The University Record, January 30, 1996

Funding falling, competition for students high, Olswang says

By Mary Jo Frank
University Relations 

Changes in how higher education is funded, mandatory retirement laws and student expectations are reshaping America's 80-year-old notion of what constitutes academic tenure, says Steven G. Olswang. Olswang, vice provost at the University of Washington, spoke Jan. 22 as part of the lecture series "Changing in a World of Change: The University and Its Publics." The series is sponsored by the Office of the President and Senate Assembly.

Tenure does not guarantee a job for life, he said, noting that even tenured positions can be terminated for cause: incompetence, immorality, neglect of duty, incapacity or conviction of a felony. Tenure also can be terminated for financial exigency or when programs are eliminated, he added.

In 1915, when the idea of tenure surfaced in the United States, primary funding sources for higher education were the state and tuition, Olswang said. Colleges generally were free to spend revenues as they saw fit. Today, approximately 60 percent of higher education revenues---mostly federal grants and endowments---come with some restrictions, giving institutions less latitude in budgeting.

Another major change affecting higher education is demand. Fifteen years ago three million students graduated from U.S. high schools annually. Today, the annual pool of high school seniors has shrunk to two and one-half million students and is continuing to decline, Olswang said.

Today's students, their parents and taxpayers, want colleges to be accountable; they expect to see outcomes for money invested in higher education, he noted.

One sore point is how faculty members spend their time. Most scholars believe the ability to bring the most recent knowledge gleaned from research to the classroom makes good teachers, said Olswang, who added, "That's not the perspective outside academe."

Early data indicate since mandatory retirement at age 70 was eliminated in universities in 1993 that many faculty are delaying retirement. Faculty either retire early or stay beyond age 70, Olswang said. As more faculty choose to work longer, less funds are available to hire new faculty.

He cited a number of changes in tenure that are in the offing:


Extending probationary periods. Traditionally faculty had six years to earn tenure. Colleges now are extending the tenure clock for men and women. Postdoctoral appointments have been lengthened. Olswang said perhaps the probationary period should be extended to 10 years to give young scholars time to succeed.


More states are demanding post-tenure reviews. Since 1984, Colorado has required post-tenure reviews for all faculty every five years at an enormous cost in time and money, Olswang said. In Hawaii, performance reviews are triggered if a faculty member doesn't get a raise, receives successive negative evaluations or fails to publish in a certain number of years. Seventeen percent of those who have come up for a performance review have retired or resigned, he said. Reviews resulted in another 20 percent receiving remedial plans. Since Hawaii introduced performance reviews, grant and contract activity has increased 12 percent to 15 percent.

Acknowledging that performance reviews require time and effort, Olswang asked, "if the goal is to ensure that colleagues are performing adequately, isn't it worth supporting them through reviews?"


Offering time-limited appointments. Perhaps faculty should be appointed for a certain number of years---say five---and then reviewed before reappointment, Olswang suggested.


Funding new programs by reducing or eliminating existing ones. In the early 20th century, colleges focused on the liberal arts, and most professors were trained in the arts and sciences. Today, the demand for professional training is growing. Living in a time of limited resources necessitates that if new disciplines are expanding, others must shrink, Olswang said. Perhaps some Ph.D. programs should be eliminated altogether, he added.


Expanding two-track employment practices. Many universities already have double-track systems, with lecturers hired to teach and research scientists hired to do research.

Olswang warned his audience that if faculty and administrators fail to deal with issues surrounding tenure, "it is clear that government will step in and address them for us."