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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Contingent Faculty and the Future of Biblical Studies

Imagine the 2050 SBL Annual Meeting with a mere 300 participants. "Could never happen," you say. Well, probably not, but then again, such a scenario is conceivable.

This futuristic SBL meeting would come about in this way. To conserve resources and maintain flexibility, academic institutions facing increasingly tight budgets and intensified competition from on-line education begin to replace tenure-track positions with part-time and non-tenure-track jobs. Because non-tenure-track faculty members are "contingent faculty," they are hired outside the established patterns of national searches and thorough peer evaluation. They are hired by administrators and department chairs in an ad hoc fashion which sometimes degenerates into a frenzied quest for warm bodies to fill a class.

Of course, few contingent faculty members possess the credentials and professional accomplishments that would qualify them for tenure-track positions at the very institutions that employ them in these semi-permanent non-tenure-track positions. To make matters worse, once they begin to teach, the institution neither offers them any meaningful opportunities for professional growth nor expects them to produce scholarship or withstand the rigors of peer-review. Because of their contingent status, these faculty members have no real guarantee of academic freedom or due process in administrative conflicts. In spite of their very untraditional means of hire, their ambiguous claims to faculty status and their non-existent commitment to advancing the body of knowledge within their disciplines, these contingent faculty members offer cash-strapped administrators the short-term benefit of financial savings, making it increasingly tempting for administrators to replace retiring tenured (and expensive) positions with contingent, non-tenure (and cheaper) positions.

Over time (say the year 2020), the changing university culture produces fewer and fewer tenure-track positions. The decreased availability of tenure-track positions causes both an unprecedented rise in competition for the remaining tenure-track positions and an equally unprecedented rise in the tenure bar. Many highly qualified persons are now routinely denied tenure simply because other, perhaps slightly more highly qualified, candidates are competing for that same increasingly rare tenured position. Simultaneously, scores of less qualified contingent faculty are continuing to teach year after year in their contingent teaching assignments, gleefully free from all the professional obligations that the tenure quest recently imposed upon their more gifted tenure-denied colleagues.

Eventually (say the year 2035), the dwindling ranks of tenured faculty at less prestigious universities are becoming overwhelmed by the demands of maintaining the academic life of the university. As contingent faculty are teaching on the side and generally have "real" jobs that preclude them from making meaningful commitments to the governance and maintenance of the university's academic life, the entire weight of committee assignments, course scheduling, curriculum development, budgeting, and student advising falls upon the steadily declining percentage of tenured faculty. Most tenured faculty become so overextended that fatigue overwhelms scholarly impulses. Membership in professional societies wanes, journal subscriptions lapse, and academic book sales plummet. The mechanisms that sustain the health and vitality of an academic discipline become endangered species as fewer teachers have professional incentives to invest themselves in a life of scholarship.

That brings us to 2050. The final remnants of scholarly activity are cloistered in 150 or so elite universities that benefit from large endowments and generous research grants. The tenure bar at these institutions is so high (and the openings so rare) that few dare aspire to these positions. The tenured positions that remain at less prestigious universities involve so many administrative responsibilities that the tenured faculty at these less prestigious universities seldom engage in scholarly activity. Participation in the guild has nearly evaporated. Scholarly achievement is either dismissed as irrelevant (by the masses of contingent faculty) or regarded as a relic of a bygone age (by the majority of tenured faculty) and SBL's annual pre-Thanksgiving ritual is attended only by a few representatives from each of the 150 elite research institutions. Changes in the culture of academe have rendered the mission of SBL, "to foster Biblical scholarship," untenable.

Lest these pessimistic prognostications be prematurely dismissed as the apocalyptic scenario of a disgruntled "contingent faculty" (and my institution does refuse to grant faculty tenure), consider the parallel concerns recently expressed by the American Association of University Professors (and I am a member). In the September/October 2003 issue of the Academe, the AAUP expressed grave concern over "the dramatic increase in the number and proportion of contingent faculty in the last ten years" which "has created systemic problems for higher education." According to the AAUP, as of 1998, 28% of the full-time faculty positions in higher education were non-tenure track as were over 95% of part-time positions. Only a generation ago, non-tenure hires were extremely rare for full-time positions (only 3.3% in 1969), but, in the 1990s, three quarters of the new full-time faculty positions were non-tenure track. The AAUP's alarm over these disturbing trends is conveyed in their warning that the overuse of contingent faculty has made faculty work "more fragmented, unsupported, and destabilized."

If recent trends toward overreliance on contingent faculty present an acute challenge to academic culture at large, then the threat is potentially even more disastrous for biblical studies. In most disciplines, productive scholars are scattered across a wider array of institutions&madsh;secular and religious—than in biblical studies, which is largely concentrated within seminaries and private religious colleges and universities. This demographic reality poses two problems for the future of biblical scholarship. First, a disproportionate number of the institutions that support biblical studies are the less financially stable religious schools that are most tempted by the allure of using contingent faculty. Second, many of the more financially stable secular schools do not regard biblical studies as essential to their academic mission. The brute facts are that biblical studies is included in the curricula of fewer secular institutions and that biblical studies is often most actively promoted by some of the most economically vulnerable academic institutions. Biblical studies is in a particularly precarious position.

The withering of biblical scholarship as a mature and growing academic discipline may not be imminent, but it is conceivable. Without careful forethought and deliberate choices to nurture our shared discipline, current trends toward the overuse of contingent faculty could threaten the stability of the institutions and practices that sustain the discipline. What can be done? The AAUP, whose basic policies and goals were officially endorsed by the Association of Theological Schools in 1970 and by the SBL in 1989, has formulated specific recommendations for addressing the overuse of contingent faculty. Those who wish to "foster biblical scholarship" throughout the twenty-first century are well advised to heed these admonitions. The AAUP recommends that

  • both full- and part-time faculty appointments encompass the full range of professional responsibilities traditionally assigned to faculty members (no faculty members should be consigned to a "teaching only" role);
  • both full- and part-time faculty "demonstrate their competence and accomplishments in their respective fields" through peer-review;
  • all full-time faculty be offered the opportunity to acquire tenure after a probationary period of not more than seven years and that all part-time faculty, "after an appropriate opportunity for successive reviews and reappointments, should have assurance of continuing employment" and the protection of due process in order to ensure academic freedom;
  • all faculty be allowed to participate in the governance of and curricular decisions regarding the university with representation from part-time faculty being proportional to their respective teaching responsibilities.
  • part-time faculty be compensated for their work on a scale comparable and proportional to the compensation (including benefits) received by equally qualified and accomplished full-time faculty;
  • no more than 15% of any institution's courses and no more than 25% of any department's courses be taught by contingent faculty; and
  • faculty be allowed to move from full-time to part-time status (and back) based upon their personal and professional needs without loss of academic rank or privileges.

The AAUP recognizes that implementing these policies will require a substantial reversal of current trends within academe, but believes that these policies are needed to protect the values of academic freedom and shared governance. Faculties are encouraged to work creatively toward transition to these policies.

As biblical scholars, our discipline is particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects of excessive reliance upon contingent faculty. Therefore, members of our discipline should lead in advocacy of the policies that will protect the integrity and health of our discipline.

Who knows? If we rise to the current challenges and stave off administrative trends toward short-term and detrimental overuse of contingent faculty, maybe the mid-twenty-first century SBL meetings will be more widely attended and more deeply interesting than any meeting our generation has known. Let's "foster biblical scholarship" by preserving the traditions of tenured, peer-reviewed, self-governing faculties that best serve the interests of scholarship.

Thomas E. Phillips is an SBL member, co-chairs the Book of Acts Consultation, and is Associate Professor of New Testament at Colorado Christian University.

Citation: Thomas E. Phillips, " Contingent Faculty and the Future of Biblical Studies," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2003]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=196

 
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