Tenure Trends | Robin Wilson for The Chronicle of Higher Education
Tenure Trends | Robin Wilson for The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tenure dies, three graphics

Tenure is declining. There are many reasons for this, most of which are economic. Tenured professors are very expensive compared to, say, adjuncts and graduate student TAs. Once upon a time in departments far far away, even recitation/discussion sessions were led by tenured faculty members. The only experience I ever had with such a situation was in a department (physics) heavily funded by dollars from the Department of Defense. Don’t say the militaristic state never gave you anything, my fellow classmates. I’m not bragging, but I do think I am pretty clever when it comes to Newtonian physics, at least for a sociologist.

The story here is clear in the graphics…or is it?

This first graphic ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education last July in an article written by Robin Wilson who asked:
“What does vanishing tenure mean for higher education? For starters, some observers say that college faculties are being filled with people who may be less willing to speak their minds: contingent instructors, usually working on short-term contracts….But others argue that the disappearance of tenure is actually not the worst thing that could happen in academe. The competition to secure a tenure-track job and then earn tenure has become so fierce in some disciplines that academe may actually be turning away highly qualified people who don’t want the hassle. A system without tenure, but one that still gave professors reasonable pay and job security, might draw that talent back.”

It’s not my place to get into that discussion here, but I do want to interrogate the graphic that ran with the story to see if it captured the essence of the tenure story.

First, the Chronicle’s graphic has numbers that do not add to 100%. So I went back to the report from the American Association of University Professors that the Chronicle had pulled their numbers from and came up with this:

Trends in Faculty Status, 1975 - 2007 | AAUP
Trends in Faculty Status, 1975 - 2007 | AAUP

This report clearly has more detail – we can see where those missing numbers are (full-time non-tenured faculty) – as well as understand the distinction between full-time already tenured faculty and those who are in the process of seeking full-time tenured positions.

I decided to compile this information into a line graph for two reasons. First, a line graph is the best way to show trends over time. Second, the data were collected at odd intervals so the eye would not have an easy time just stringing together a line connecting the bar graphs to understand the pattern. I imposed a grid. I added in the missing category. I gave it some color (darker colors correspond to more reliable, financially sound employment categories; lighter colors refer to more fleeting or otherwise less remunerative employment categories).

Tenure is Dying | Laura Noren
Tenure is Dying | Laura Noren


(16 December 2010) The disposable academic: Why doing a phd is often a waste of time The Economist. Accessed online but it ran in the print edition.

Relevant quote:
“The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education.”

Wilson, Robin. (4 July 2010) Tenure, RIP. In The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Annual Report on the Status of the Profession, 2007. The American Association of University Professors. Fact Sheet: 2007.