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Imagine for a moment that tenure is already a thing of the past, never to return.

It’s not too hard.

Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University, about as promising a young scholar as you’ll find, recently tweeted, “As I go up for tenure this fall, I fully expect to be the last generation of tenured faculty outside elite colleges.” 

Kelchen was responding to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education story on faculty at the University of Tennessee who are “frustrated” by meddling into post-tenure procedures by the University of Tennessee system’s board which the faculty view as a “stealth move to chip away at tenure, part of a steady campaign taking place throughout higher education that, if it continues, might just eventually kill tenure.” 

Appearing before the board’s trustees, U. Tennessee professor Monica Black, “cast tenure as an essential protection, a tenet of democracy, the foundation of academic freedom. It’s what allows professors to teach, write, or do research that challenges the status quo without fearing reprisal.”

But at the end of her appeal Black, “felt resigned.” “I don’t think my philosophical argument carried a lot of water that day,” she told the Chronicle.

Tennessee is not alone. Other states – Wisconsin, Kentucky, Arkansas – have already made explicit policy moves to weaken tenure. Legislators in Iowa and Missouri have introduced proposals which would effectively end tenure that ultimately didn’t get far, but would’ve been unthinkable a generation ago.

Count me with Robert Kelchen. While I believe tenure will survive as a kind of status marker for elite institutions, I expect that it will become increasingly rare, particularly at public colleges and universities. It is already nearly extinct in community colleges

I believe this because for many of us, now even a majority of us, tenure was never alive in the first place.

I look at Professor Monica Black’s description of tenure as  “an essential protection” that “allows professors to teach, write, and do research that challenges the status quo without fearing reprisal” and agree with every word and then realize that during my 17 years of college teaching, not only did I never have such protections, I had no route to securing them.

The system board is unmoved by her argument either because they’re unfamiliar or unconcerned with the on-the-ground realities of the work, and are likely motivated by problems of cost and efficiency, rather than values like freedom and curiosity.

I believe in those values, and yet I too am largely unmoved because in my experience, tenure is not an “essential protection.” I never had it, and did my work for 17 years. I’ve known dozens of others like me over my career.

In my experience tenure is a job perk, one that is not necessarily related to one’s ability, achievement, or contribution to boot.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no wish to end tenure. In fact, I strongly desire that the values of tenure be extended to all those who do the work of the academy.

But if tenure is to be meaningful, it cannot be both an “essential protection” and a “perk” simultaneously. Last year in this space, I made a distinction between “tenure as principle” and “tenure as policy” where “tenure as principle” embodies all the values most of us believe to be important, while “tenure as policy” is an administrative tool which, in practice, undermines the values tenure is meant to protect.

Another article in the Chronicle warns of all the potential downsides of ending tenure. Thomas L. Harnisch of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities calls tenure the “soul of higher education.” What happens if we lose that soul? 

Among the negative consequences cited:

  • Faculty will be silenced, either implicitly or explicitly, fearing reprisal if they speak freely.
  • Lack of tenure makes academia less attractive as compared to private industry, resulting in a brain drain out of the academy.
  • No tenure means diminished faculty loyalty and level of engagement in the institutional mission affecting governance, advising, and mentoring.

I look at this list and say we know what ending tenure looks like because it has already happened. Every single one of those losses has already been visited upon a majority of college faculty, the pain of that loss spread over the rest of the institution, including faculty who are tenured, and most importantly, students.

If these criteria mark the death of tenure, tenure is already dead, and has been for some time.

At the very least, the era of tenure being something bestowed from above – be they administrators, trustees, or legislators – is on its way out, never to return.

But the values endure, and we should hope for them to be strengthened over time. If this is our hope, and the “philosophical” argument for tenure is falling increasingly flat, what is to be done?

My view is obviously colored by my experience of spending an entire career in a world without tenure, but I believe the first, best, most important step is to protect the value of academic labor which includes research, governance, advising and the like, but which is most meaningfully represented by our teaching.

The first step of many is to appropriately value the labor of teaching, regardless of the rank or status of the instructor.[1]

The best part about this first step is that it will be significantly easier to find common cause with students and parents – the people who are funding our public institutions with their tuition dollars - over this mission. Unlike abstract philosophical defenses of tenure,  it is a straightforward matter to argue that those who are responsible for teaching deserve a decent wage and students benefit when their instructors are able to dedicate themselves to the work, rather than pulling shifts driving for Uber in their spare time.

Obviously, this step does not secure all of the values of tenure, but by reestablishing the value of academic labor, one of the chief rationales for the erosion of tenure – it is cheaper to hire non-tenured faculty – disappears.

Once this rationale for eroding tenure is gone, there’s many more fights to restore all the values tenure is meant to embody, but at least it’s a start.