Academic Hiring Freeze Looms as Obstacle to Faculty Diversity - Higher Education
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Academic Hiring Freeze Looms as Obstacle to Faculty Diversity

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by Kenneth J. Cooper

Dr. Christopher Tudico, who in the spring received his doctorate in the history of education from the University of Pennsylvania, says he’s realistic about his chances as he launches a search for a tenure-track position.

“I think in all honesty there’s about a 50 percent chance that I get placed because there are so many applicants and not enough positions. It’s impossible for everybody to have a position,” he says. “I think I’m a very strong candidate, but it may not work out.”

It’s a tough time to want to be a professor or try to climb the faculty ranks, particularly for minority faculty, as Tudico, a Mexican-American, and others are finding.

The recession and its go-slow recovery have cut the number of job openings on faculties, as colleges and universities rebalance budgets to cope with cuts in state aid or declines in their investment portfolios. Many senior professors are staying put while they wait for retirement accounts to recover lost value. If they choose to retire, some are not being replaced — or not with another tenured professor.

The humanities and social sciences, where minorities except Asians are clustered, have been struck hardest by the jobs crunch. The latest reports from the national associations of eight academic disciplines show the drop in the numbers of teaching jobs advertised in those fields averages slightly more than 30 percent. The reductions range from 19 percent for economics to 39 percent for foreign languages.

“This is happening at the same time we’re working very hard to diversify the faculty,” says Dr. John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors. “It’s a real challenge to diversify the faculty ranks at a time we’re seeing the student body become more diverse. That’s definitely a problem.”

The decline in jobs threatens to reverse the hiring gains of minority faculty, who accounted for 17 percent of faculty positions in 2007, up from 13 percent in 1997, according to the American Council on Education’s 2010 Minorities in Higher Education report. That same study documents a growth in minority student enrollment, with students of color accounting for 30 percent of the student body. 

The bad economy has continued, and perhaps accelerated, a long-term trend away from granting tenure and toward hiring part-time adjuncts to share teaching loads.

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Conservative critics have begun to stoke this trend, by arguing that tenured professors are less productive in ways that can be measured easily. The Texas A&M system has drafted a controversial evaluation that compares a faculty member’s salary and benefits to the number of students taught and amount of grant money secured, calculating a cost-benefit analysis for each professor.

Similar trends are affecting historically Black colleges and universities, though, because teaching is central to their mission, they tend to be less reliant on faculty adjuncts.

Faculty reductions have occurred at private institutions that belong to the United Negro College Fund, which experienced a 2 percent decline in tenured and tenure-track positions from 2008 to 2009.

“It is going on. We’ve been hit by the economic crisis,” says Dr. Clarissa Myrick-Harris, director of the Curriculum and Faculty Enhancement Program at the UNCF Institute for Capacity Building.

Myrick-Harris says anecdotal evidence indicates that faculty reductions at the 39 UNCF member colleges have been concentrated in the humanities and social sciences, just as at historically White colleges and universities.

For all of higher education, the AAUP has yet to tabulate its faculty data for 2009, Curtis says, but he cites the declines in jobs advertisements and attendance at the annual conferences of academic disciplines where new hires are often recruited.

“There are definitely indications it is more difficult for newly minted Ph.D.s to find a faculty position, particularly tenure-track positions,” he says.

Aspiring academics with doctorates in the natural or computer sciences are having less difficulty, Curtis says, while those in the humanities face “probably the most difficult” job market.

The Modern Language Association forecasted that 2010 would see the fewest openings in the 35 years that it has tracked hiring trends, with listings down an estimated 35 percent in English language and literature and 39 percent in foreign languages compared with the previous year.

The MLA blamed the effects of the recession, which technically ended in June 2009.

The American Historical Association reports the smallest number of jobs in a decade were listed in 2008-2009, representing a 24 percent decrease from a year earlier.

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In the social sciences, the declines in openings were 35 percent for sociology, 28 percent for political science and 19 percent for economics, according to associations for those fields. Sociology is where minority professors have been concentrated.

Overall, in those eight disciplines, advertised job openings fell an average of 31 percent.

Not all positions are listed with academic associations but their counts have proved reliable indicators for the state of the faculty market, field by field. “We don’t know what the overall impact is yet,” Curtis says.Cushioning the blow somewhat for minority scholars has been the popularity of “opportunity hire” programs that temporarily expand department budgets so they can recruit new faculty to boost diversity. But most programs can be used for other purposes — hiring senior scholars, professors with distinctive backgrounds or spouses of new recruits — and typically are not used for young scholars looking for their first job.

“We haven’t been creating new positions as enrollments have grown more diverse and as colleges broaden the courses that they teach” to accommodate “a slow increase in diversity” of new Ph.D. recipients, Curtis says.

The big factors behind the economy-related decreases in faculty hiring at private HBCUs, which have relatively small endowments, are somewhat different, according to Myrick-Harris.

“The majority of our institutions are tuition-driven,” she says. “Most often the reason for reduction is related to a decline in enrollment, particularly first-year student enrollment, and this is because of the hardship of the family.”

Myrick-Harris says the faculties at UNCF colleges are older than at historically White institutions, with 45 percent of professors over the age of 55, almost 11 percentage points higher than the national average. “As they retire, in some cases, those positions are not filled,” she says.

Curtis says liberal arts colleges, which place a higher priority on teaching than research, rely less on adjunct faculty. Most UNCF colleges fit that mold and mirror that pattern. Even with the 2 percent decline in tenured and tenure-track positions, Myrick-Harris says nearly 74 percent of UNCF faculty have that status.

By comparison, about 30 to 35 percent of all faculty have tenure or are on track to get it, continuing a decline in their numbers that started in the 1970s, according to Curtis.

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“The move is away from tenure. That’s the reality we have been confronting for some time and we are pushing back against,” Curtis says. The AAUP, he says, was largely responsible for creating tenure 100 years ago to provide “economic security” to protect the academic freedom of senior professors so they could not be fired for what they say, write or research.

The economy has likely made the movement away from tenure more pronounced, Curtis suggests, even though “there is research that indicates tenured faculty are more productive” when their expertise to teach advanced courses, serve on campus committees, make conference presentations and write journal articles is considered.

Texas A&M’s cost-benefit analysis, limited to financial measures of teaching and research, found some senior faculty were not generating more revenue than the cost of their salaries and benefits. The 11-campus university system has said the report is a draft and does not “capture the value and input — and the long hours — of faculty who devote their careers and their lives to the teachings of generations of Texans.”

The model for evaluating faculty productivity resembles a recommendation that a conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, made at a 2008 meeting of regents for the state’s public colleges, according to the Bryan/College Station Eagle newspaper.

The outlook for the faculty job market looks uncertain. The stock market has recovered of late, shoring up the endowments of the private colleges and universities dependent on that source of revenue.

But little has changed for the public institutions that employ most of the professors and enroll most of the college students. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in October that all but two states have to contend with budget deficits for the coming fiscal year, including every state with HBCUs. And higher education has often been a prime target for state budget cuts.

Job-seekers like Tudico find solace by looking at the small picture. “It only takes one school to take a chance on you,” he says.

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