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Chatham University

Chatham University in Pennsylvania did away with tenure in 2005. Now the university is poised to transition to a tenure system once again.

Joseph MacNeil, interim dean of the School of Arts, Science and Business at Chatham, said two main factors are at play: faculty recruitment and faculty morale.

“We have some stories where people we’d made offers to declined us because—while they were happy to participate in the job search—when they were getting offers, the fact that we didn’t have tenure disqualified us from the conversation,” MacNeil said. “And the part that no one can quantify is the number of good faculty that never applied for a job here because it wasn’t tenure-track in first place.”

MacNeil, who chaired the campus committee that ultimately recommended readopting tenure, said not having tenure has impacted Chatham’s faculty diversification efforts, in particular. With diverse faculty candidates in high demand, he said, not having a tenure system puts Chatham at a disadvantage with respect to its peer institutions. Indeed, MacNeil said Chatham is the only university in the New American Colleges and Universities consortium, which it joined in 2020, without a tenure system.

Chatham president David Finegold, who supports the change, agreed with MacNeil, saying, “Across almost all of higher ed, every institution I know is trying to expand the diversity of their faculty. And Chatham is no exception in that. So when you have faculty candidates that have many options from other institutions, you want to give them every reason to choose you.”

Beyond recruitment, MacNeil said discussions with other faculty members revealed that senior professors felt more anxious about not having tenure than more junior ones because they craved more security from the institution around which they’d built their lives.

“As they’re getting deeper into their careers, they’re more tied to Pittsburgh, they’re more tied to this job,” MacNeil said of longer-serving professors. “They’re concerned that at age 58, they’re just going to get let go and have to start over.”

This, in turn, was impacting senior professors’ engagement in service activities, especially in leadership roles, MacNeil said. Why? Requiring professors to reapply for contracts every few years in perpetuity effectively incentivized scholarly productivity over other aspects of the job.

“It caused a lot of constraint,” he said. “Essentially, you’re coming up for tenure over and over again.”

Similarly, Finegold said that he did a listening tour of Chatham when he became president six years ago and “what became clear was that a high percentage of our faculty, including many of our highest-performing and most dedicated faculty, felt that the institution was not matching their commitment to Chatham and our students, by the nature of the system that we had.”

Serious conversations about improving Chatham’s faculty contract system started about three years ago. Reviving tenure wasn’t always the goal, but it came into focus as talks progressed. Finegold said, “When we looked at the data, we looked at our searches, we said, ‘You know, there’s a balance we can strike here. We can protect the institution, but we can also make that reciprocal commitment to our faculty.’”

He added, “We’re competing right now for successful faculty, and it’s a highly competitive market out there. We were an outlier and not having it, and moving that way will increase our competitiveness—and help the institution.”

From ‘Capstone’ Contracts to Tenure (Again)

Currently, full-time Chatham professors work for seven years on two- and three-year contracts to achieve their first “capstone” contract of five years. After those five years, professors work on six-year contracts for the rest of their time at the university. Renewal is not automatic, however, hence MacNeil’s reference to professors feeling like they’re applying for tenure every six years—without ever actually reaping the benefits of tenure.

Things weren’t always this way. Chatham previously a had a typical tenure system for professors in the liberal arts. But as the university added a number of health sciences graduate programs over the years, it hired clinical professors in these fields on renewable annual contracts. This created a sense across the university that the faculty was two-tiered, and unjustly so, said MacNeil, who worked at Chatham at that time. Instead of adding a tenure track for health sciences professors, though, Chatham sought to achieve middle ground by ending tenure and adopting multiyear contracts for full-time professors across fields. (MacNeil retained his tenured status following the change and is one of just a handful of professors who have tenure already—or, more appropriately, still.) Enter the capstone contracts.

The unintended consequences of Chatham’s shift away from tenure have become more obvious as Chatham’s undergraduate population has grown, especially since 2014, when the university began admitting male undergraduates (prior to that, men were only admitted to graduate programs, and only women could attend as undergraduates).

Mary Jo Loughran, professor and interim dean of health sciences, who served on the capstone contract review committee with MacNeil, said, “Diversification of the health-care field is critical to improving health outcomes locally and nationally. Central to that aim is our ability to attract faculty who can provide mentorship to students from minoritized backgrounds. Offering tenure will allow us to compete for strong, talented faculty members in a very tight market.”

Similarly, she said, “the stability that comes with tenure will protect us from losing faculty to higher-salaried positions available to them as practitioners in the health-care sector.”

Loughran said she also expected being able to offer health sciences professors tenure “facilitate stronger scholarship by allowing faculty to pursue cutting-edge scholarship rather than relying on safer, low-hanging fruit.”

To account for health sciences professors having tenure, Chatham will expand its definition of scholarship to include professional activities. Departments are responsible for updating specific tenure criteria.

Chatham’s Board of Trustees approved the shift to tenure unanimously last week. The university’s faculty will vote on the proposal Thursday, and it’s expected to pass. If it does, all professors currently working on a capstone contract of five or six years will get tenure starting next academic year. All professors working toward a capstone contract will be converted to a tenure-track position, with credit for the years they’ve already worked.

MacNeil said that despite faculty anxiety concerning the capstone contracts, no professor was ever not renewed during such contract review. This is because Chatham also has had an annual review process, during which any performance issues are flagged.

This annual review process will be retained with the shift to tenure. Two poor, or “red,” ratings during a five-year period triggers a posttenure review, which can lead to dismissal for cause.

The university will also retain the right to terminate faculty members for the same programmatic reasons that it does now.

Finegold said the university’s board wanted a thorough legal review of the tenure proposal, “to try to make sure that we weren’t exposing the university to any additional liability or other risks relative to where we were before. They also wanted to understand the pros and cons of this system.” Over all, the process was strong example of shared governance, he added.

While numerous institutions have proposed cutting tenure protections for faculty members in recent years, sometimes at the urging of state legislators, very few have added tenure protections. Asked what, if anything, Chatham’s experiences add to the ongoing national debate over faculty tenure, MacNeil said, “I can’t speak for anybody else’s board—every institution is unique. But when we took the time to evaluate the pluses and minuses, tenure was definitely determined to be better for the institution, and not just the faculty.”

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