January 16, 2008

Despite Trends, C.U. Tenure Rate Remains Steady

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Though percentages of tenured professors have been declining at universities across the country, Cornell’s rate of faculty with tenure appointments has remained steady over the past ten years. Amid growing financial concerns at many schools, which have forced administrators to turn to adjunct and non-tenure track faculty, the nationwide percentage of tenured faculty has dropped to about 30 percent of all educators over the last 30 years.
Cornell, however, has stayed above the average. During the 1996-1997 school year, nearly 80 percent of the 1,871 faculty members were tenured or on tenure-track according to Cornell’s Academic Personnel Data Base. This past academic year, it was 81 percent of the 2,086 faculty.
“We haven’t had to [resort to adjunct faculty] as a way of cutting costs,” said Provost Biddy Martin. “We take a lot of pride in having tenured professors. This is something that most universities don’t do unless they can’t avoid it.”
The tenure system, which alleviates faculty from having to renew their teaching contracts on a regular basis, is thought to grant professors academic freedom in research and teaching pursuits. Tenured professors are often paid more than their non-tenured counterparts, and are privy to many of the University’s resources in terms of offices and secretarial workers.
Martin speculates that Cornell’s tenure numbers are on par with many of its Ivy League peers. However, the University differs from Harvard, Yale and a select few other universities in that it hires associate professors with the intention to one day give them tenure. At Harvard, associate professors are hired with the understanding that they will not receive tenure. The University prefers to select those who will receive the honor from a wider group of people.
“Cornell hires assistant professors with every intention that if they fulfill the promise they had as assistant professor, they will get tenure,” said Dean of Faculty Charles Walcott ’59. “Faculty are hired for their research ability and their love for teaching.”
Many believe that the tenure system is the best way to provide the best education to students. Prof. Ron Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations, along with a colleague found that when universities hire large amounts of non-tenure-track faculty, their graduation rates declined.
“The faculty senate voted that the only reason not to have tenure track professors is that there is too great a need to expand,” Ehrenberg said. “We are very, very privileged that mostof the professors are on tenure-track.”
Prof. Susan Christopherson, city and regional planning, and a member of the Faculty
Advisory Committee on Tenure Appointments, added that tenured professors are more likely to contribute to the school community.
“Tenure creates an incentive for tenured faculty to contribute to the governance of the university,” she said. “There is no incentive for an adjunct faculty member to concern him or herself with critical committees such as the Hearing board, or committees that govern research, or pose new directions for the University. An adjunct faculty member is paid to teach and that is it.”
Some, however, question the motivation of professors who receive tenure and then decide to focus more on their research. A common complaint among students is that their professors only teach because they are required to in their contract.
“In a lot of the science and math classes, I feel like my professors don’t really want to be there,” said Mikhail Shub ’08. “I think they’d rather be off doing their research, and not having to teach us.”
Criteria when hiring tenure-track professors focuses more on research than on teaching experience, according to Ehrenberg.
“The attitude at a place like Cornell is that we don’t have to hire teachers, but we want people who are passionate about teaching,” Ehrenberg said. “We aspire towards great researchers who have a passion for teaching.”
While this bent toward research may affect teaching quality, it comes in handy when incorporating the most recent research into the class. Shub commented that many of the professors also bring cutting edge research in their fields into the classroom. He described how one of his professors was going over a textbook chapter when he realized that because the findings were two months old, they were all wrong, and proceeded to give the correct explanation that he was involved with finding.
The process of receiving tenure, which takes place in one’s sixth year as an associate professor, is described by many as a stressful and painful process. In order to get tenure, a number of different committees solicit opinions of those inside the department, as well as researchers not affiliated with Cornell. The chair of the professor’s department, the dean of the college, the provost, and FACTA all evaluate the teaching and research performance of the candidate. Professors who do not receive tenure positions are forced to leave the University after a year.
Though the process is demanding at Cornell and other schools — Prof. James Sherley of MIT even went on a hunger strike to protest his department’s decision not to put him up for tenure last year — Ehrenberg describes it as worthwhile for making sure the best candidates are chosen.
The 19 percent of teachers who are not hired from the outset for tenure-track positions mostly receive the title of lecturer. They often work in language departments, the vet school, the law school, and areas that require specialized expertise, according to Martin. Almost all of these instructors work full time, compared to the adjunct faculty that many schools hire who teach classes at a number of area institutions.
“When you come to Cornell, your agreement is that you are here,” Walcott said. “You are on nine month appointment and can do whatever you in the summer months.”
With the anticipated retirement of 600 tenured faculty over the next few years, the percentage of tenured faculty is expected to decrease while the amount of newly hired tenure-track faculty increases. As Cornell works toward hiring the next wave of professors, the tenure system is expected to stay the same. With the capital campaign underway, the University hopes to gain the resources to compete for the top professors in their fields.