Poor Economy Weakens Academic Job Market

Emily Lu | September 2003

From the September 2003 issue of AWP Job List. © 2004 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with the permission of AWP.


State budget cuts in 2002 have caused a crisis for students & faculty at many colleges & universities nationwide. The National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education reported in winter 2003 that drastic cuts had sparked a 10% average tuition increase at four-year public colleges & universities. Tuition increases at 16 state institutions topped 10%. The National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education called these cuts "the worst fiscal news for higher-education institutions & their students in the last decade"1 & predicts that the budget situation will worsen in 2003.2

Responses to a survey conducted by the National Association of State Universities & L&-Grant Colleges in July 2003 indicate that the NCPPHE's prediction is correct & that tuition at public institutions are continuing to rise. Tuition increases reached 25% at the City University of New York system & 30% in the University of California system. University of Arizona & Northern Arizona University students will see a tuition increase of about 39%.3

While students are facing sharp tuition increases, faculty members & new graduates are facing the toughest academic job market since the recession of the early '90s. MLA reported a sharp decline in faculty openings in English in 2002. The total number of entry-level jobs decreased by 17% in 2002 & there was a 19% decrease in the total number of academic job openings last year. Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, says that "publics (public institutions) are disproportionately the source of the decline." Only 53% of jobs advertised in the MLA's Job Information List were at public universities compared with 60% the previous year.4

Furthermore many of the listings in the AWP Job List & the MLA JIL were for temporary positions, & many listings were listed as "anticipated openings" or openings contingent on budgetary or departmental approval. Feal commented that, "We in the academic profession are not satisfied with these numbers, because they indicate an erosion of the tenure-track position as the norm for new hires in colleges & universitiesÉ Unless the economy improves, funding is restored at the public universities, & endowments at the privates get better returns, I can't say we would see growth in the number of positions."5 Openings in British literature, rhetoric & compositions, multi-ethnic literature, & American literature were where dem& was highest last year. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) the market for Creative Writing instructors which experienced growth in the '80s & '90s as schools were starting & exp&ing Creative Writing Programs has slowed down as well, "A few years ago, the market for scholars in creative writing was fairly robust as departments were exp&ing their creative-writing programs. Now many of those positions have been filled, & it's tougher to break into that field."6

Although a count of listings in the AWP Job List in 2002-03 shows an increase in the number of advertised jobs, the editors of the Job List do not believe this is indicative of the general trend in hiring this year.

The Erosion of Tenure & the Paring Down of the Academic Work Force

Surveys suggest that as tenure-stream faculty members in English leave or retire, their tenure-track positions are not being filled. More often, vacancies left open by retiring tenured professors are the victims of natural attrition or are being filled by nontenure-stream faculty members. According to the Department of Education, the number of full-time faculty members in nontenure-eligible positions jumped from 11% in 1987 to 18% in 1998. "There is a large chunk of retiring faculty in their 60s, says Feal. "What the numbers (the count of the total number of listings in the MLA Job List) don't tell us is how many of those positions have been lost.7 The 1999 MLA Survey of Staffing in English & Foreign Language Departments found that tenure & tenure-track faculty made up only 36.3% of the faculty teaching in the departments that responded to the survey.8 Part-time faculty, graduate student teaching assistants, & full-time nontenure-track instructors made up the remaining 63.7% of instructors teaching in English & Foreign Language Departments. (Part-time instructors made up 31.9% of English & Foreign Language Department faculty; TAs made up 22.2%; & full-time nontenure-track instructors made up 9.5%.)

According to the MLA's staffing survey, the average salary of full-time nontenure-track English faculty member with the rank of instructor was $10,273 less than the average starting salary for assistant professors at public universities & $5,214 less at private institutions. There's a growing concern among academic professionals that the decrease in tenure-line jobs is indicative of the corporatization of higher education.

To trim costs during this period of tight budgets, the CHE reported in the summer of 2002, that several colleges decided to hire more adjuncts instead of hiring full-time faculty.9 &10 (The MLA's Staffing survey indicated that most adjuncts made between $1,200 & $2,500 per course. Out of the 2,182 departments that answered MLA's survey, 91% employed adjunct faculty. Less than 20% of these departments gave health benefits to part-time adjunct faculty. 70% reported that adjunct faculty received no health, retirement, or life insurance benefits at all.)

State budget cuts have affected tenured instructors in surprising ways during the past year. The University of Nebraska Lincoln laid off eight tenured professors this spring to partially offset a 10% decrease in state funding for the institution. The eight professors worked in the school's museum research division which will likely be eliminated.11 Four of the eight professors were offered other positions by the university, but the other four will be dismissed in less than a year. In an article published in the CHE in May 2003, Susan W. Fisher, secretary of the University Senate at Ohio State University said, "If the precedent is set that an entire program can be eliminated & the tenured people did not have to be accommodated, then where does it stop?" The CHE believes that the University of Nebraska is the "first research university to have laid off tenured faculty members during the current economic downturn."12 47 other staff & nontenure-track positions were also eliminated at this time. In June, the university began discussions about the elimination of two departments (the Department of Industrial Systems Technology & the Department of Health & Human Performance) which would result in the loss of jobs for 15 other tenured faculty member.13

This year, the University of South Florida & the Texas A&M University system adopted measures that would decrease the protection offered to tenured professors. The new rules would make it easier for officials to fire or discipline tenured faculty.

USF has been under a lot of media scrutiny because of the Al-Arian case. The University of South Florida has been trying to dismiss Sami Al-Arian who university officials believe is linked to a terrorist group. Al-Arian denies these allegations. CHE reports that "Ésome professors (at USF) have concluded that the new rules are the board's attempt to weaken the protection of tenure. If the rules had been in place last year, they say, the university could simply have fired Mr. Al-Arian under a new definition of "misconduct" that is so broad it could apply to virtually anything administrators want it to.14

"Al-Arian has convinced the board that the university would be a better place if they had the same right to fire someone that Wal-Mart does," says Roy Weatherford, president of the university's chapter of the United Faculty of Florida.15 The university claims that the new rules concerning tenure were not influenced by the Al-Arian case & will not affect the outcome of the case.

Mixed News

Although some departments like the University of Missouri Columbia, the University of Arizona, & the University of Virginia (which hasn't been able to hire new faculty in three years) were not hiring this past year, according to the CHE, some departments did an "unusual amount of hiring."

Florida State University's English Department was hiring for six openings this year. Hunt Hawkins, chairman of the department told CHE, "The dean conceived of a strategy that was countercyclical: When everybody else wasn't hiring it would be a good time for us to hire. We would then have our pick of people on the market.16

Both Central Michigan University & Ohio State University hired five assistant professors in English this past year. Auburn University's department also did large amount of hiring this year & anticipates openings next year. Florida State hired specialists in poetry, 18th- century British Literature, medieval literature, 19th-century African American literature, & global literature & film. As of June, they were negotiating with a c&idate for a position to teach 19th-century British literature as an associate professor. Central Michigan University hired in the areas of African American Literature, British Literature, children's literature, creative writing, & English education. Ohio state hired two specialists in rhetoric & composition, one Victorian literature specialist, & two professors specializing in American literature. Auburn anticipates opening in Renaissance literature & Southern literature for next year. This year, Auburn hired professors to teach creative writing, African American literature, & technical communications.17

Although the job market is tough, some new graduates are finding jobs. Sixteen of 23 graduate students at the University of Virginia found tenure-track jobs last year. (Eight in 20th-century American literature, five in 20th-century British literature, & three in ethnic American literature.) Five of the ten graduates of Florida State's PhD program found tenure-track jobs in poetry, modern British Literature, 18th-century literature, & 20th-century American Literature.18

MLA reports that the number of English doctoral graduates fell, 8.7% from 1,070 in 2001 to 977 in 2002. The smaller number of graduates is some help to job seekers, but there are still far fewer job opening in the field of English than the number of graduates seeking employment. To compound the situation, MLA's survey of PhD placement indicates that only 42% of people earning their doctorates in 2001 found tenure-track jobs.19 David Copper Alarcon, associate professor of English at the University of Arizona worries about this. "I'm pessimistic about their chances," he told CHE. "You've got less than half of the PhD grads finding tenure-track positions two years ago, & I don't think the situation has improved in the two years since.20

For those in the English profession who have found tenure-track jobs, economic conditions might be a little tighter this year due to the current economic downturn. Stanford University announced in March that it will freeze faculty & staff salaries for next year. Stanford is facing a projected budget deficit of $25 million. The school's endowment has been hit by heavy losses this past year. Although these steps have already been taken by many public schools & less-elite private colleges, according to CHE, Stanford might be the first top private university to take this action due to the recession.21

The American Association of University Professors reports that the average faculty salary rose 3% despite the economic downturn, relieving fears that professors' salaries would remain the same in 2002-03. Although this marks the sixth consecutive year that salaries have risen, the rate of increase for faculty salaries is falling. In 2001-02, faculty salaries rose 3.8% from the previous year. The adjusted for inflation salary increase for 2002-03 was only 0.6%. AAUP's study focused on the "unequal progress" for those in the academic profession. According to AAUP's study, "On average, continuing assistant professors received greater percentage increases than did continuing associate & full professors." Salary increases for professors at private institutions exceeded those at public institutions by 1.1%. Most notably though are the declines in salaries at public universities compared to private ones. According to AAUP, "This relative decline in salaries at public colleges & universities probably makes it more difficult for them to hire & retain top faculty, especially at the senior level." AAUP's also found that although the "percentage of women among full professors rose from 21.4 to 22.3" & the percentage female associate professors "increased from 37.3 to 37.9," the percentage of women assistant professors decreased slightly from 46.1 to 45.9. AAUP's Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession along with its Committee on the Status of Women in the Academic Profession plan to study compensation by gender in an upcoming project.22

Diminished Access to Higher Education

The effects of the economic recession & state budget cuts are greatly affecting students across the country. The National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education reports that "college affordability is in jeopardy."23 In addition to tuition increases, many students are facing larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, & a decrease in new acquisitions at their campus libraries. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst had to cut back in another way. The size of their freshman class has been reduced by 1,000 students.24 At Cal State, which is facing a $200 million cut, some faculty will be asked to teach more & some academic programs may be dropped.

Many educators fear the shrinking budgets will reduce access to higher education for low-income families & will disproportionately affect the students who attend two-year colleges.

According to Sara Hebel reporting for the CHE, "Community colleges in California & elsewhere usually bear the brunt of cuts that states make in higher-education spending. That's because two-year colleges rely more heavily on state appropriations than do four-year institutions, which can more easily cushion the financial blow by tapping into other revenue sources, like federal research grants, alumni donations, & higher tuition paid by out-of-state students.

In California, almost one of every two dollars spent by the community-college system comes from the state, compared with about one of every four dollars at the University of CaliforniaÉ.25

Compounding the problem, according to the CHE, is the increase in dem& for spots at community colleges across the nation. Because of recent tuition hikes, many students are considering enrolling in two-year institutions instead of four-year ones, & two-year colleges are experiencing high enrollment from unemployed workers. Although community colleges have traditionally been open enrollment, many colleges faced the prospect of having to turn students away last year because there were not enough sections to meet the increased dem& for classes. & according to CHE "colleges are increasingly competing against each other for scarce support in many states. While flagship universities once routinely took up the task of representing all of their state's colleges before lawmakers, many research institutions now are increasingly leaving community colleges to fight their own battles.26

Seattle Central Community College is taking in "the equivalent of about 800 full-time students more than the state is paying for." The budget cuts are forcing Charles H. Mitchell, President of the College, to consider cutting adult English as a Second Language classes. "We're the institution of last resort for many of these individuals," Mitchell worries. "We won't have the open arms we've had in the past." The college has a large population of students who are refugees from East Africa & Southeast Asia. Here & elsewhere, many community college professors are teaching more & more students in larger classes.27

Jamilah Evelyn reporting for the CHE says that the financial pressures that community colleges face across the nation may be a "far more serious threat to minority students seeking access to college" than the recent assaults on affirmative action in higher education. "Nearly half of the nation's 2.95 million black & Hispanic college students attend community collegesÉ Higher-education leaders say that deep cuts in state appropriations for those institutions—coupled with the failure of federal students aid to keep up with tuition increases—will do more to undermine minority access than will any other factor in recent history."

Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education says, "Nobody didn't go to college because they didn't get into Berkeley, but if budget cuts are closing the doors of community colleges to some students, a large portion of which will likely be minority students, where are they going to go?28

Mark Drummond, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College Districts, estimates that LA community colleges will turn away about 6,000 Hispanic students this year. At some colleges, there aren't even funds to hire part-time instructors. At Austin Community College, the ESL program had to cut six sections from the 45 normally offered in the summer.29



  1. Potter, Will. "One-Two Punch of Budget Cuts & Tuition Hikes Puts Pressure on Affordability, Report Says." The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2003.
  2. "College Affordability in Jeopardy: A Special Supplement to National Crosstalk: The Rising Price of Education." National Centere for Public Policy & Higher Education. http//:www.highereducation.org/ affordability_supplement/affordability-1.sthml.
  3. Arnone, Michael. "Students Face Another Year of Big Tuition Increases in Many State." The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 15, 2003.
  4. Montell, Gabriela. "Faculty Openings in English, Foreign Languages Drop Sharply." The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2002.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Jacobson, Jennifer. "English Ph.D.'s Confront another Tough Market." The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 2003.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Laurence, David . "The 1999 MLA Survey of Staffing in English & Foreign Language Departments." http://www.mla.org.
  9. Evelyn, Jamilah. "Budget Cuts Force Community Colleges to Consider Turning Away Students." The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 26, 2002.
  10. Smallwood, Scott. "Georgia Regents Allow Universities to Increase Use of Lecturers." The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 9, 2002.
  11. Fogg, Piper. "Nebraska Puts Museum Professors on Endangered Species List: Tenure Provided Little Protection from Budget Cuts." The Chronicle of Higher Education, May, 2, 2003.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Fogg, Piper, "U. of Nebraska at Lincoln Seeks to Cut Jobs of 15 Tenured Faculty Members." The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 18, 2003.
  14. Wilson, Robin & Sharon Walsh. "Tears in the Fabric of Tenure: Public Universities in Two States Curtail the Time-Honored Institution." The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 10, 2003.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Jacobson, Jennifer. "English Ph.D.'s Confront another Tough Market." The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 2003.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Montell, Gabriella. "Faculty Openings in English, Foreign Languages Drop Sharply." The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2002.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Wilson, Robin. "Stanford U. Freezes Faculty & Staff Salaries." The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 21, 2003.
  22. "Unequal Progress: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession 2002-03." American Association of University Professors. http://www.aaup.org/surveys/zrep.htm.
  23. "College Affordability in Jeopardy: A Special Supplement to National Crosstalk: The Rising Price of Education." National Centere for Public Policy & Higher Education. http://www.highereducation.org/reports/affordability_supplement/index.shtml.
  24. Trombley, William "College Affordability in Jeopardy: A Special Supplement to National Crosstalk: The Rising Price of Education" http://www.highereducation.org/reports/
  25. Hebel, Sara, "Unequal Impact: Community Colleges Face Disproportionate Cuts in State Budgets." The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 30, 2003.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Evelyn, Jamilah "The Silent Killer" of Minority Enrollements." The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2003./li>
  29. Ibid.

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