Tenured faculty, we are in dangerous waters

As you read this story from The Ithacan, which outlines possible faculty cuts at Ithaca College, pay attention to one quote.

It comes from La Jerne Cornish, the college’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. As she explains why the cuts are necessary, she is quoted as saying:

“We are not going to hit our targets just by reducing staff.”

Those dozen words already have been stated by leaders at some colleges and universities across the country, and they soon will be at others.

There is no nice way to say this: The announced faculty cuts, which include tenured positions, we have read about at some institutions are merely the first in a long line of reductions to teaching positions.

At some institutions, layoffs to tenured faculty might be lessened (or avoided) now if enough part-time or non-tenured teaching positions are eliminated. While that is “good” news if you are one of those tenured faculty, it is the Sword of Damocles for those who are not.

Nevertheless, even if tenured faculty avoid the pink slip now, another year of financial shortcomings because of coronavirus and another year of reduced enrollment will set the stage for more of those faculty to also be eliminated.

Tenure, once thought of as a lifelong contract binding a professor to an institution, is fraying. The privilege of tenure guaranteed a job when staff were cut. The privilege of tenure might guarantee a job in the first wave of faculty cuts. But at some point at hundreds of American colleges, the privilege of tenure will not matter; we might be among the last ones out the door, but many of us will be heading that way.

Yes, I know what many of you are thinking: Reduce some of the administrative bloat and salaries. (We will leave the argument about sports programs for a separate blog post.) The following words are not mine, but they certainly make a lot of sense: Talented administrators come with a price. Cut their salaries too deeply or do away with too many of them in order to save money, and a whole new set of problems are introduced.

I know you do not want to hear that message. But the cuts that started with the most vulnerable of our colleagues — staff — are inching upward. Part-time and non-tenured faculty are next. Then comes those of us who are tenured. Then comes those who are in administration.

A perhaps bitter reality. But it is the reality.

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