Hundreds of teachers across universities in Ohio came face-to-face with unexpected job loss during the pandemic. Some universities saw greater losses than others.
BGSU lost 119 employees, but only 17 of them were qualified rank faculty (also known as non-tenured track faculty). There were not any tenured or tenure-track faculty who lost their positions.
President of the BGSU American Association for University Professors David Jackson said, BGSU was not impacted by the pandemic in the same way some universities were, because BGSU’s financial situation is “not as bad” as other schools, and that BGSU leadership and the AAUP chapter “have worked hard together to create an environment that is collaborative.”
However, this was not the case for other Ohio universities.
The University of Akron eliminated 178 employees, 96 of which were faculty, in order to offset financial losses as a result of the pandemic.
President of the Akron AAUP, Pamela Schulze said, about 70% of the faculty who were laid off had tenure titles.
She noted that it was an “unusual” situation since many other universities typically lay off non-tenured and contingent faculty first, as opposed to eliminating tenured faculty first.
Because part-time and full-time, non-tenured faculty are paid 75% and 40% less than full-time tenured faculty, respectively, the rate at which tenured faculty members are being replaced with part-time and non-tenure faculty members is increasing, according to a 2017 study by the Government Accountability Office.
Schulze said Akron’s decision to let go some tenured faculty was due in part to those faculty receiving a higher salary, although this is not something that would have happened before COVID-19, as it would have violated the faculty’s contract.
In response to this situation, the Akron AAUP is “going through the grievance process with those individuals who wish to avail themselves of it,” Schulze said. Should the administration deny a case, the union has to decide whether or not to go through the arbitration process, which involves a neutral party to settle a dispute between the administration and the union.
Going through an arbitration process is “costly” and “labor intensive,” Schulze said, so the AAUP “is trying to decide which cases have some chance prevailing in arbitration.”
Schulze pointed out that there are currently a lot of misunderstandings about why tenure exists. She described a perceived, stereotypical version of a tenured professor as someone who is old, burnt-out and no longer productive.
But she said, “That’s not the norm. Most people stay super productive,” and that senior faculty play an important role mentoring younger faculty, as well as providing students an “experience they deserve.”
However, Schulze acknowledged that it’s not just about job security.
“Any faculty member who thinks that’s what it’s about needs to rethink this entirely. I honestly think if we have forgotten why we need to have tenure, and we think it’s just about our own personal job security and nothing bigger than that, then maybe we don’t deserve it,” Schluze said.
She emphasized the importance of having tenured faculty at a university, because having a “prosperous” environment “where academic ideas can flourish, where people can grow and challenge prevailing ideas in society,” is what makes a free democracy strong and possible.
Akron and BGSU took losses because of COVID-19, but Ohio University was already in a financial crisis before the pandemic hit.
The OU AAUP analyzed budget trends since 2012 and discovered “a majority of the expenditure was directed toward the expansion of the administrative structure and not to the core research and teaching mission,” which is one of the primary sources of income for the university, OU AAUP President Loren Lybarger wrote in an email.
OU was dealing with a projected $30 million budget gap and prepared to dismiss more than 400 employees from their positions. The plan went into effect in early 2020.
Of those 400, 53 non-tenured faculty members were given non-renewal notices and 74 tenured faculty chose to participate in the Voluntary Separation or Retirement Plan (VSRP) program, which allows a tenured faculty member to voluntarily separate from their employer when a reduction in employees is needed due to reasons like financial losses.
“Many people do not understand this relationship between tenure and academic freedom and the necessity of academic freedom to scholarship and teaching and the healthy governance of universities,” Lybarger wrote.
Some efforts of the OU AAUP to address this issue included raising awareness through social media and advocating for the OU Faculty Senate to move all non-tenured track faculty into tenured/tenure-track teaching-intensive lines. However, Lybarger wrote, “a resolution supporting such a policy did pass but it has had no real effect.”
Jackson described a similar viewpoint held by the BGSU and national AAUP.
“It should not matter and does not matter what the allocation of effort of a faculty member is, whether that be heavily teaching-focused or heavily research focused, all faculty should be eligible for tenure,” he said.
Even before the pandemic, colleges have seen a decrease in the number of tenured faculty over the past several decades.
Although the tenure faculty at BGSU were not directly impacted in the same way as Akron and OU were, Jackson said, “we are affected in the sense that an attack on one is an attack on all.”
He explained how the situation at Akron is representative of the crisis in higher education, which is the shifting primarily from a tenured faculty to increasingly non-tenure eligible faculty and even more so to an adjunct faculty.
According to a 2017 study published by the GAO found that between 2008-2012 the number of tenured-track faculty at Ohio, Georgia and North Dakota universities increased by 1%, while the number of full-time, contingent faculty increased by 11% and part-time faculty increased by 18%.
The study also found in 2016, higher education institutions hired 30,856 full-time, non-tenure faculty compared to 21,511 full-time, tenured faculty.
According to another 2016 study conducted by the national AAUP, non-tenure track faculty such as adjuncts, postdocs, TA’s, lecturers or instructors, made up 73% of instructional positions at U.S. universities combined (excluding tribal colleges and institutions with a special focus), while tenured-track and tenured faculty made up 27% of instructional positions.
Vice President of the BGSU AAUP, Steve Demuth said, “The only way you get a vibrant, engaging, innovative university is if you have faculty who don’t feel like from year to year, based on what they teach or what they do research on, that they could somehow lose their job.”
The decrease in numbers of tenured faculty at universities poses an issue for both faculty and students alike, as well as a much broader problem across higher education as a whole.
“The long-term decline of tenure, because of the shifting balance of tenure track versus non tenure track faculty, has undermined the robustness of higher education,” Demuth said.
Not only does a tenure title promise job security for faculty, but Demuth said, more importantly, having tenured faculty teach classes enhances students’ education experience.
Demuth explained the original reason the concept of tenure was created in the United States was because early in the 1920s and 1930s, it was common for faculty to be fired or to have their contracts non-renewed because the content and ideas they were teaching in the classroom were “threatening to those in power.”
“I always tell students what they’re really getting from high-quality education is being exposed to a group of adults who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power, who are willing to be open and frank and aren’t worried about losing their jobs because they are willing to engage in ideas that might be new and unfamiliar to people,” he said.
All three AAUP organizations at BGSU, Akron and OU attempted to address this increasing problem in several ways, but none of them proved to be as successful as they had hoped.
Jackson said, “We haven’t been very effective nationally at fixing this issue. The powers that be that create the trends have simply been stronger than higher education … The percentage of faculty who are unionized is just not high enough to make a dent nationally.”