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Colleges replace tenured professors with lecturers

By
July 1, 2011 |

By Nanette Asimov

Students heading to college this fall will find fewer professors at the lectern — and more “freeway flyers” like David Pieper standing there instead.

He’s a part-time lecturer who teaches as many courses as possible at as many campuses as he can, trying to make ends meet by “flying” from college to college.

“It was really bad last semester on Tuesdays and Thursdays when I was at three different campuses on the same day,” said Pieper, who teaches economics at San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco, and geography at UC Berkeley as a graduate student instructor. He’s also earning a doctorate there.

More colleges and universities are relying on such “contingent faculty” — people they can easily lay off — as a less expensive alternative to degree-laden, tenured professors.

The influential Academic Council of the University of California system approved a recommendation last week to expand the use of lecturers “where appropriate,” said law Professor Dan Simmons, chairman of the Academic Senate, of which the council is the administrative arm.

The reason is simple: “Lecturers are paid less, and they teach more,” he said.

Replacing retiring professors with full- or part-time lecturers is a way to serve growing numbers of students even as California drastically reduces funding for its public universities, Simmons said.

Across the California State University system, the number of full professors dropped by 13 percent from 1990 to 2010, while full- and part-time lecturers rose by 10 percent, according to university payroll data. In 1990, CSU hired 736 professors. Last year, it hired 108.

“It’s not a healthy situation,” San Francisco State University President Robert Corrigan said. “When I arrived (in 1988), we had 75 percent of courses taught by tenure-track faculty and 25 percent by lecturers. Now it’s 50-50.”

Big trade-offs

It’s about money — but it’s also about quality.

San Francisco State saves an average of $31,679 for every professor replaced by a lecturer, said Ellen Griffin, the campus spokeswoman. It’s the difference between paying a professor nearly $84,000 as opposed to about $52,000 for a full-time lecturer, who may or may not have a Ph.D.

Although lecturers can be exceptional classroom teachers, professors do other things that make a university a university: attracting millions in grant money, performing research that advances their field, advising students, participating on academic committees and teaching graduate-level courses.

“A tenure-track faculty member has the institutional support to mentor students,” said Cal State Los Angeles history Professor Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents CSU professors and lecturers.

Meanwhile, lecturers “tend not to be included in department meetings and the Academic Senate,” said Elizabeth Hoffman, a Cal State Los Angeles lecturer on the faculty’s statewide bargaining team.

Transience is another problem. Students seeking recommendations from favored instructors often find their offices occupied by other teachers, Hoffman said.

And lecturers are so worried about being rehired that they may compromise rigor to avoid bad reviews from students — say, on RateMyProfessors.com — she said.

Tracking the impact

Simmons agreed that replacing large numbers of professors with lecturers lessens quality, but said that hasn’t happened at UC.

Although the number of lecturers across the UC system grew by 37 percent between 1998 and 2010, while the number of professors grew by just 21 percent, there are still far more tenured and tenure-track faculty than lecturers: 10,886 compared with 1,593, UC records show.

“We can’t document a decline in the (10-campus) university today with data,” he said. Give it eight more years, he added, and that could change.

At CSU, the number of tenured or tenure-track faculty dropped at 20 of the 23 campuses from 2009 to 2010, even as the number of full- or part-time lecturers increased at 11 campuses.

San Francisco State lost 44 tenure-track faculty that year — a 6 percent decrease — while the number of lecturers rose by 142 — up 24 percent, the data show.

Pieper is one of them. He began teaching part time at State last summer after spending 23 years at Hewlett-Packard.

Instructor and student

“The worst part is the insecurity,” said Pieper, 53. “You don’t know from one semester to the next whether you’ll have a job or not. I was afraid to turn anything down.”

Which is how he also ended up teaching economics at City College and taking over a Berkeley geography class after the professor went on leave.

The following semester, when the department had the opportunity to award the class to another professor, it instead chose Pieper, the lower-cost grad student.

A Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley who earned a master’s degree from CSU, Pieper pays for school with help from CSU’s “Doctoral Incentive Program,” which has lent $40 million to 1,872 students across the country since 1987. Of those, 600 have joined the CSU faculty.

But as Pieper has learned, tenure-track positions are rare today.

Yet he got lucky.

Pieper hasn’t had a chance to tell his bosses at San Francisco State, but City College has just offered him a tenure-track position there this fall.

He said yes.

— Reach Nanette Asimov at nasimov@sfchronicle.com

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