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The short list of colleges that do not grant tenure just got a little longer.

Westark College signed on last month. It won't fire its tenured professors, but it won't hire any new ones, either. In 30 years or so, when all of Westark's tenured faculty members are gone and the professors who remain are on annual contracts, tenure there will be dead.

The demise was big news at Westark but went largely unnoticed elsewhere. After all, most people have never heard of the small, two-year college in northwestern Arkansas. What could its actions possibly say about higher education as a whole? A lot, it turns out.

Although university presidents on most other campuses are not announcing an official end to tenure, many of them are signing up full-time professors who will work on contract instead of on the tenure track. The nation's tenure gurus are paying close attention to the trend, and some of them are going so far as to label it a "silent killer." As positions come open or new ones are created, administrators are quietly filling them with full-time lecturers and researchers instead of tenure-track professors.

"It's not that state legislatures or mean presidents are getting rid of tenure," says William G. Tierney, a professor of education at the University of Southern California. "This is a drift, not a revolution."

Richard Chait, an expert on tenure and an advocate of reform, calls the current mixture of tenured and non-tenure-track appointments "unprecedented." The development may come as a surprise to most professors, says Mr. Chait, a professor of higher education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. "This is happening without any repudiation of tenure in most places, so it's stayed below the radar line."

What has captured people's attention lately is the rise in the proportion of part-time and adjunct professors on campuses. Part-timers now make up an estimated 42 per cent of instructors nationwide, compared with 22 per cent in 1970. The phenomenon has been the subject of much consternation in higher education.

Growth in the number of part-time professors, however, has begun to slow down. The increase in full-time but non-tenured appointments is not nearly as pronounced, but it is expected to continue for some time.

Data analyzed by the American Association of University Professors bear out the trends. Among full-time professors on campuses nationwide, 52 per cent held tenure in 1995, the same proportion as in 1975. But the proportion of full-time professors working on contracts climbed from 19 per cent in 1975 to 28 per cent in 1995, while the proportion of those on the tenure track fell from 29 per cent to 20 per cent.

Put another way, the number of non-tenure-track professors who work full time almost doubled between 1975 and 1995, while the number of full-time professors on the tenure track fell by 12 per cent.

Ernst Benjamin, director of research for the A.A.U.P., says the change is most apparent now along the tenure track, but will gradually make itself felt in the tenured ranks. "Within a few years," he says, "this will show up as a dramatic erosion of tenure."

Mary Burgan, the A.A.U.P.'s general secretary, believes that the trend is evidence that college officials are increasingly treating higher education as a business. "You hire and fire at will," she says.

She's right that administrators are looking at the bottom line. "Institutions are very concerned about the long-term costs of a tenured appointment and the need in an increasingly volatile environment to maintain flexibility," says Jack H. Schuster, who, along with two other academics, has written about the phenomenon in The New Academic Generation: A Profession in Transformation, published last month by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Administrators, he says, use non-tenured employees to respond quickly to the ebb and flow of interest in various academic programs. The trend concerns him, however. "Over the past couple of years, the critics of tenure have begun to smell blood for the first time," says Mr. Schuster, a professor of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate University.

As a rule, appointments off the tenure track cost universities a lot less in salary and benefits than do those within tenured ranks. On some campuses, many of those who fill such positions hold only a master's degree and would not be eligible for a tenured post. But nowadays, with the glut in Ph.D.'s in many disciplines, colleges are also able to sign contracts with people who once could have expected tenure-track jobs. As a result, although many college officials say they don't want to create second-class positions, that is precisely what they have done. "These people come cheaper than a tenure-track hire," acknowledges David L. Potter, provost at George Mason University, where 30 per cent of full-time faculty members are off the tenure track.

The academics who do accept jobs on contract typically do a lot of teaching or a lot of research, but not both. They have titles like lecturer, research scientist, instructor, and clinical faculty member. On many campuses, they have no guarantee of academic freedom and no vote in the faculty senate. While it is almost impossible to get rid of tenured professors, those who work for fixed terms can be let go as soon as their contracts expire.

The contract system is not new to higher education, and at least 40 institutions around the country have adopted it over tenure, including Bennington, Bradford, and Hampshire Colleges. In the past several years, two newly created institutions, Florida Gulf Coast University and the Arizona International Campus of the University of Arizona, have hired professors only on annual or multiyear contracts.

Most institutions, though, are holding onto the tenure system and merely adding non-tenured faculty members to the mix. The Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, for example, recently moved in that direction to gain more flexibility than was possible under its previous faculty handbook, which had allowed for only one kind of untenured position: a five-year, visiting appointment. In its place, the president, James P. Gallagher, and the Board of Trustees created a system of multiyear contracts for full-time professors that allows them to stay so long as both parties are satisfied.

The college has created several new programs in the past decade, including ones in the health sciences, architecture, and industrial and interior design, Mr. Gallagher explains. Professionals who want to teach full time but keep a hand in their former careers are perfect for such programs. Granting them tenure does not make sense, he argues. For one thing, they don't want it. People in high-demand fields aren't concerned about job security the way a Ph.D. in history might be, he says, because jobs in the private sector are so plentiful.

"We've created a new paradigm which will enable us to celebrate the talents of all different types of people," says Mr. Gallagher. "We are not walking away from the tenure system, but this gives us additional flexibility."

Not surprisingly, tenured faculty members on his campus aren't happy with the new arrangement. They voted 41 to 20 in April to send a letter to the board, asking it to reconsider the use of multiyear contracts.

"There is no rationale for why these people couldn't be put on the tenure track," says Russell Kleinbach, who is secretary of the faculty and an associate professor of sociology. "If they are qualified to be long-term faculty, why aren't they qualified for tenure?"

William R. Brown, a professor of English at the Philadelphia college, worries that untenured faculty members will be less likely to voice controversial opinions, because they serve at the pleasure of the administration. "They are vulnerable because they don't have tenure and are open to real or imagined influence by the administration," he says. "There is great concern among a majority here that this will have a permanent effect on the atmosphere that promotes academic dialogue."

So far, the college has agreed to the new multiyear contracts with 16 people already on the faculty. Matt Baker, who runs a three-year-old program to train physicians' assistants, says its nine faculty members consider their new contracts an excellent deal. "None of these people came from academia," he says. "They came from the clinical world, where there is no contract above one year." He and the others aren't worried that their status will muzzle them, he adds: "I can say whatever I want, because if I have to leave here, I can make 40 per cent more in the clinical field tomorrow."

The college has placed no cap on the number of professors who can be hired on a contract basis. Mr. Gallagher, the president, won't speculate about what the future will bring, but he does say that "I think this model will be the norm 10 years from now in higher education."

From the looks of some other campuses, it already is. At Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, the number of tenured professors fell slightly from 1996 to 1997. But the number of full-time faculty members with non-tenure-track positions rose by 17 per cent.

William M. Plater, executive vice-chancellor at the university, says it doesn't make sense to put every new hire on the tenure track. He envisions a "diverse" group of teachers that includes "a core faculty who have tenure and have accepted responsibility for the greater good of the whole." But there is also room for faculty members who lack tenure and have a narrower set of responsibilities, he believes. "A lot of our faculty, particularly in the health field, have clinical appointments and are engaged in a subset of duties of a tenured appointment," he says. "Without changing the definition of tenure -- which would be politically charged -- we're trying to create alternative ranks that respect the nature of the work faculty are doing without creating second-class status."

It's not clear, though, whether the university has been successful in that regard. Two full-time lecturers there told The Chronicle that they like the teaching but worry about job security and loathe the pay.

Both C. Diane Barth, who teaches business, and Mary Sauer, who teaches English, have been on the campus for several years, but their salaries are still around $30,000. Both lack Ph.D.'s, however, and would not be eligible for higher-ranking faculty posts.

George Mason University has hired lots of full-time, non-tenured instructors lately -- 230 of its 749 full-time faculty members are on fixed contracts. "There is a concern that we are overdependent on non-tenure-track faculty," acknowledges Mr. Potter, the provost. "But our feeling is we get a lot of energy out of non-tenure-track people."

Using non-tenured faculty members gives a college or university the flexibility to define a job in a way that suits the institution, not the faculty handbook. George Mason, for instance, is hiring people for "hybrid" positions, posts that include both teaching and administrative duties. "If you asked a tenure-track person to do that, it would be suicide," says Mr. Potter. The university also has used 30 non-tenured professors in its School of Management, which was formed recently by combining two other schools. "We don't want to commit tenure lines until we sort out what direction the school is headed in," the provost says. He does expect to put some of the jobs on the tenure track eventually.

Faculty members at George Mason worry that the system is inequitable. Instructors who are off the tenure track have no guarantee of academic freedom and are not paid as well as their tenure-track colleagues. Yet, because those instructors are teaching large, introductory courses, tenured faculty members enjoy more time for their own scholarly work.

Some professors wonder how many non-tenure-track instructors can be appointed before tenure itself is put in jeopardy.

"These appointments support the privileges of tenure-line faculty," acknowledges Barbara Melosh, co-chair of the English department at George Mason."But are we really signing our own death warrants here?"

-- ROBIN WILSON

Copyright (c) 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on Science's Next Wave. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle. To obtain such permission, please send a message to permission@chronicle.com. For subscription information, send a message to circulation@chronicle.com.