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March 22, 2001

Decline in numbers poses no threat to tenure, provost says

The continuing decline in the proportion of tenured and tenure-stream faculty here does not threaten academic freedom, nor does it mean Pitt's administration lacks commitment to tenure, Provost James Maher told Senate Council on March 12.

Responding to a report by the Senate's tenure and academic freedom committee, Maher attributed the decline to various factors, including:

* The growth of the School of Medicine, where the number of full- and part-time faculty increased from 1,082 to 1,617 during the 1990s. There are more tenured/tenure stream positions in medicine today (398) than 10 years ago (380), Maher noted, but the number of non-tenure positions has soared because of the "aggressive expansion" of UPMC Health System and the increasing number of clinicians who have argued successfully for (non-tenure stream) faculty status.

* The lingering effects of Pitt's faculty retirement incentive program of the late 1990s. "There are some [early retirees] whose replacements couldn't possibly arrive until September 2001, and others whose replacements are being recruited now," the provost said. Recognizing how precious a tenured faculty position has become, some search committees are waiting an extra year or two to recruit the best possible candidates, according to Maher. In the meantime, schools hire part-timers to fill in, he said.

* The continuing trend of "leavening" Pitt's faculty with practicing physicians, journalists, business executives and other professionals hired as non-tenured (and sometimes volunteer) adjunct faculty.

Finances also play a key role, Maher acknowledged. "This whole discussion has to take place within the context of getting the highest quality programs within the limits of our resources," he said.

The provost added: "One reason people shouldn't worry about any trend [of reducing tenure stream positions] is that we've been very clear about what we're doing. Each school now has a plan, and each school has a specific number of tenure stream positions matched to an expected enrollment."

For example, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has 513 tenure stream positions, up from a target of 505 five years ago. "We're searching for 55 [tenure stream] positions in FAS this year, having filled 35 or 40 last year," the provost said.

Maher was replying to a report, presented to Faculty Assembly on Feb. 27, charting the decline in tenured/tenure stream faculty since here since 1974. See March 8 University Times.

According to data compiled by Pitt's Office of Institutional Research, the percentage of full-time faculty with tenure or who are in the pipeline for tenure has declined University-wide since 1980 — from 86 percent to 77 percent in FAS; from 81 percent to 77 percent in the professional schools; from 57 percent to 26 percent in the medical school; from 55 percent to 35 percent in the five other Health Sciences schools, and from 81 percent to 64 percent at the regional campuses.

During the 1990s, percentages of tenured and tenure-stream faculty continued to fall here, although only by a couple of percentage points in the professional schools and at the regionals.

Education professor Mark Ginsburg, a member of the University Senate's tenure and academic freedom committee, reported these and other data at the Council and Assembly meetings.

"Without a strong commitment to tenure," Ginsburg said, "one can begin to worry that the opportunities for speaking about controversial issues or for teaching, if you will, 'against the grain' within all kinds of disciplines, may be challenged.

"I would share Jim [Maher]'s view," Ginsburg told Council. "I don't see a crisis or the [tenure] trends as a major concern. But they are an issue that we need to continue to look at." Ginsburg said he's concerned that some units may be approaching what he called "a critical mass" of tenured and tenure stream faculty.

Medical school professor Nicholas Bircher said that's the case in anesthesiology, one of two departments where he has a faculty appointment. Just 2 percent of faculty positions in anesthesiology are in the tenure stream, he said, adding: "I would suggest that that falls well below the critical mass needed to sustain what would be termed an academic department."

Senate President Nathan Hershey asked student members of Senate Council whether they are aware of their professors' tenure status.

Mike Unangst, president of the Student Government Board, replied: "I don't think [undergraduate] students are aware of who holds what status as being tenured, but we're aware of who's good and who's not."

But Stephanie Hoogendoorn, of the Graduate and Professional Students Association, said graduate students feel more secure working with tenured faculty or those in the tenure pipeline, because such professors aren't as likely as untenured faculty to leave Pitt.

"I would certainly look for a potential adviser who had tenure," she said.

— Bruce Steele

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