From Sacred Cow to Sacrificial Lamb

When tenure’s postmortem is written, many culprits are sure to be held accountable for its steady -- and now accelerating -- erosion, write Scott Latham and Michael Braun.

July 27, 2021
 
 
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The pandemic has called into question many of higher education’s core pillars, such as college athletics, the residential campus model, the role of online education and sage-on-the-stage pedagogy. Not surprisingly, tenure has not escaped the critical glare of higher education observers, with a growing chorus asking about its present-day relevance, especially post-COVID. Of note, a recent Wall Street Journal article stated that tenured faculty currently make up 30 percent of professors, down from 80 percent in the 1970s, with this percentage expected to continue to fall by over half within a generation.

The most frequent reason cited in a widespread narrative is that efficiency-driven administrators view tenure as the biggest obstacle to cost restructuring. Indeed, the economic calculus is pretty straightforward -- take the 30-year lifetime salary of a tenure-track professor earning $125,000 annually, and the fixed-cost financial commitment to a single tenured faculty member can easily exceed $4 million, including benefits. In aggregate, with the cost of faculty instruction representing almost a third of the fixed cost structure of most four-year institutions, it is understandable why administrators are setting their sights on tenure.

Yet while administrative action is certainly a factor in tenure’s decline, this characterization is too simplistic. As scholars studying organizational decline for the past two decades, we can say with confidence that the causes for decline and collapse are never attributable to one single factor but rather more akin to death by a thousand cuts. The same holds true for tenure’s potential demise: while administrators are seemingly at the top of the list as responsible, when tenure’s postmortem is written, many culprits are sure to be held accountable.

Identifying the Culprits

In an attempt to move away from the blame-game cacophony, we identify the following, interrelated causes of tenure’s initially steady -- and now accelerating -- erosion.

Business model disconnect. Not surprisingly, tenure’s increasingly precarious footing has come on the heels of a shift toward customer-centric business models in higher education. The disconnect between the long-standing supply-side equation and the emerging demand curve has been decades in the making -- with new entrants catering to discriminating students and their parents with skills- and competency-based offerings. These value propositions are resonating not just with younger generations of undergraduates looking to pencil out their investment in money and time but also with growing numbers of nontraditional learners.

In many cases, instead of bestowing tenure on faculty members due to their research qualifications, institutions will assess them based on the exceptional customer service, if not a customer experience, they can deliver. At a time when most colleges and universities are enrollment driven, academic freedom is increasingly less relevant to the value proposition. If anything, in this age of social media, tenured professors who alienate students may well stand in direct opposition to a customer-centric business model.

Technology acceleration. Artificial intelligence doesn’t need tenure. And while Luddites can discount the role that technology will play in the future of higher education, COVID-19 has only accelerated its trajectory. We are already seeing inroads of AI into K-12 teaching, and early innovators are starting to examine how it can be deployed in higher education. Highly standardized content like accounting can easily be taught by an AI bot, with a blog entry in Inside Higher Ed suggesting that academe could learn from Roomba. Yes, the automated vacuum.

Separately, Amazon and Google are rapidly establishing themselves as tech-enabled credentialing factories that can pave the path to high-paying, in-demand jobs. With AI and corporate tech certifications on one end of the spectrum, traditional higher ed -- still stuck on the opposite end -- has a long, long way to go.

Doing more with (a lot) less. With traditional universities being picked off by nimbler, asset-light players passing on the industrial complex, the emerging gold standard is a combination of human capital and technology that can meet tomorrow’s learners where they are. That means that course offerings and their schedules are becoming increasingly disaggregated -- for many learners, a 15-week on-campus semester inhibits the flexibility to meet life’s other demands. With the rigid, almost totalitarian, academic schedule becoming increasingly brittle, the specialties of tenure-track faculty members are giving way to instructors whose primary responsibility involves curating and facilitating a “learn-do” journey that can make room for internships, labs and other practical and applied learning opportunities.

Broken incentive structures. Originally well intended, tenure has turned from an academic feature into a bug. Its protective powers that allow faculty to express views without the risk of retribution may still have relevancy in certain domains. But in many instances, tenure greases the skids for satisficing behavior, social loafing and lack of innovation. The unintended consequence is that key stakeholders such as politicians, trustees and even members of the general public have begun to question the true value of tenure.

At a time when tenure can use its defenders, a growing swath of faculty is abandoning the institution, if not in body, then in mind and soul. With some scholars arguing that tenure is increasingly a classist, gendered and/or racist artifact, a binary view of its privilege is being put forth: if tenure isn’t available to all, then no one should be eligible. As tenure shifts back toward a protective shield for faculty who truly need it, the rest of us may want to sit down and pencil out whether our individual contributions to academic freedom have been additive or subtractive.

All of the above causes are facilitated by a various contributors to tenure’s precipitous decline -- including textbook publishers, whose boxed materials take the burden off teaching innovation; accreditors, whose outdated guidelines continue to hamstring institutional responses to changing market demands; and long-standing institutional practices, including those of academic publishing that, in many cases, do not serve the learner. What has become apparent from the multitude of puncture wounds to academic tenure is that the sacred cow seems to be quickly bleeding out.

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Possible Consequences of a Posttenure World

If tenure is indeed in its death throes, what might the emerging covenant between the university and faculty look like? For the vast majority of institutions outside the top 100 in U.S. News & World Report, the instructional labor force will look quite different. These institutions will revert to hiring faculty as free agents, mirroring every other job across both for-profit and nonprofit sectors in the United States, where job security is a function of performance and cost benefit. It’s not unlikely that employment contracts will span three to five years, with more rigorous re-evaluations required for renewal.

As with many other aspects of higher education, employment contracts may well break down across academic class lines, with elite institutions having the means to continue to employ a tenured faculty. It is also likely that tenure can remain a useful incentive mechanism at STEM-oriented institutions whose rock star faculty can secure grant funding. What is increasingly apparent, however, is that administrators will have to convert tenure from a “must-have” built-in to a “nice-to-have” option.

In Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Sun Also Rises, when prompted with the question of how he went bankrupt, one of the characters quips, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Similarly, leaders in higher education have known for decades that the traditional business model was coming undone yet failed to adapt their organizational structures, practices and culture to face rapidly changing environmental conditions. With the pandemic having extinguished the decade higher education leaders thought they had to fix their institutions, the clock is now running down for many. They have run out of time, and the pressure to address costs will be exacerbated.

With undergraduate attendance down 6 percent over the past year, additional budget cuts may well transform academic tenure from sacred cow into the sacrificial lamb needed to finally usher in the financial flexibility and market responsiveness necessary for survival. As we prepare to welcome a radical new volume in the long-standing history of the academy, we raise a toast to the last generation of tenured professors who will have enjoyed its many privileges.

Bio

Scott Latham is associate professor of strategy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Michael Braun is professor of management at the University of Montana.

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