The Los Angeles Times reported last week that non-tenure track faculty are moving forward with plans to unionize at USC. In addition to highlighting the plight of the average professor at USC, the article also shed light on the impact of the national attack on tenure here on campus.
Five thousand of USC’s 6,600 professors are non-tenure track. That proportion is on the high end for elite universities. These faculty members, despite teaching classes at all levels — from introductory to advanced — do not receive the same kind of job security or wages as their non-tenure counterparts. Certainly, non-tenured faculty at USC have better wages than similar faculty members at most other institutions around the U.S., but the lack of job security and the struggle to make “ends meet,” as Professor Kate Levin put it, strain these professors. Professors need job security and a sufficient salary to live in Southern California comfortably enough to do their jobs sufficiently.
There has been a troubling attack on tenure at universities across the U.S. in recent years. Tenured faculty are paid more and enjoy lifetime appointments, allowing these academics the freedom to research and write without fear of retribution, in case their research leads to politically or religiously sensitive conclusions. This means tenured faculty can openly and honestly advance human understanding. From Socrates to Galileo to countless others, academics have been and continue to be targeted for expanding human understanding. Tenure allows academics to be insulated from attacks based on their research conclusions. Quite simply, it advances human understanding.
However, the University too often prioritizes the bottom line. Cutting tenure positions is a good method for universities to cut costs. Moving to non-tenured faculty, as USC has done, allows universities to exercise more control over faculty and salaries. Students will still enroll, pay tuition and learn, and some faculty will still have the freedom to research and write openly, but the costs will be significantly lower.
This move away from tenure strikes against the very raison d’être of a university. Universities are judged by their ability to generate research and new knowledge. Schools are not judged seriously by the strength of their sports teams, yet nationally the top paid administrators often oversee sports programs, and it is no different at USC. Institutions of higher learning exist to bring academics together and give them an opportunity to advance their fields, train them to assist with the research and carry the torch when their time comes. If faculty members do not have the job security necessary to honestly teach the next generation, then the system falls apart.
Faculty at USC, even the non-tenure track faculty, have almost all displayed a desire to conduct original research in their fields. With the exception of professors of the practice, USC professors have doctorate degrees, meaning they have already contributed to their field. They got into the field, went through doctorate programs and conducted original research because they are passionate about the subject and are advancing our understanding in the area. If they had simply wanted to teach and not research, they could have saved themselves time, hassle and financial burden by forgoing the Ph.D and taking a job at a local high school.
It is clear that USC already cares about research at certain levels — promotional materials brag about the ability that undergraduates have to research with faculty, and we maintain strong Ph.D programs that give stipends to the next generation of academics while they write, learn and immerse themselves in their fields. We need to continue these valuable strides toward original research by continuing to tenure faculty at this University. We already have trained, qualified academics — we now need to give them the security, salary and prestige required to research and write in their fields. We don’t need to train new professors — we have experienced ones on payroll already.
Unionization cannot replace the benefits of tenure. But hopefully, it will improve the lives of USC professors and allow administrators to see the light. Tenure is the solution to a better University.