The slow death of tenure has been one of the most lamented trends in higher education, but a handful of institutions are trying to breathe new life into the institution.
Over the past few years, administrators at the Sage Colleges -- a collection of three colleges in Troy and Albany, New York -- have worked to re-establish a tenure-track system across all three colleges after more than a decade of hiring almost all new faculty members on multiyear contracts without the possibility of tenure.
Administrators said the change was made with the goal of attracting a higher-caliber faculty member to improve the institution’s academic profile, creating better systems for reviewing faculty, and potentially creating more financial flexibility.
Now a year into the new system, Sage administrators said they’re seeing immediate returns, including a better pool of job applicants and more engagement in shared governance.
And Sage is not alone. Other institutions, such as Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, have also moved in recent years to re-establish their tenure-track polices. The success the provosts of both institutions have had in convincing skeptical boards that re-establishing tenure – a move that goes against prevailing trends – was a good thing to do for their institutions could give hope to other administrators and faculty leaders pushing for similar changes.
“What we found was that multiyear contracts, part-time adjuncts, multiyear system was not all it’s cracked up to be,” said Terry Weiner, provost at the Sage Colleges.
'De Facto Tenure'
Over the past few decades, the overwhelming majority of new faculty positions in higher education have come from non-tenure-track jobs.
In 1975, about 57 percent of all instructor positions (excluding graduate students) were either tenured or on the tenure track, according to a study by the American Association of University Professors. By 2009, the percentage had dropped to about 30 percent. According to a study chronicling change in the profession  by the American Federation of Teachers that looked at changes between 1997 and 2007, non-tenure-track faculty members made up the majority of instructors in all sectors of higher education by the end of the study.
The main motivation cited by higher education administrators for this growth in non-tenured faculty members has been financial trouble. Theoretically, hiring faculty members on limited contracts allows an institution to be more flexible with the size of its staff and the programs it offers. Hiring part-time faculty also allows institutions to avoid some benefit costs, as many colleges do not offer full benefits to part-time faculty members. At many institutions, the use of tenure-track faculty has declined as a percentage of the overall faculty as institutions replace only some retiring tenured faculty members with those on the tenure track. But at others, administrators stopped hiring faculty on the tenure track altogether, opting instead to hire faculty members on multiyear contracts.
Weiner said both financial and curricular factors were at play in Sage’s decision to move away from tenure-track positions during the 1990s and 2000s. But financial uncertainty dominated the conversation. “The result was that the board and the previous president became very hesitant about making long-term commitments and began to move the hiring process to multiyear contracts,” he said.
Lynn Abraham, who has been on Sage's board since 1997, said the colleges' previous administration feared crossing a threshold of tenured faculty members above which balancing the institutions' finances would be difficult. Board members, most of whom came from business backgrounds where regular performance reviews were standard practice, embraced the shift away from tenure, believing it would strengthen faculty performance.
New faculty members were hired on three-year contracts and faced an annual review with their department chairs. By the time Weiner became provost, about 50 percent of the faculty was on multiyear contracts instead of being tenured or on the tenure track, and many of them had been operating in that system for more than a decade. He and Abraham both said this was causing numerous problems for the institution.
“This had become de facto tenure,” Weiner said. “As any provost who deals with this can tell you, you can say you have the right – because the contract allows it, because the [American Association of University Professors] allows it – to let multiyear faculty go, but you’re going to pay a very heavy price. Once people have been there for 10 years, they’re embedded in the institution. They’ve created networks and support systems. It becomes politically difficult to remove them.”
“It was the worst of both worlds,” said Abraham, who is now the board's vice chair and head of the board's academic affairs committee. “We were locked into a multiyear contract review process... and we couldn’t attract the bright new people we needed to pump up academic programs.”
At the same time, because there were so few faculty members with tenure, there was a lack of participation in shared governance. Weiner said despite the "de facto tenure" there was still apprehension among the faculty about speaking out against the direction of the administration.
Faculty on multiyear contracts were reviewed annually, and Weiner said that annual review was not allowing for a thorough, comprehensive review. There was some concern that the quality of teaching and learning was slipping without any measures in place to provide feedback to faculty members.
“There never really was an opportunity to stop, put together a portfolio, look at it holistically with student evaluations, service, published work, papers, conferences, and give it a thorough review,” Weiner said. “Instead, it was a cursory one-year review and it had become an automatic thing.”
Changing the Practice
Weiner – who came to Sage from Union College, a more traditional liberal arts college – made the decision to push for re-establishing tenure shortly after becoming provost. Sage had ambitions of becoming a university, which requires the addition of another research-focused doctoral program, and wanted to improve the caliber of the institution at the same time to attract students.
“I went to the leadership and asked to go to the board with a proposal that runs against the grain,” he said. “I said, ‘I know it goes against everything you read in your trusteeship magazines, but instead of getting rid of tenure, why don’t we strengthen it?’ ”
Weiner proposed a system in which all the faculty members currently on multiyear contracts would be given a choice about whether to move to the tenure track and face a tenure review or become professors of the practice and face a more rigorous contract review every three years. All new faculty members hired at Sage would fall into one category or the other.
Faculty who wanted to and who were approved by their department chair and dean could move into the tenure track to face tenure review down the road. The college would bring in external reviewers for tenure decisions. “We had to assure them that this was not going to be an incestuous decision by insiders,” Weiner said. Abraham noted that the external review was a major selling point for the board.
For the time being, the plan is to use external review for all tenure decisions, though administrators say the long-term details of the plan are still up in the air.
The other option was to become a professor of the practice, where more emphasis would be placed on teaching. Instead of scholarship, these faculty members would be required to engage in professional development. Professors who were already employed by the university would be expected to continue to teach three courses a semester. New professors of the practice will be required to teach higher course loads.
All faculty members would be expected to engage in university service.
About one-third of the faculty members – particularly those in liberal arts disciplines – moved to the tenure track. About two-thirds decided to become professors of the practice.
Lynn Capirsello, a professor of interior design, was one of the faculty members who chose to become a professor of the practice. She said that while most of the other faculty members in her program applied for the tenure track, she wanted to focus on teaching. "It was a pretty easy decision for me," she said. "I want to be in the classroom first and foremost, working with the people who are going to be the future of the field."
Tonya Moutray, an assistant professor of English literature, was one of the faculty members who decided to shift to the tenure track when the college made the option available. Moutray, who came to Sage in 2005 out of graduate school at the University of Connecticut, held out hope that she would eventually be given the option at Sage to face review for tenure. "I’ve always seen myself as wanting to achieve the benchmarks in my profession, and in English that means taking that more traditional academic path with tenure," she said.
During her time on multiyear contracts, Moutray said she kept up her research and scholarship in case such an option became available. She is up for review this year.
Weiner and others said the decision to begin offering tenure-track jobs had an immediate impact on the university’s faculty recruitment, particularly for the more traditional academic fields. “The quality of the pool of applicants is stronger, as is our capacity to hire and retain faculty,” he said.
Sage is located in a part of the country with many other small private institutions that do offer tenured positions, which made recruiting more difficult. “We’re not a rich institution; we struggle. We’re not able to offer big salaries, and to have the double whammy of not being able to offer tenure hurts our recruitment,” Weiner said.
Abraham said the combination of tenure plus increased salaries and an improved process of faculty development changed the composition of job applicants. "The latest class of new faculty are really quite outstanding," Abraham said. "The diversity of the candidates, their backgrounds, their teaching experience. I think [Weiner] was right on as far as we weren't getting the A+ professors applying. If the latest round of new faculty is any indication, it was absolutely the right move."
Beyond recruiting, Weiner said the shift to more formalized roles has led to greater participation in institutional governance by both the tenure-track faculty members and the professors of practice. “When you get tenure it’s easier to buy into an institution,” Weiner said. “Presidents come and go. I’ve lived through five presidents. That’s my institution, not his or her institution.”
Moutray said the potential to become a tenured faculty member at Sage changed her relationship with the institution. "I always thought of Sage as having the potential for such a change. I like the community and I wanted to stay," she said. "Now that I'm up for tenure, in my mind this is going to make my career possible here -- not just my career, but my life. I'm seeing myself here for the long term.
"It demonstrates a commitment from Sage to the faculty, to the institution itself, that they're willing to create a sustainable place for us to do our work and teach," she said. "Among the faculty here it has really increased morale."
A handful of professors of practice were put on probationary review after the new system was put in place. “We tried to finally give them the feedback missing,” Weiner said. “They needed to see some improvement, and when the next contract is reviewed, there will be that expectation of improvement.”
Weiner said the fact that only one-third of the faculty members on multiyear contracts decided to pursue tenure assuaged some trustees’ fears that the institution would become “tenured up” and unable to respond to fluctuating circumstances.