The End of Faculty Tenure and the Transformation of Higher Education

The long-term decline in tenure density threatens the future of higher education in blue and red states alike.
By Marc Stein

Three flyers featuring data on tenure against a green background.

In the last decade, conservatives have launched multiple attacks on faculty tenure in higher education. As we understandably focus on these episodes in states such as Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin, we too readily ignore slow and steady developments that are destroying tenure in California and other progressive states.

I approach this subject as a tenured full professor with an endowed research chair at San Francisco State University. SFSU is part of the California State University system, the largest four-year public university system in the United States. With twenty-three campuses, nearly half a million students, and more than fifty-five thousand faculty and staff members, the CSU system positions itself between the elite University of California system and the state’s community colleges. This is consistent with the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, which distinguished carefully among three tiers of colleges and universities. If current trends continue, faculty tenure in the system’s middle tier (and perhaps in the others as well) will disappear in the coming decades. Our route to that destination may be different from the ones taken by states that are openly challenging faculty tenure, but the destination will be the same.


I began my faculty career in the 1990s with four years of non-tenure-track jobs at three institutions in two states. I was relatively fortunate—these were well-paid positions with reasonable teaching loads; the only thing missing was job security. In those years I applied for hundreds of tenure-track and well-paid one-year positions, but never for “adjunct” positions to teach single courses; the going rates for those jobs were $1,000 to $5,000 per course in the region where I lived. I then was appointed as a tenure-track professor at York University in Toronto, where I worked for sixteen years, first as an assistant, then as an associate, and finally as a full professor. I moved to SFSU in 2014.

The CSU’s two-class faculty structure has distinctive features, but in broad strokes it is similar to the systems used by many other colleges and universities. Tenure-track faculty members are typically selected by departmental faculty committees after national or international searches featuring multiple interviews, presentations of research or creative work, and teaching demonstrations. Most begin as assistant professors and are on probation for six years before faculty committees and administrators decide whether to grant them tenure; these decisions are based heavily on anonymous student evaluations and external assessments of their research, scholarship, and creative activities, known in the CSU system as RSCA. Most of those granted tenure become associate professors, at which point they can be dismissed or their appointments terminated only in extreme situations. After meeting further benchmarks and undergoing another review, many associate professors become full professors, but even if they do not, tenure protects their academic freedom and provides long-term job security. The appointments of those denied tenure are terminated.

In contrast, non-tenure-track faculty—most of whom are called lecturer faculty at my institution—are typically appointed by department chairs after local searches with no RSCA presentations or teaching demonstrations. Chairs commonly lack expertise in the relevant subject specialties; some lack strong equity commitments; and most are forced to make decisions without seeing or hearing the potential faculty member perform. Search procedures for these contingent faculty positions are routinely rushed because of late-breaking developments in course offerings and faculty staffing. Lecturer faculty are more vulnerable to decisions made by chairs and deans and are relatively unknown to their colleagues. They are permanently on probation and do not enjoy the privileges of academic freedom.

Beyond job security, tenured and tenure-track faculty members typically enjoy multiple privileges compared with their lecturer counterparts. At my institution, it is common for tenure-line faculty to earn two or three times the salaries of lecturer faculty. Tenured and tenure-track faculty also teach fewer courses and students at SFSU; their norm for full-time teaching is six courses per year, while it is ten for full-time lecturers. Most lecturer faculty do not teach full-time, either because they are not offered full-time work or because they would find it untenable to teach that many courses. In addition, tenured and tenure-track faculty enjoy greater access to paid sabbaticals and leaves, when they can devote themselves more fully to research, scholarship, and creative activities. They also have full voting rights in departmental decision-making, which typically is not the case for lecturer faculty.

The privileges enjoyed by tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the CSU system also come with obligations. In contrast to lecturers, who are paid only to teach, tenured and tenure-track faculty are expected to perform in three areas: (1) RSCA; (2) teaching; and (3) service, which includes student advising, governance activities, and administrative leadership. In most departments, only tenured and tenure-track faculty can teach graduate courses; supervise graduate students; chair departments; participate in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions; and take on other major administrative and governance roles.

Trends in Tenure Density

In the last several decades, tenure density—the proportion of faculty members in tenured and tenure-track positions—has been declining in the United States. This decline now constitutes one of the greatest threats to higher education that the United States has ever experienced.

In the CSU system, lecturer faculty are generally outstanding teachers, and many also excel (without compensation) at RSCA and service. But can we expect a lecturer who teaches ten courses per year at one or more institutions (or works another job to make ends meet) to have the same amount of time and energy to devote to students as a tenured or tenure-track faculty member who teaches four, five, or six courses per year? Can we expect lecturers to remain up to date in their fields, devoting time and energy to learn about new developments? Can we expect them to retain their enthusiasm for, and ability to teach students about, cutting-edge research, scholarship, and creative activities if they are not compensated for engaging in these activities? Can we ask them to advise students in their classes, write letters of recommendation after the term is over, and participate in departmental or institutional governance when they are not paid for this work? Can we think that their grading and antiplagiarism practices will not be affected by the likelihood that negative student evaluations will lead to the termination of their appointments? Can we expect students to understand the different conditions of labor for different classes of faculty and not penalize them on teaching evaluations if they decline to engage in the types of uncompensated labor that students might expect?

In 2016, the CSU’s academic senate recognized the threat posed by declining tenure density when it recommended that Chancellor Timothy White establish a tenure-density task force. White did so, appointing CSU Monterey Bay president Eduardo Ochoa as task-force chair. In 2018, White accepted the Report of the Task Force on Tenure Density in the California State University, which recognized that “inadequate tenure density may adversely affect educational quality.” The report documented the system’s failure to achieve the 75 percent tenure-density target adopted for the CSU by the state legislature in 2001. It also recommended “best practices” for improving tenure density, one of which was to “develop a campus-specific tenure density plan (that should include targets).” Most of the task-force recommendations have not been adopted, and tenure density has continued to fall.

The CSU chancellor’s office supplied me with statistics on tenure density, calculated as a proportion of full-time-equivalent (FTE) faculty (the full breakdown can be found here). From 2004 to 2021, as student enrollment grew from 397,000 to 477,000, tenure density in the CSU declined from 66.6 to 54.4 percent, a drop of 12.2 percentage points. From 2009 (after the Great Recession) to 2021, tenure density declined from 66.4 to 54.4 percent, an average drop of 1 percentage point per year. In absolute terms, the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty across the system grew from 9,800 FTEs in 2011 to 10,800 FTEs in 2021 (a 9 percent increase), but the number of lecturer faculty grew from 6,000 FTEs in 2011 to 9,000 FTEs in 2021 (a 50 percent increase). If the post-2009 rate of tenure-density decline persists, the last tenured faculty members in the CSU system will teach their final classes in 2075—fifty-two years from now.

For SFSU, the picture is worse. Its tenure-density rate declined from 71.1 percent in 2004 to 55.4 percent in 2021, a drop of 15.7 percentage points. From 2009 to 2021, tenure density declined from 74.4 to 55.4 percent, an average drop of 1.6 percentage points per year. In absolute terms, the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty dropped from 731 FTEs in 2011 to 695 FTEs in 2021 (a 5 percent reduction), while the number of lecturer faculty grew from 348 FTEs in 2011 to 560 FTEs in 2021 (a 61 percent increase). If the post-2009 rate of tenure-density decline persists, the last tenured faculty members at SFSU will teach their final classes in 2057—thirty-four years from now.

Initially it was not clear how COVID-19 would affect faculty numbers, and there were small improvements in tenure density at SFSU and across the CSU system from 2019 to 2020. In 2021, however, tenure density dropped by almost two percentage points in the CSU system and by more than seven at SFSU—by far the largest one-year reduction that SFSU has experienced in more than two decades. SFSU administrators point out that the reduction in 2021 reflected the hiring of many lecturers after tenured and tenure-track faculty were promised class-size limits if they agreed to return to in-person teaching. This assertion is correct, but tenure density also declined because the university experienced its largest decline in tenure-line faculty in at least a decade (dropping from 728 to 695 FTEs, a 5 percent reduction). Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of this decline was attributable to unexpected faculty attrition of tenured faculty members (resignations, retirements, and deaths), but as of now SFSU is not moving to replace these losses with tenure-line faculty appointments, even though the average new tenure-track assistant professor is much less expensive than the average tenured faculty member who resigns, retires, or dies.

For the CSU system and SFSU, alternative means of calculating tenure density—using, for example, numbers of courses or students taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty—would likely show even lower levels of tenure density, perhaps below 50 percent. This is because of differentials in the numbers of courses taught by full-time lecturer and tenure-line faculty, but also because lecturers typically teach larger lower-division courses. Even more revealing would be statistics that distinguished between tenured and tenure-track faculty who teach and those who do not—in the CSU system, the latter includes librarians, coaches, counselors, and some administrators—and statistics on teachers not classified as faculty, including graduate student employees.


If these long-term trends continue, the CSU system will move closer to the models currently found in California’s community colleges, where most faculty members are not expected to engage in RSCA, and further away from the models currently emphasized in the University of California system (although tenure density is declining there as well). With respect to service, we are already seeing the results of declining tenure density in student advising, student retention, curricular reform, and university governance. Pity the students who discover only when they need letters of recommendation that most of their teachers were lecturers and are no longer employed at their college or university. More generally, it is increasingly the case that a relatively small and privileged class of tenured faculty exercise power over a relatively large and exploited class of lecturers. Often structurally excluded from or marginalized in university governance, lecturers cannot be expected to participate openly and freely when the consequences of antagonizing administrators and senior faculty colleagues are so high.

These transformations also have implications for CSU teaching, and not only because more and more faculty members are teaching untenable numbers of courses and students, which forces them to provide less individualized instruction, less guidance on core assignments, and less feedback on graded work. CSU teaching has long been based on teacher-scholar and teacher-artist models, rejecting George Bernard Shaw’s quip that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Recent studies have shown that engaging students in RSCA is a high-impact faculty practice that educates, encourages, and motivates students, helping to prepare them for “real-world” jobs. My teaching is regularly informed by the new methods and technologies that I use in my scholarship, and some of my most valuable teaching happens when I involve students in my research, often by hiring them as assistants. If I had stopped engaging in RSCA after completing my PhD, my teaching effectiveness would have suffered. Yet more and more of our students are taught by faculty members who are not compensated for engaging in RSCA.

As for RSCA itself, the CSU mission statement begins by noting that one of the central goals of the university is “to advance and extend knowledge, learning, and culture, especially throughout California.” The statement also notes that to accomplish its mission, the CSU “provides an environment in which scholarship, research, creative, artistic, and professional activity are valued and supported.” That may be true in theory, but in practice the system’s support for these activities is steadily weakening.

Declining tenure density also works at cross-purposes with social justice goals. What does it say about higher education that we are reducing compensation, increasing workload, and undermining job security at precisely the moment when we are diversifying our faculties and students? What does it say that the CSU system and SFSU are celebrated for serving multicultural, first-generation, working-class, and immigrant students, but their faculty members are increasingly overworked and underpaid? We invest large amounts of time and energy in initiatives to increase the representation of underrepresented groups in tenure-track positions, and then we reduce the percentage of faculty positions that are on the tenure track. We hire individuals from underrepresented groups as lecturer faculty, and then we reduce their advancement opportunities if they do not engage in uncompensated RSCA and service. Meanwhile, declining tenure density puts added service burdens on individuals from underrepresented groups who do occupy tenured and tenure-track positions; these faculty members are asked to mentor underrepresented minority students, to serve as institutional ambassadors, and to lend credibility to administrative initiatives.

Critics can quibble with some of my calculations, especially if we select different years to begin and conclude the analysis, but there should be no denying that tenure density is declining at SFSU, in the CSU system, and in the country at large. Unfortunately, most administrators are reluctant to confront the challenges posed by declining tenure density. At times, they simply deny that the problem exists, manipulating statistics to challenge the notion that tenure density is declining. Other times, their reluctance takes the form of resignation, with acknowledgment of the problem but denial that anything can be done about it in the context of declining public funding for higher education. “This is beyond our control,” I have been told many times on my campus, even though each year administrators make decisions about how many tenure-track faculty and how many lecturer faculty to hire. Sometimes the reluctance takes the form of campaigns—often led by faculty unions—to improve compensation for lecturer faculty without linked efforts to address declining tenure density. At best, this approach will yield minor improvements for a second-class faculty population that will continue to grow.

The trends outlined above should be familiar to those who study labor history, though experts disagree about the most relevant precedents. Some point to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when many employers tried to save costs by replacing “skilled” workers expected to perform multiple tasks with “unskilled” workers expected to perform a more limited set of tasks. While I would not want to imply that teaching is a form of “unskilled” labor, we are witnessing a long-term shift from a system in which the majority of the faculty was expected to engage in three types of compensated labor (research, scholarship, and creative activities; teaching; and service) to a system in which a majority of faculty hold contingent appointments and are compensated only for teaching. Administrators then use the more limited sets of responsibilities assigned to these faculty members to justify lower pay and reduced job security. Others point to the more recent rise of the gig economy, with employers increasingly interested in having a flexible workforce that can be hired and fired at will, employees who can be denied adequate pay and benefits, and “subordinates” who will be reluctant to challenge their “superiors.”

As for the broader public, many observers support these changes, believing that tax-supported public colleges and universities should focus on teaching and not research, scholarship, and creative activities. This view is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of postsecondary teaching, ignoring the importance of having faculty members who are well-positioned to teach students about new ideas, methods, and paradigms. Faculty remain current in their teaching by devoting time and effort to new knowledge production and new creative expression; by engaging students in their research, scholarship, and creative activities; by teaching students how to engage in these activities; and by supporting student endeavors in these areas, all of which are strengthened when faculty are compensated for doing this work. In addition, colleges and universities play critical roles in generating new knowledge. Private businesses support research with direct commercial applications, but college and university faculty also produce new knowledge—pure and applied—that has value in and for society. Do we really want new research and new knowledge to come exclusively from private businesses? The implications of this scenario would be bad enough for scientific, technology, and business fields, but they would be disastrous for the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Unfortunately, many academic administrators appear to support such a notion. Inside Higher Ed recently published its 2022 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers. According to the survey, 86 percent of respondents believe that teaching is more important or much more important than research at their institutions. Responding to questions about tenure, 20 percent do not think that faculty tenure is important and viable at their institutions, and another 20 percent neither agree nor disagree that it is important and viable; 73 percent rely significantly on non-tenure-track faculty for instruction; and 72 percent anticipate that their institutions will be as reliant on non-tenure-track faculty in the future as they are in the present, while 19 percent expect to become more reliant on them. In response to questions about whether their institutions have made changes to policies governing non-tenure-track faculty, 48 percent say they have granted voting rights, 32 percent say they have created new job titles, and 42 percent say they have initiated multiyear contracts. With respect to the future, 60 percent favor a system of long-term contracts over the existing tenure system, 34 percent indicate that they plan to increase their use of part-time non-tenure-track faculty members, and 21 percent plan to dismiss underperforming tenured faculty members. Perhaps we should not be surprised by these figures given that (a) most chief academic officers have the privileges of faculty tenure; (b) chief academic officers employed previously at other institutions are typically granted tenure after a cursory review of their teaching, research, and creative activities, which are not held up to the same standards used to judge their tenured and tenure-track faculty colleagues; and (c) many chief academic officers pursue administrative positions after they lose energy and enthusiasm for RSCA.

At my institution, which has suffered enrollment declines in the last several years, there is a great deal of talk about the need to improve student retention and reduce graduation gaps, especially among our many first-generation, immigrant, and working-class students. This talk is rarely accompanied by acknowledgment that perhaps these indices of institutional success might be negatively affected by declining tenure density. Administrators rarely seem to entertain the possibility that we are witnessing enrollment declines because the quality of what we offer—education by highly trained faculty experts who teach a manageable number of classes and students—is suffering because of declining tenure density. Yet when I talk to students about their experiences in higher education, I hear story after story that points to this as a major reason for student difficulties.

What Should Be Done?

As for what happens when I talk to faculty colleagues, there is a level of resignation and despair that does not bode well for the future. These are very difficult discussions to have, in part because faculty members on contingent appointments are sometimes defensive about their abilities and achievements and tenure-line faculty are frequently insensitive about higher education’s status hierarchies. Here is what I think the strategic priorities of faculty advocates should be, now and in the future. First, we have to improve financial compensation, job security, and professional advancement for faculty members currently on contingent appointments, many of whom have performed heroic work in spite of the many challenges they have faced. Second, we have to reduce our reliance on new contingent faculty appointments in the future, which means resisting the urge to replace tenure-line positions with contingent positions, resisting the pressure to make large numbers of new contingent faculty appointments, and using whatever funds are available to hire tenure-track faculty (and selectively move non-tenure-track faculty members into tenure-track positions, as the AAUP has recommended in its statement Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession). Accreditation agencies and ranking reports can support this work by taking tenure density into consideration when they evaluate colleges, universities, and programs--student and faculty applicants would benefit from more information and greater transparency about tenure density. When administrators are interviewed during search processes, faculty should ask about their views on tenure density. Faculty should not support tenure for administrators who do not meet approved standards for research, scholarship, and creative activities.

At some point, I realize, improving tenure density might mean reducing our course offerings, which in turn might mean that more students will experience difficulty in finding the courses they need to complete their degrees. This reflects a real problem in higher education that should not be avoided. Colleges and universities have to stop making it seem as though they can forever do more with less. State politicians, state voters, and state taxpayers have to see that declining public funding for higher education will inevitably reduce higher education access and quality.

There is, of course, an alternative way forward. If administrators refuse to stop and reverse the decline in tenure density, they should lead the way in planning for its demise. In preparing this essay, I reached out to various CSU administrators to ask about long-term declines in tenure density. All pointed to hopeful anomalies, exceptions, and short-term trends; none addressed the persistent and systemic long-term declines; all disclaimed responsibility for decisions that have contributed to tenure-density reductions; and all indicated that they were not intentionally planning to reduce tenure density in the future. If the fundamental character of postsecondary education is going to be revolutionized as a result of an extended period of incremental reductions in tenure density, shouldn’t administrators start planning for a very different future?

Either way, none of this will be easy. College and university administrators are not commonly hired based on their ability and willingness to say to state officials and state voters, “No, I will not destroy my institution by going along with reductions in tenure-track faculty positions, which are made necessary by your funding cuts. No, we will not expand access to our institutions if doing so means damaging the quality of what we offer. No, we will not boost our enrollment if you refuse to provide us with the material resources necessary to do so.” Nor do most college and university administrators have the courage to say to their faculty, “Our current system is doomed, and we had better start preparing for the demise of tenure.” Most educational administrators are pragmatic realists, not educational visionaries. But if they continue to make under-the-radar decisions that reduce tenure density, they will effectively destroy the best aspects of higher education as we know it.

Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University and the author, most recently, of Queer Public History: Essays on Scholarly Activism. This essay is an expanded, revised, and updated version of “The End of Faculty Tenure,” published in Inside Higher Ed in April 2022.