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History and Background: College Faculty & Staff

The state of higher education faculty has changed dramatically since the first colleges and universities opened in the U.S. The first colleges predate the founding of the United States, and were established to train members of the clergy. Over time, institutions began to train more men (and it was mostly men) for different kinds of careers. Still, the curriculum generally remained classical and narrow until the 19th Century. That’s when many historians agree that a distinct and diverse model of U.S. higher education began to emerge, particularly due to a need for scientists who could help improve manufacturing for such products as steel and petroleum. The number of colleges and universities continued to grow into the 20th Century, as did the number of college instructors. 

Tenure and Academic Freedom

Until the 20th Century, professors served at the pleasure of their institutions, meaning they could be fired at will, including for political reasons — and they often were. Indeed, the concept of tenure — basically, job protection preventing layoff or firing of professors except “for cause or under extraordinary circumstances” — is relatively new. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published its “Declaration of Principles” in 1915, which emphasized the importance of tenure, but didn’t specifically define the concept. In fact, a firm definition didn’t materialize until about 1940, when the organization established its “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” which clearly outlined what tenure should look like.

From the mid-1940s until the late 1960s — what’s often referred to as the “golden age” of higher education — most professors enjoyed this new concept of tenure and its protections, primarily in terms of academic freedom. But tenure started to decline starting in the 1970s, when higher education suffered a major enrollment crisis, public funding to colleges and universities began to wane, and many community colleges opened and hired part-time professors. 

Tenure advocates bemoaned this change and its consequences, noting that professors would be less willing to take risks in research and teaching. Administrators often say that tenure, with its promise of continuous employment for professors in good standing, makes it hard for them to respond to ongoing enrollment declines and other financial challenges. As of 2021, some 73 percent of all faculty positions were off the tenure track

Unionization

The National Labor Relations Board has historically flip-flopped on whether graduate students at private institutions may form unions. The body currently considers graduate student workers employees entitled to collective bargaining under federal labor law, and this is not expected to change during the Biden administration.

Full-time faculty members on many public campuses are unionized as well. There is a longstanding legal precedent against tenure-track and tenured faculty unions on private campuses, however. Adjunct faculty unions at both public and private campuses have been growing in number over the past decade. Research shows that unions do lead to better working conditions for adjuncts. 

While participation in unions declined outside academe between 2013 and 2019, according to one analysis, 118 new faculty bargaining units formed, representing more than 36,000 professors at both public and private institutions. The number of bargaining units at private institutions jumped 81 percent, mostly due to adjuncts unionizing. Sixteen new graduate student employee units formed over the same period, representing some 19,600 graduate workers. Nationwide, about 14,000 postdocs and academic researchers unionized. 

Student Evaluations of Teaching: Count ‘Em or Leave ‘Em?

Teaching-focused institutions will pay special attention to professors’ teaching records during promotion and tenure decisions. Whether or not adjuncts are rehired hinges almost entirely on their teaching, regardless of institution type. 

The most common way of assessing teaching is by reading students’ evaluations of their professors’ teaching. But student ratings of professors have been shown to advantage white male instructors over women and ethnic minorities and be otherwise problematic indicators of teaching effectiveness. 

Some colleges and universities are consequently doing away with student evaluations of teaching altogether. Many institutions still say they’re a valuable, if imperfect way, to pick up on patterns in professors’ teaching — good and bad. Experts say student ratings should never be the sole measure of teaching effectiveness, least of all in high-stakes personnel decisions. Alternative models to evaluate a faculty member’s teaching include peer review, comparing it to a best teaching practices inventory, and a comprehensive program that emphasizes self-reflection. In addition, some experimental models have emerged to determine teaching effectiveness, such as the student’s grade in the next course of the series.

Updated June 2021.