Faculty Not On Tenure Track Rises Steadily Over Past 4 Decades

A faculty strike cancels classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The issue: pay for professors who aren't tenured. Renee Montagne talks to Peter Schmidt of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Students attending the University of Illinois at Chicago had many of their classes canceled this week, not because of a winter snowstorm, but because of a strike by professors.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That two-day walkout came just as the university and its newly unionized faculty are negotiating a contract. It is also the first faculty strike in the school's history. In fact, a faculty strike is generally rare on American campuses.

PETER SCHMIDT: It almost does not happen. Although, really, the major research universities have been slow to unionize.

MONTAGNE: That's Peter Schmidt, a senior writer for "The Chronicle of Higher Education." He covers academic labor issues and says the main sticking point at the University of Illinois's Chicago campus is pay for the staff known as contingent faculty. It's a group that makes up more than three quarters of the instructors at both two and four year colleges. Schmidt explained who these instructors are.

SCHMIDT: It's people who do not have tenure, they're not on the tenure track and their contracts are subject to renewal periodically.

MONTAGNE: And traditionally, all universities, colleges, they have teachers who fall into this category. But the different now, I gather, is there's quite a much higher percentage.

SCHMIDT: Yes. The share of faculty members who are off the tenure track has risen steadily in over the past four decades or so. And it is a population that colleges rely on more heavily all the time because it helps them be more flexible to increase staffing or decrease it, as needed, depending on enrollment fluctuations. When you get into people who are part-time instructors, some of them might not know until weeks or even days before a semester whether they're needed to even teach a class.

MONTAGNE: So, tell us then what is going on exactly at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

SCHMIDT: Well, the strike here is interesting because both tenure track or non-tenure track or contingent faculty are standing together. They're pushing for contingent faculty members who are full-timers to have their pay increased from $30,000 a year to $45,000 a year. The part-timers, there the goal is to increase their pay on a prorated basis. Often at colleges, we've seen tenure track and non-tenure track populations pitted against each other. There's been a belief or an assertion that one population can't gain without the other losing. So, here we have the tenure track people standing up and recognizing that it's putting pressure on them to have more and more faculty members in a non-tenure track workforce where they're not compensated to help with committee work, service work, administrative tasks, all the others things that are done outside of teaching. More of that work is falling on full-timers. And, you know, there's also educational concerns involved. Because, especially when you get into people who are paid part-time and have to scramble from one college to another to make really a not even a decent living, these people don't have much incentive to give students extra time outside class or maintain office hours or anything like that. Oftentimes they don't even have offices.

MONTAGNE: In the case of this particular strike - it's a two-day strike - where do you see it going?

SCHMIDT: Well, I can't really predict what's going to happen in Chicago. Clearly, the union is showing the administration it means business. You know, it's sending out a signal out to state lawmakers. It's making a statement about perceived administrative blow and it's probably educating a lot of parents there about how little many of the instructors of their children are being paid, how little of their tuition dollar actually is going for instruction. So, it's going to serve an educational function. Nationally, I think what this most stands to do is provide an example to other colleges of how these non-tenure track and tenure track workforces can advocate for each other and how they really do have some mutual goals.

MONTAGNE: Peter Schmidt is a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Thank you very much for joining us.

SCHMIDT: Thank you.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION at NPR News.

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