The Decline of Tenure: How Should College Marketers Cope?

The precipitous decline in tenured/tenure-track faculty threatens business-as-usual for college marketers. This decline means that as of 2007 only 31% of faculty in all institutions are tenureddown approximately 20% from 1995. A slightly different angle that focuses on full-time vs. part-time/contingent faculty reveals that 49% of all faculty are part-time and that 20% of full-time faculty are “contingent” or non-tenure-track faculty. As statistics for 2009 and 2010 emerge, these trends will only get worse. Only institutions with multi-billion endowment funds are likely withstand the slide.

Although periods of economic stress have sparked debates over tenure in the past, today’s debate is fueled not so much by philosophical differences over whether tenure actually protects academic freedom as by economic concerns faced by institutions with shrinking budgets. Now, government officials and many beleaguered administrators cry out, “Tenure? We can’t afford it!”

What’s changed?

As a college marketer (public relations or communications officer, enrollment management officer, or advancement officer), why should you care? After all, you probably don’t have tenure, and you may not pay much attention to who does. The reason you should care is that, except for a handful of institutions that don’t have a tenure system, tenure is tied to the number of full-time faculty positions insofar as only tenured faculty have permanent status. Of course, it is possible for a faculty member to be full-time and contingent, but to be permanently full-time requires having been awarded tenure. And the number of permanent, committed, full-time faculty directly affects your college marketing efforts.

What changes does the declining trend of permanent, full-time faculty portend? A partial list:

  • Fewer faculty have a permanent, long-term stake in the success of the institution so that tenured faculty feel more beleaguered. Contingent faculty are more likely to feel alienated. Marketing copy emphasizing commitment of faculty to the institution and its students might, therefore, be undermined.
  • Contingent faculty, whether full-time or part-time, are more likely to focus on research or other performance factors that promote their search for permanent employment. As a result, the quality of teaching overall might slip. Copy that boasts of an institution’s emphasis on teaching could become misleading.
  • The burden of “service” activities (committee work, help with admissions or alumni/ae affairs, community activities, etc.) falls on fewer faculty. You might receive less cooperation from faculty as a result.
  • Students will likely receive less individual attention or less attention from permanent, seasoned faculty over time, and their satisfaction with classroom experience may decline. Increasing expressions of student dissatisfaction could complicate recruitment efforts.
  • Fewer faculty will speak out on sensitive matters relevant to the governance of the institution. This can hurt an institution in any number of ways, especially if an institution needs to make significant programmatic changes.
  • Political and social pressure on faculty who teach or conduct research in controversial areas may grow and thereby damage an institution’s traditional independence and public image.

If your college promotes small class size, individual student attention, opportunities for students to conduct original research, faculty involvement in student and community life, alumni/ae satisfaction with their experience of the faculty, and successful fund-raising efforts that arise from relationships with faculty that are built up over the years, you might need to refocus your marketing materials. Can colleges survive with fewer tenured, full-time faculty? Of course, but such changes will require significant revisions of benefits and features on college websites and in other marketing outlets.

How should college marketers cope?

My first recommendation is to stay out of the debate over tenure. This is so obvious that I doubt that many college marketers will stray into that particular thicket. The debate will be both philosophical and economic—a rather volatile combination. Leave it to the faculty and senior administrators. Just be aware of what is happening and why.

Second, undertake a more concerted effort to ascertain exactly what should be emphasized in the marketing content that supports your institution’s public image or brand.What does your institution do especially well despite, or even because of, the current trend? Perhaps your college is able to respond more quickly to the ever-shifting programmatic needs of students. Or perhaps ties between classroom or online learning, on the one hand, and practical experience for students, on the other hand, have increased.

Third, while not calling attention to the problems resulting from this trend, consider whether you should continue to emphasize “individual faculty attention to students” as you once did. Instead, perhaps you can point out the benefits of the services of more faculty with “real world,” practical experience in their field. (Be careful how you do this. Consult with academic administrators and currently tenured faculty about actual benefits.)

Fourth, recognize that part-time and contingent faculty bring valuable expertise and talent to the institution. Include their research, teaching, and community service activities in your press releases and recruitment materials. Such recognition can also help contingent and part-time faculty become more engaged in the life of the institution.

need for further discussion

Fifteen years ago when I served as academic vice president, I sought to increase the ratio of full-time to part-time faculty and to improve salaries for part-time faculty. Due to financial pressures, I failed on both counts. The situation since then has deteriorated markedly and will continue to do so. The declining number of permanent, full-time faculty, coupled with increasing competition for enrollment among for-profit and traditional institutions and the decreasing ability of students and other public and private sources to pay for education, is making the role of a college marketer more difficult. Some have claimed that the business model for higher education is broken leading them to wonder whether the situation can be remedied. How to cope must become, therefore, an important topic of further discussion for college marketers as well as others.

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