As budget constraints and political attacks continue to threaten the positions of tenured faculty at some institutions, one university is newly embracing indefinite faculty appointments and taking an expansive approach that will make tenure widely available to faculty members rather than to just a select few.
Adler University, a private university that offers graduate degrees online and at its campuses in Chicago and Vancouver, British Columbia, announced earlier this month that it will offer all full-time faculty who have worked at the university for at least five years and reached the rank of associate professor the opportunity to apply for tenure for the first time in the 2024–25 academic year.
This plan defies national trends. While the majority of higher ed institutions offer tenure, the proportion of tenured full-time faculty members declined from 39 percent in 1987 to about 24 percent in 2021, according to the American Association of University Professors.
“We are trying to increase equitable access to opportunities for our faculty,” said Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, Adler’s vice president for academic affairs. “Our model has been that people enter Adler from practice. We would like to have a more standard way faculty can experience employment at the university that’s in line with faculty employment at other universities.”
Adler, which was founded in 1952, was previously known as the Adler School of Professional Psychology and has long relied on practicing clinicians to teach courses. But in the mid-2010s, the institution rebranded itself as a more traditional university, and those efforts have included discussions about tenure.
“Since we have decided we are going to be a university, our faculty has taken more of an interest in research and publications, and we’re trying to support that,” said Uzzi, who added that Adler will remain primarily a teaching institution. “It’s about transforming Adler into not just a professional school but a university with a diversity of programs with an infrastructure for student support and research support.”
But research isn’t the only aspect on which faculty members seeking tenure will be evaluated. Teaching, university service, student advising, scholarship, grant writing and other significant projects will also be considered. “Faculty work at most institutions is very student-focused,” Uzzi said. “Adler’s tenure program will value faculty work in a way that represents the reality of faculty work.”
The university currently employs 89 full-time faculty members whose teaching contracts typically last between one and five years. While not all of those faculty members may be interested in applying for tenure, those who earn it have the potential to strengthen Adler’s learning environment.
‘Doesn’t Feel Like a Threat’
“This creates a stable workforce, where the faculty member has the expectation of long-term employment, and the institution also has the expectation that they are employing their tenured faculty workforce long term,” Uzzi said. “When faculty feel stable, supported, respected and valued, they are happier. Students benefit from having satisfied, committed faculty in our classrooms.”
Kristina Brown, professor and chair of the couples’ and family therapy department, has been at Adler since 2015 and plans to apply for tenure.
“I’m excited for the opportunities that tenure would support, not only for protections within my university, but also my research,” said Brown whose work focuses on sexual harassment in higher education. “Often the research I’m doing can be a little challenging to the status quo or to the system. It feels like a protection of my voice and support of the work I’m doing in being a social justice advocate.”
Brown is serving on the university committee working on implementing the new tenure process. One aspect that’s already decided is that if a faculty member is denied tenure, they aren’t automatically out of a job and can reapply. Brown, who is in the process of hiring faculty for her department, said it’s an additional benefit to advertise to job applicants.
“It doesn’t feel like a threat,” she said. Instead, it sends a message that “We know you’re here because you’re committed to your work and social justice and we’re going to support you.”
That approach differentiates Adler from most institutions, where junior faculty members are often under pressure to perform well if they want to keep their positions long term.
Uzzi understands those pressures firsthand. Before she took the job at Adler, she was on the tenure track at Whitman College in Washington and later earned tenure at the University of Southern Maine, where her position was eliminated, along with 50 other full-time faculty members, amid a budget shortfall in 2014.
“My academic career was over. That was it. I had to go into administration to feed my family,” said Uzzi, who later became provost of USM before coming to Adler in 2022. That experience has made her hyperfocused on creating a sustainable university where that won’t happen.
“If I have anything to say about it, the university will be sustainable enough that we can keep our promises to our employees,” she said.
Another potential advantage to Adler’s approach to tenure is increasing faculty diversity.
Women and people of color are vastly underrepresented nationally in tenured or tenure-track positions. Women make up 44 percent of tenure-track faculty members and 36 percent of full professors, according to the American Association of University Women. As of fall 2021, 60.5 percent of assistant professors were white, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Nearly 71 percent of those at the associate professor level were white, and 76 percent at the full professor level were white.
According to Uzzi, Adler’s faculty body is already more diverse (65 percent are female and 44 percent are nonwhite) than the national average.
“It’s really important that this population—our faculty, which is also serving a diverse student body—have access to the institution of tenure, which has been central to university education for 100 years,” she said. “We really want to offer this opportunity to our faculty and to try to counteract some of the other trends going on in higher education, where you see faculty diversifying but access to tenure decreasing.”
Anita Levy, a senior program officer for the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, said Adler’s rare approach to tenure has multiple potential benefits, including elevating historically marginalized faculty groups.
“Every contingent position that can be converted to a tenured or probationary-for-tenure position is likely to be of greater benefit to women and BIPOC faculty,” she said.
She believes giving more faculty members the opportunity to earn tenure, and in turn stronger academic freedom protections, will also translate to a stronger student learning experience.
“Tenure and the security of the position it offers really protects faculty in the classroom to be able to teach their subjects as they see fit in their particular field. That can only be a benefit for students to get a higher-quality education,” Levy said. “When faculty feel like they’re looking over their shoulders either at administrators, boards or even legislators who may want to interfere in the classroom, that has an injurious effect on academic freedom.”
Attacks on tenure have become part of the higher education landscape.
The Texas Senate proposed legislation earlier this year that would have ended tenure at the state’s public colleges and universities. It failed, but the Legislature did pass a bill that gives university boards the power to evaluate tenure and tenured professors. Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed new legislation in May that requires the Florida Board of Governors to adopt a posttenure-review policy for public institutions and prohibits faculty tenure, firings and other personnel decisions from being arbitrated. (A group of faculty has since filed a lawsuit calling for restoration of their arbitration rights.)
Levy cautioned that while Adler’s tenure program seems like it will offer stronger protections for faculty, the policy’s details will be critical.
“The importance of tenure is the maintenance of due process in cases of dismissal or other administrative actions,” she said. “That will be the critical part—whether their regulations will reflect the due process that should be available to tenured faculty.”
Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, characterized Adler’s tenure plan as “a brilliant move” because “any institution that wants to distinguish itself as bucking the tide and going in the right direction, this is the right time for that.”
In 2015, he co-authored the book The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, which proposed converting non-tenure-track jobs to teaching-based tenure-track lines.
To his knowledge, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is the only institution to implement that proposal. The university announced plans in 2021 to add a total of 45 teaching-intensive tenure-track positions, reserved for existing non-tenure-track instructors.
Bérubé said Adler’s plan goes even further than what he proposed in his book.
“If you apply and you don’t get it, you’re not up or out. That’s great because there’s literally no cost to try to convert to the tenure track,” he said. “Tenure should be part of the job for anyone teaching in college who wants it.”