A week ago, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia voted to significantly reduce protections against faculty firing, in a move that many have interpreted as the first step towards the elimination of the tenure system. This system previously prevented tenured professors from being dismissed without broad faculty input. In response, organizations including the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued statements condemning what they view to be a significant attack on necessary academic protections.
Kenyon must resist any calls to follow in Georgia’s footsteps and protect the essential institution of academic tenure. The College must also support visiting, adjunct faculty at heightened risk from the challenges posed by limits to tenure.
While calls to protect the sanctity of tenure may seem premature at Kenyon, some experts warn that liberal arts colleges, where humanities make up a large portion of curricular offerings, may be particularly at risk for another kind of threat to tenure. Specifically, attempts to curb or eliminate tenure are intimately tied to another disturbing trend that has been increasingly sweeping American higher education for the past several years: the growing reliance on and exploitation of non-tenure-track visiting faculty, or “adjunctification.”
At almost any institution, these contingent faculty are routinely paid less and are expected to teach more than tenured and tenure-track instructors — all while navigating the stresses that come with serving a finite contract in a severely limited job market. In 2016, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) reported that the percentage of full-time faculty in U.S. institutions had decreased by nearly 25% between 1970 and 2016. Furthermore, these changes disproportionately affected minority professors, with the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association Institute reporting that the percentage of underrepresented minorities in part-time positions rose by 230% in 20 years, as opposed to an only 30% increase in tenure-track roles.
Among the most commonly cited reasons for the growth in adjunct positions were budget cuts, rising student enrollments amid decreased institutional ability to handle such growth and general economic trends. The AACU attributed the dramatic increase in the use of adjunct labor to a “boom in for-profit higher education.” Furthermore, The Atlantic found that even as tuition prices soared and institutions hired more administrators than ever, the number of tenure-track positions available continued to drop in comparison; at the same time, “administration positions” rose by 60% between 1993 and 2009, 10 times the amount that available tenure-track positions grew. For colleges, the economic incentive is clear: Institutions can save money by moving away from tenure and relying more heavily on contingent faculty who are paid less and treated more poorly than many of their peers. This fact is particularly why we need to remain vigilant about the future of tenure and support systems for adjunct faculty at Kenyon.
In May 2020, over a dozen non-tenure-track Kenyon professors penned an open letter and petition asking that the College extend visiting professors’ contracts through the next academic year given the increased pressures of the pandemic. Kenyon’s negative response betrayed a lack of structural support for visiting instructors. Now, in the wake of decisions like that of the Regents of Georgia and the questions they raise regarding the future of broad academic protections for tenured and non-tenured faculty alike, the College has the opportunity to do better.
Especially considering recently announced plans to increase the size of the student body by 15% over the next 10 years, Kenyon must commit to hiring more full-time faculty and to providing them with necessary support. This will be necessary so as not to put undue pressure on staff and faculty as the campus inevitably endures growing pains even beyond those we have already experienced.
Attacks on tenure and the experience of contingent faculty should acutely concern Kenyon students. According to the Office of Admissions, more than 70% of Kenyon students choose to continue their education at some point. If trends toward adjunctification and limitations on tenure continue, those graduates will inevitably encounter the same issues. But perhaps more importantly, we as undergraduate students have an obligation to support our professors.
In this respect, we may already have the necessary structures in place — or at least in development. Kenyon students have already proven themselves to be a force for change, as well as capable of effective organizing through groups like K-SWOC. Although the College has consistently tried to draw distinctions between student workers and salaried employees — particularly through claims that student work is strictly educational or even “inessential” to core College operations — the fact remains that students, faculty and staff each represent a workforce without whose labor Kenyon simply could not function. If students apply the same energy we have in organizing our own peers towards advocating for both visiting and tenure-track instructors, we stand to serve as a powerful support system for a group whose efforts are essential to our positive college experience.
In my nearly three-and-a-half years at Kenyon, some of the most passionate and inspiring professors I’ve had have been visitors. I know many others can say the same. It’s time to call upon the school we attend to support those individuals as well as all of our professors who benefit from protections under the tenure system.
Kenyon must not only resist national trends towards the erosion of tenure and the exploitation of adjuncts, but also commit to actively supporting its current visiting professors. In order to do so, we as students must resist any and all attempts to characterize either our labor or the work of professors as inessential. That means not viewing ourselves or our struggles for workplace equality as separate from those of faculty and staff, but rather as intricately and inextricably linked. Only by valuing the labor of all campus workers can we make sure Kenyon remains an environment that is conducive to supporting the well-being of the professors who allow our campus to function.
Zoë Packel ’22 is a history major from Livingston, N.J. She can be reached at email@example.com.