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Academic Tenure: In Desperate Need of Reform or of Defenders?

Why tenure is worth fighting for.

September 23, 2021
 
 

Tenure is once again in the headlines, and not in a good way.

Perhaps you read articles about Harvard’s denial of tenure to Lorgia García Peña and Cornel West. You’ve certainly heard that MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones was initially denied tenure at the University of North Carolina.

Yet even as denials of tenure raise hackles about opaque or misguided campus standards and trustee and donor interference in tenure decisions, critiques of the tenure system mount.

No longer do these criticisms come exclusively from free marketeers who consider tenure an anachronistic sinecure for “elitists who study esoteric subjects and brainwash students with left-wing politics.”

Complaints about tenure are now as likely to come from the left as the right.

Alongside the traditional complaints -- that tenure rewards unproductive faculty; stifles institutional change; discourages innovation and risk taking, especially among junior scholars; renders it virtually impossible to fire poor or mediocre performers; and makes institutions less adaptable to shifts in budgets or student interests -- other concerns are now voiced:

  • That the criteria for tenure are too narrow.
  • That the tenure system impedes diversity.
  • That tenure’s protections are confined to a narrow and shrinking proportion of the professoriate.
  • That the tenure system helps to institutionalize academic hierarchy and special privilege.
  • That the tenure system discourages interdisciplinarity.
  • That the tenure system creates barriers to holding tenured faculty accountable for inappropriate behavior, gross misconduct and actions that demonstrate a lack of professional fitness.

The Boston Globe recently issued an editorial that asserted that the tenure has created a “caste system,” which rewards the lucky few while giving others “little protection” and “meager paychecks.” The Globe’s editorial board claimed that tenure encourages subpar teaching, discourages intellectual diversity, represents an obstacle to diversifying the faculty, prompts junior faculty to self-censor and is awarded in an opaque, arbitrary and biased manner.

The Globe’s proposed solution: tenure term limits, somewhere in the range of 30 to 35 years, combined with clearly defined tenure standards and a more transparent tenure process.

In short, the way to save tenure is to alter it fundamentally.

The New York Times subsequently published an opinion essay by the University of North Carolina historian Molly Worthen that also called on colleges and universities to address problems in the tenure system, which are deeply rooted, she believes, in academic culture.

These include:

  • The emergence of a two-tiered professoriate, “one class … essentially untouchable, no matter productivity or behavior … and another class … walking on eggshells.”
  • An overemphasis on narrowly focused, highly specialized scholarly publications, as opposed to teaching, service, public engagement and various measures of social impact.
  • Risk- and conflict-averse administrators and a faculty that lacks intellectual diversity, which undercut “one of the central purposes of the modern university: to provide a space for energetic debate.”

Worthen acknowledgers that tweaking tenure review “will not immediately reverse the adjunctification of the faculty or restore public trust in academia.” But, she insists, some tweaking can bring “the tenure system back to its original purpose: to permit teachers to explore big ideas, [and] take risks in the classroom.”

But the gravest threat to tenure doesn’t stem from the factors Worthen lists: a lack of public trust in academics or administrative fears of faculty who undertake controversial research or make incendiary remarks or bad apples who teach poorly and fall to publish. It’s financial: that adjunct faculty cost less and can be cut in ways that tenured faculty can’t.

What are the tweaks she recommends? As best I can gather, these include reversing the prioritization of scholarly research and broadening the standards for tenure to include contributions to student development, continual revision of courses and a broader view of external impact.

It sounds like Bill Clinton’s remark about affirmative action: “Mend it, don’t end it.”

With defenses like these, tenure is in even deeper trouble than I thought.

Tenure is, first and foremost, a system of job security and due process protections that has the added benefit of protecting free expression and controversial research findings. Tenure, as we know it, arose and spread over the first two-thirds of the 20th century not only as a way to protect academic freedom, but as a substitute for higher pay for professors, and a fringe benefit to attract and retain high-quality instructors and research in the face of American higher education’s rapid post-world war growth.

Now, as undergraduate enrollments slowly decline and student interests shift and a surplus of well-qualified Ph.D.s has become readily available, the circumstances that led to tenure’s spread have eroded while, with the abolition of mandatory retirement, the tenure system’s long-term costs have become increasingly visible.

Which makes the defense of tenure all the more urgent.

Tenure represents a bargain. After an extremely lengthy period of preparation, a prolonged probationary period and a rigorous process of external evaluation, designed to determine whether a faculty member has a national reputation and future promise -- a process far longer and much more stringent than in public K-12 schools -- tenure is awarded or denied, with each institution free to make tenure decisions based on its distinctive mission and values.

Tenure’s primary purpose, then, is to retain and reward those faculty members who have proven their worth and are likely to remain productive contributors in the future. It also gives faculty members a stake in an institution’s long-term interests and strengthens the faculty’s hand in shared governance.

However, access to the kinds of job security and benefits associated with tenure vary widely across institutions. Over 92 percent of four-year public institutions offer tenure, but only 59 percent of private nonprofit four-year institutions do so, 62 percent of two-year institutions and 8 percent of for-profits.

Outrage over the mistreatment of part-time faculty has prompted some improvements, but much of that progress has taken place at the better-funded four-year institutions, where colleges and universities have taken steps to curb the worst abuses. These include increasing the number of full-time lecturers with multiyear contracts, expanding access to benefits, including research support and professional development opportunities, and a ladder of promotion.

Yet these very institutions continue to rely heavily on graduate students and postdocs to teach and grade undergraduates and an army of research assistants, paid with soft money, at their proliferating centers and institutes.

Then there’s the issue of the staffing of service courses, especially lower-level language, math and rhetoric and composition classes. Even though some anthropologists, historians, literary critics, philosophers, political scientists and sociologists relish the chance to teach hundreds of students in introductory classes, many do not, and it’s proven easier to replace them with adjuncts, graduate students, postdocs and visiting scholars.

By framing the discussion entirely as a matter of tenured versus nontenured teaching faculty, other major changes in the staffing of the academy go unaddressed: the sharp increase in the number of nonteaching professionals on college campuses, who serve in teaching, disability and writing centers and other student support positions.

Many of the nonteaching professionals are, in fact, Ph.D.s who should be given more opportunities to teach and pursue their scholarship.

Any serious discussion of tenure should focus, in my view, on four key issues:

  1. Equity: How can colleges and universities ensure that diverse candidates -- including mothers and faculty of color -- have an equal chance to obtain tenure? What institutional and social supports need to be put into place to guarantee equal opportunity? Also, how can institutions make sure that the scholarly, teaching and service contributions of scholars who are not white males are evaluated fairly? What protocols can be implemented to prevent bias from tainting tenure assessments?
  2. Standards: What standards and expectations are appropriate at particular institutions? How can tenure candidates best document not only their publications, teaching effectiveness and service activities, but their broader impact on students, their department and the institution as a whole?
  3. Accountability: How can the annual process of merit review be strengthened to ensure that faculty scholarship, teaching and service are evaluated honestly, impartially and rigorously, and that raises and departmental responsibilities are distributed equitably posttenure?
  4. Scope: What steps should institutions, accreditors, government and unions take to ensure that professionals outside the tenure system have the kinds of job security, rights to due process and opportunities for professional development and advancement enjoyed by tenured faculty?

I wholeheartedly agree with a comment written in response to the Worthen op-ed: “The travesty in our universities today is not the availability of tenure for some, but for its absence for many.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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