Higher Education’s Changing Landscape

Published June 15, 2013

There is one thing the professoriate in highereducation, generally, resist–change.  In this narrow consideration, even the most “liberal” of colleges are quite conservative.  One thing that higher education as a whole is resisting is the new economic realities facing delivery of education to college students.  Case in point is the story in the Chicago Tribune yesterday (June 13, 2013, pp. 1 and 7).

Colleges are under immense pressure to adapt to market conditions, and one of the first casualties in this development is the idea of tenure; an increasing amount of colleges and universities are hiring part-time instructors, and sometimes firing tenured professors to keep their doors open.  More and more universities are employing more part-time professors than they have tenured professors.  This has raised the hackles of not only tenured professors, whose jobs are more precarious as a result, but their cheerleaders at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) who want to protect tenure.  The supporters of tenure claim that it insures “academic freedom.”  While that may be true after one receives tenure, it ignores the fact that a professor has little to no academic freedom before being granted tenure.  Most young faculty watch what they say and write so as not to offend their colleagues before attaining the rank of tenure.  Where is the academic freedom in that?   The fact is that there is only academic freedom for a class of people who happen to be included in what amounts to a union.  Those outside the union (or who do not have tenure), conceivably have no security and protection that tenure affords.

That is not to say I do not see a value in tenure as an idea.  I have been on both sides of this equation.  I have had jobs in a tenure track and jobs where tenure was not offered to anyone at the institution.  The former do have freedom to speak and say what they want with little fear of reprisal, and the latter are left to the potential capriciousness of administration.  This debate over tenure misses the point in the modern higher ed marketplace–tenure actually constrains, or is a disincentive for,  professors from selling their talent. The lack of tenure can be seen as an opportunity for professors to speak freely consistently as all would be on an equal playing field.  The decline in tenure does not necessarily mean losing freedom.

What should be more important at the collegiate level is not jobs/tenure, but the diversity of ideas–students, and the republic, are best served by being exposed to what is now called classical liberalism.  But that is a discussion for another day and includes a lengthy deliberation over what is liberal education.

Be that as it may, higher education is undergoing much change presently.  Whether it is the move toward online education, or the reconsideration of what makes a campus, change is coming, and college will not remain the 19th century icon is has been in the past.  As a result of these changes, we may see a retraction in the number of colleges accredited in the future.  Higher education needs to adapt to the changing marketplace.  Those institutions that don’t, will likely be closing their doors.