Josh Boldt

Information Architect at University of Kentucky

With Support From

Off Track: Higher Education’s Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Full 12102013 fishmonger

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.

Announcing Vitae's New Discussion Groups!

Want to swap strategies and share insights with other academics?

Sign up for Vitae and join the conversation in one of our new discussion groups: Adjunct Life, Flexible Academics, On Scholarly Writing, or Advising in Academia.

Join Vitae Signing up is fast, easy, and free.

Join the Conversation

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.
  • In the business world, we call this moving the goal posts--or maybe just in football!

    James Hoelscher
    James Hoelscher
  • I know you're getting it all over twitter too but wanted more than 140 characters can manage even for a cranky aphorist to thank you and tell you how wonderful this is. This article crystalizes ideas I've been trying in vain to articulate coherently. You're really hitting your stride. Hazel and Marsalis would be proud. I know I am.

    Vanessa Vaile
    Vanessa Vaile
  • Nicely done; the fisheries example makes me think of the story about the frog in the cooking pot who never realizes that the temperature is gradually rising to boiling. But the fisheries story has more depth and analogies to higher education's situation, in particular the succeeding generations of researchers' baselines.

    Mike Tamada
    Mike Tamada
  • I am nearly 60 have only got appointed to my first permanent position last month and it is in SE Asia not Australia. The last real job I applied for in Australia in 2010 had 400 applicants - I gave up and left the country. I have been a graduate student, post-doc and adjunt since 1977. I thoroughly agree with what Josh Bodt says about what has happened. Going fishing in 1970 was entirely different to trying to catch something in 2013 and it is not my imagination.
    When I was a PhD student in the 1970s I was told and I my reasoning concurred that in 5 to 10 years there would be career opportunities in biology because so many would be retiring. But as years moved into decades I realised that the upcoming career opportunities were always still 5 to 10 years away. The reason was that real jobs were disappearing. Retirees were not being replaced by people with real jobs, they were being replaced by adjuncts.
    When did it start? The date that strikes me in Australia was the end of 1973 when I was still an undergraduate. At the end of that year we heard that 1/3 of the jobs in School of Biological Sciences had been frozen - the job existed but only on paper because it was not funded. It never improved. It has been downhill all the way. About 75% of the contact hours students have is with adjuncts. Students sense what their career prospects are simply from that reality. Even the tenured staff are different in character to 1973. None are the tweedy Oxford-Cambridge boffin types that I owe my PhD to. Expecting anything vaguely intellectual from them is asking too much.
    An older american colleague puts the date as 1968, when everthing fell apart in the USA.

    Raymond Ritchie
    Raymond Ritchie
  • To enrich this fishery analogy, read today's highered article regarding a plan at J. Hopkins. I am guessing now they are resetting the baseline. Interestingly some of the language and tactics used are similar to the ones used in business when jobs are being outsourced or implementing a wave of layoffs.

    fermin ornelas
    fermin ornelas
  • What's the reason for the shifting baseline--higher turnover, administrator power grab, or what?

    For what it's worth, in some schools "tenure" does not seem to be worth much. For example, I began applying for a "tenure track" position at Shaw University, up until I reached a set of questions, where one said that it is the employers right to dismiss employee at any time for any reason. Sound like a "tenured" position to you? Needless to say I clicked "I do NOT understand" and promptly logged out. The wording even looked exactly like that from Trine University's faculty handbook (a place where I used to work), an institution that offers no one tenure, although most people there have titles like "Assistant Professor" and "Associate Professor;" they are all essentially full-time adjuncts with benefits. It seems like the lower-rung schools at least, are steadily being turned into vo-tech centers. And sadly, many of them are failing miserably at teaching students any kind of vocation.

    Chronic of Higher Education
    Chronic of Higher Education