The State of the History Department: A Report on the 1999 Department Survey

Robert B. Townsend, November 2001

The latest AHA survey of history departments highlights the marked changes taking place in the teaching of history at four-year colleges and universities, particularly when contrasted with a similar survey conducted 20 years ago. The two surveys provide solid evidence of the dramatic increase in the number of part-time faculty, the waning proportion of tenured faculty, and the expansion of history departments to include new subjects and new fields.1

The responding departments reported employing 8,767 faculty. These numbers represent about half of the history faculty teaching in the United States, which we currently estimate at just under 17,000 at two- and four-year colleges and universities. (To place this in context, the Department of Education reports that American colleges and universities employed almost 1.1 million faculty and instructional staff in the fall of 1998.)2

Only three-quarters of the faculty at the responding institutions were employed full time by the university, although most of the full-time faculty (92.4 percent) were tenured or tenure track. Of those eligible for tenure, 75.9 percent already had tenure. Notably, almost 16.4 percent of those classified as "full-time faculty" had a reduced teaching load in the department due to other responsibilities in the department or institution ("other commitments" ranged from serving as chair of the department to being president of the university, as well as joint appointments).

The growth in the number of part-time faculty seems to have leveled off in recent years, but part-time faculty still accounted for more than a quarter (26.1 percent) of the faculty in 1999-2000. This is well below the national average for faculty in the social sciences, where 32.1 percent of the faculty were employed part time in the fall of 1998. However, this partially reflects the different demographics of the survey, since the more comprehensive survey from the Department of Education includes many more two-year programs, where 64 percent of the social scientists were employed part time.

A comparison to similar data collected by the AHA 20 years ago (for the 1979-80 academic year) serves to highlight the dramatic changes that have taken place in the academy over the past 20 years (Figure 1).3 In the 1979-80 survey, part-time faculty accounted for barely 6 percent of the faculty in history departments. Now they constitute nearly 26 percent, a fourfold increase over 20 years. At the same time faculty in tenured or tenure-track positions fell from 79.3 percent of the responding departments in 1979-80 to 70.7 percent in 1999-2000.

The full picture of instructional staff in history departments is incomplete, however, because most of the departments with graduate programs declined to provide data on the number or activities of graduate teaching assistants in their departments-several of them noting that they were "only" teaching assistants. This makes it impossible to measure how much of the teaching burden in these departments is being carried by graduate students, since we assume that their work as graders and section leaders serves an important, if not appreciated, pedagogical function.

Faculty in the Classroom

With that incompleteness as a caveat, the average course load for full-time faculty was 5.2 classes per year, compared to 2.14 courses for part-time faculty. Baccalaureate institutions, which emphasize teaching over research, had the highest average course load for full-time faculty at 5.7 classes per faculty member. In contrast, full-time faculty at research institutions (classified by the Carnegie Foundation as "Doctoral/Research Universities") taught an average of 3.8 classes per year.

In a clear reflection of the rising number of responsibilities for full-time faculty outside the classroom, the amount of time spent in the classroom appears to have declined sharply. The average number of courses taught by full-time faculty today (at 5.2 classes per year) is lower than the average course load for both full- and part-time faculty in the earlier survey (6.5 classes per year).

Given the hidden support of graduate teaching assistants, it is hard to assess the finding that part-time faculty taught an average 1.87 courses at PhD-granting programs compared to 2.05 courses for part-time faculty at BA-granting programs and 2.36 courses per year at comprehensive, MA-granting programs. It is also worth noting that at almost 10 percent of the departments with part-time faculty, the average course load for those classified as part-time faculty was equal to or greater than the average course load for full-time faculty in the department. Most of these programs are doctoral programs. At an additional 36 percent of the departments, the average course load of part-time faculty was at least half that of full-time faculty.

Geographic Specializations

The survey also asked about the geographic field specializations of full- and part-time faculty. The largest proportion of faculty (38.8 percent) was employed to teach U.S. history, followed at some distance by European history, which accounted for another 27.7 percent of the course offerings. The remaining fields all accounted for less than 10 percent of the faculty fields led by Asian history (with 6.4 percent of the courses taught), followed by Western Civ. (6.2 percent), world history (5.3 percent), Latin America (5.1 percent), other thematic courses (4.4 percent), Africa (3.4 percent), and the Middle East (2.7 percent).

However, there are significant variations in the proportions of full- and part-time faculty, as U.S. historians represent a greater proportion of the part-time faculty-almost 14 percent more than their proportion of the full-time faculty. Part-time faculty in the other regional specializations are all below their proportions in the full-time faculty.

One surprising find in the data is the large number of programs that lack specialists in major regions of the world. Over 27 percent of the departments lack a specialist in Asian history, while 30 percent of the programs lack a specialist in Latin America, 47 percent don't have an Africanist, and 58 percent of the programs don't have anyone specializing in the Middle East. Departments without a specialist in a particular field will often rely on faculty with other primary specializations to provide coverage. However, 21 percent of the programs did not offer a course in Asian history, 31 percent offered no courses in Latin American history, 40 percent had nothing in African history, and 50 percent had nothing on the history of the Middle East. (These numbers are assessed in greater detail in the article, "Latest Directory Data Show Further Growth in Undergraduate History Majors" on p. 9.)

A comparison to the survey from 20 years ago indicates, however, the expanding treatment of other regions of the world. In 1979-80, 42 percent of the responding programs did not offer a course in Asian history (compared to 21 percent in the present survey), 39 percent offered no courses in Latin American history (compared to 31 percent today), and 64 percent had nothing in African or Middle East history (compared to 40 and 50 percent now, respectively).

Hiring and Retirements

As reported last year, there is a significant amount of change taking place in the composition of the faculty, as the number of retirements continues to grow and departments seek to maintain seniority levels by "cherry-picking" senior faculty from other institutions.4 A total of 182 full-time faculty left their department for one reason or another, accounting for 4.7 percent of the full-time faculty at the start of the year. Forty-three percent of the departments reported that they lost at least one full-time faculty member over the past year, and 34.8 percent lost more than one full-time member of their faculty. Meanwhile, departments reported that over 18.2 percent of the part-time faculty left their positions.

According to the respondents, most of the faculty (57.4 percent) leaving their departments were retiring from the academy. Almost one-third (31.8 percent) left for a position at another college or university. Another 6.8 percent left for "other reasons" (the most often cited reason being death). A small proportion, 4.0 percent, had their contracts terminated (though we cannot discern how many of the latter were temporary appointments, and how many were due to a denial of tenure). One rather anomalous but significant piece of data: a couple of departments noted that they only hire by the course, and listed all their part-time faculty as employed for less than 12 months.

As in the tabulation of the Directory listings for last year, the survey respondents report a net increase in the faculty hired at the end of the 1999-2000 academic year. The departments responding to the survey reported that 182 full-time faculty and 237 part-time faculty left their departments. This compares with 285 full-time faculty hired (to 185 "permanent" and 113 "temporary" appointments) and 372 part-time faculty reported hired (including 21 in the "part-time permanent" category).

Comparison of the current data on separations of full-time faculty with that from the past yields some interesting results. A slightly larger proportion of the full-time faculty left their departments 20 years ago (5.2 percent in 1979-80 as compared to 4.9 percent in the recent survey). However, the reasons for leaving have changed dramatically. Twenty years ago, 40.1 percent of the faculty left due to the termination of a contract, compared to just 6.6 percent in 1999-2000. This suggests improved stability for those who do make it onto the tenure track, but also reflects the growing number of retirements. The proportion of retirements rose from 32.9 percent of faculty separations in 1979 to 51.6 percent of the departing faculty in the more recent survey. In the face of these retirements, a number of departments are trying to maintain seniority levels by hiring scholars away from other departments. As a result, the proportion of faculty leaving for employment elsewhere comprised 31.2 percent in 1999-2000, compared to just 12.1 percent in the earlier survey.

—Robert Townsend is AHA assistant director of publications, information systems, and research.


1. The survey asked for information about the 1999-2000 academic year, and received an exceptional response rate-442 of 654 U.S. departments that have listed in the Directory in one of the past two years responded. While respondents to the survey formed a representative sample of departments in the Directory (variance of <0.024 between the two data sets when compared by degree, region, and control), the Directory itself is not a representative sample of the many different types of history departments and history faculties in higher education. Two-year colleges and programs where the history faculty is integrated into a multidisciplinary department (such as history, politics, and geography) are significantly underrepresented because they do not usually seek listings in the directory. The Directory includes only three AA-granting programs, even though the U.S. Department of Education reports 227 programs that confer AA degrees in the social sciences and history. Similarly, the Directory includes less than half of the reported number of programs conferring BA degrees in social sciences and history (though these programs produce almost 90 percent of the history bachelor's degrees in the country, when compared to Department of Education data). Comparative data from National Center for Education Statistics, 2000 Digest of Education Statistics (Washington D.C.: 2000), Tables 260 and 297 (data for the 1997-98 school year).

2. Estimate of total number of history faculty based on number of faculty in all listing departments in the Directory, a review of web sites for nonlisting two- and four-year colleges in fall 1999, and data in the last summary of employment for humanities PhDs (1995). Data on total number of faculty comes from Department of Education, 1999 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (Washington D.C., 2001).

3. The earlier surveys made a better effort to be comprehensive, sending out a mailing to over 1,150 departments and receiving responses from around 420 departments each time. The respondents to these earlier surveys had a significantly higher proportion of private institutions (54 percent in the 1980 survey compared to 48 percent in the present study) and departments that conferred the BA as the highest degree (which comprised 56 percent of the 1980 respondents and only 47 percent today). Programs conferring associates degrees were nonexistent in the study.

4. See Robert B. Townsend, "2000 Job Market Report: History Job Openings Continue to Surge," Perspectives (December 2000), 3. Further evidence of the growing number of departments hiring senior faculty away from another department is reflected in the large (and growing) number of ads taken in Perspectives to welcome these faculty to their new departments.