Tracking the Evolution (and Erosion) of Tenure

AAUP finds tenured faculty lines declined dramatically since 2004, but many institutions have updated their tenure policies to account for diversity work and work-life balance.

May 18, 2022
Chart: Institutions that have replaced tenure lines with contingent appointments in the last five years.
Fifty-four percent of institutions said they’d replaced tenure lines with contingent appointments in the past five years.
(American Association of University Professors)

The loss of tenure lines is accelerating. So is the erosion of tenure, by extension, according to a new institutional survey of tenure policies by the American Association of University Professors.

The last such survey of college and university tenure practices, in the U.S. Education Department’s National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, was in 2004. At that time, 17 percent of institutions said they’d replaced tenure lines with contingent appointments in the previous five years.

Today, that figure is 54 percent, according to the AAUP survey, which paints a picture of what’s happened since 2004, when the federal government stopped funding the national survey. The AAUP report notes that there are some problems with this comparison, such as that it’s unknown how many institutions added tenure lines over the same period. The group is nevertheless alarmed by the threefold increase in institutions reporting cutting tenure lines and replacing them with tenure-ineligible appointments, and multiple other studies have tracked the long-term shift away from tenured faculty appointments to contingent academic labor. (Based on federal data from 2019 cited by the AAUP, about 10 percent of faculty appointments are tenure track, 27 percent are tenured, 20 percent are full-time contingent and 43 percent are part-time contingent.)

A majority of institutions now also report having posttenure review policies—58 percent compared to 46 percent in 2000 (the 2000 statistic isn’t from the federal survey but rather a study of faculty handbooks by scholar Cathy Trower).

Just 27 percent of institutions currently have a posttenure review process that can result in the termination of tenured appointments, however. The AAUP doesn’t see posttenure review as necessary or even beneficial to the institution of tenure, but it and other tenure advocates worry much more about potentially punitive processes than purely developmental ones. The AAUP has described the posttenure review process adopted last year by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia as especially grave, since it makes it possible for institutions to fire professors without faculty input.

The AAUP says its survey is representative of 1,200 doctoral, master’s or bachelor’s degree–granting institutions. The group sent its questionnaire to a sample of 515 chief academic officers and yielded a response rate of 53 percent.

In addition to the top-line findings on tenure, the AAUP survey sheds light on how diversity, equity and inclusion now factor into tenure processes, as these issues were not part of earlier national studies. Asked whether their institutions include explicit DEI criteria in tenure standards, 22 percent of respondents said yes.

By institution type, some 30 percent of doctoral universities said they had DEI criteria in their tenure standards, compared to 19 percent of master’s and 18 percent of bachelor’s institutions. By size, 46 percent of large institutions reported having these criteria compared to 16 percent and 15 percent at medium-size and small institutions, respectively.

In some cases, such criteria have been deemed controversial, with groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education arguing that evaluating professors on their contributions to DEI impinges on their academic freedom. But Joerg Tiede, the AAUP’s director of research and author of the survey report, said the association doesn’t agree with claims that DEI criteria are “political litmus tests or somehow akin to loyalty oaths.”

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Anecdotes and arguments aside, Tiede added, prior to this survey, “what was really not known is how widespread the practice is.”

Some 39 percent of institutions also said they’d reviewed their standards for implicit biases, with large institutions being much more likely to do so than others. In some cases these reviews led to changes, such as eliminating student course evaluations (which frequently reflect students’ biases) from the tenure process or broadening tenure standards to weigh more heavily the kinds of service that disproportionately fall on faculty members of color.

Forty percent of institutions had provided training on implicit bias to members of promotion and tenure committees in the last five years, with larger institutions being more likely to do so. On this point, some respondents said they worried about outside influences—such as new state laws against so-called divisive concepts in education—limiting their progress.

Still, 50 percent of institutions with no DEI criteria for tenure said they were considering added them in the future. Some 55 percent of institutions that hadn’t recently reviewed their tenure standards for bias were considering it.

Additional Findings

According to widely followed AAUP recommendations and standards on tenure, the tenure review should happen no later than six years into a professor’s probationary period. The new survey found that 97 percent of institutions have a fixed-length probationary period. That’s a slight increase from 2004, when the figure was 91 percent. Average length remains about six years.

While the AAUP strongly supports clear tenure timelines, the association in 2001 recommended that institutions stop the tenure clock when a candidate has a child, for up to one year each time. The new survey found that this kind of family care policy is far more prevalent (even the norm) now than it was in Trower’s 2000 study: 82 percent versus 17 percent. And of those institutions that offer tenure-clock stoppages today, 93 percent offer them to parents regardless of gender.

Fifty-one percent of institutions explicitly allow stopping the tenure clock for eldercare. But many respondents said these kinds of leave can be negotiated for various reasons. Virtually all doctoral institutions offer tenure-clock stoppages, compared to about three-quarters of small and bachelor’s institutions.

Beyond statistics, the AAUP report notes “the long-term, disparate, and gendered impact of such policies on primary caregivers,” given that women are more likely to stop the clock and therefore delay opportunities for promotions and raises for the rest of their careers. There is “certainly is a need to look for alternative arrangements that avoid this result,” the AAUP report adds. (This criticism of tenure-clock stoppages has been levied against pandemic-related pauses, as well, for the same reasons.)

The AAUP has long opposed tenure quotas, or caps on the share of faculty members who are tenure eligible or tenured, which some institutions say they need to maintain financial flexibility. The federally funded survey last asked about tenure quotas in 1988, when 18 percent of institutions had some kind of quota, formal or informal. Today, that figure is 9 percent. Smaller institutions were most likely to have them.

The AAUP initially opposed tenure quotas by arguing that institutions could raise tenure standards over time if they need to do so. It later backtracked on that guidance, for fear of institutions being unfair to tenure-worthy scholars. The federally funded survey regularly asked about the stringency of tenure standards, finding in 2004 that 13 percent of institutions had made their standards “more stringent” in the past five years. The AAUP found that current answers to this question varied by institutional size and type: 9 percent of small institutions, 16 percent of medium-size institutions and 39 percent of large institutions reported that they’d heightened tenure standards.

Of those, 79 percent said they’d raised research standards, 41 percent said they’d raised teaching standards and 24 percent service.

“While tenure is regularly under attack, by both institutional practice and legislation, it continues to serve as the bulwark in the defense of academic freedom,” the AAUP report concludes. In this light, “it is essential to study practices related to tenure systematically and on a regular basis.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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