities nationwide to reconsider their relationship with faculty in recent years, Faculty Consultative Committee Chair Rebecca Ropers-Huilman said, which is concerning.

She said many schools are forced to prioritize financial burdens over academic quality.

“Thinking about the faculty composition is also something we should be thinking about on a regular basis to ensure that we’re offering what’s relevant and what’s good and what’s helpful for students in that academic program,” Ropers-Huilman said.

Assistant Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Ole Gram said many non-tenured faculty are contract faculty who stay at the University for the entirety of their careers.

Administrators have been in conversations with faculty regarding the balance of tenure and non-tenure at the school, he said.

“This is something that is constantly being discussed with our faculty governance,” Gram said.