Josh Boldt

Technology Director at University of Kentucky

With Support From

Off Track: Higher Education’s Shifting Baseline Syndrome

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In 1980, only about 32 percent of faculty members were teaching off the tenure track. By 1993, that number had grown to 58 percent. Just 14 years later, in 2007, approximately 70 percent of professors held contingent positions.

As these numbers (all collected by the American Association of University Professors) reveal, the ratio of tenure-track professors to non-tenure-track faculty completely flipped during that 27 year period. At the same time, the percentage of contingent faculty positions more than doubled.

Twenty-seven years is less than the length of an academic career. That means much of the existing professoriate has watched its profession crumble away. Have you turned your head as a tenure line was replaced with a contingent position that doesn’t provide a living wage? Have you closed your eyes and held your nose while the carcass of the university faculty has decomposed outside your office?

Ah, but maybe it’s not that simple. It can be hard to see these things as they happen. One adjunct here, another adjunct there. A women’s studies minor is reorganized as a certificate, and one tenure line disappears. Little by little, the measuring stick is shortened, and our standards gradually recede. Slowly the heat rises until the lobster is boiled.

This concept of gradual recession has a name, and it comes from an unexpected source. Fisheries biology calls this phenomenon “shifting baseline syndrome.” According to this biological theory, the standard by which we measure something can change over time. When we move a degree away from our original standard, or baseline, we have a tendency to redefine that baseline according to our current situation. As a result, we lose sight of the original standard and therefore fail to consider the overall change, measuring instead based only on the change incurred since our most recent baseline adjustment.

Shifting baseline syndrome was first identified in 1995 by a biologist named Daniel Pauly, who was studying the depletion of fish stocks due to overfishing practices. Pauly’s study and explanation is surprisingly relevant to the tenured-faculty discussion. He writes:

Essentially, this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.

Each time we look up, we barely notice the change. Maybe your department has only lost one full-timer in the past decade, but over the past three decades, you’ve lost four. If you were to measure the change percentage against a starting point in 1980, for example, the difference would be much more dramatic.

Each new “generation” of university leadership runs the risk of erroneously shifting the baseline by which we determine the acceptable allotment of full-time faculty members. Maybe the baseline is shifted intentionally, or maybe the shift is completely innocent. It doesn’t really matter. It’s happening. It has happened. And it will continue to happen if faculty and administrators don’t work together to roll back the baseline to an earlier standard.

We can’t forget that teaching is what makes a university work. But teaching is in jeopardy due to the rampant shifting baseline syndrome of the past three decades, which has caused university leaders—both administrators and faculty—to become complacent about the pressing danger of an increasingly precarious faculty.

Off Track examines the multifarious worlds of faculty who aren't on the tenure track. Josh Boldt is a writer and editor in Athens, Ga., where he also teaches at the University of Georgia. Connect with him @josh_boldt.

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