Preserving Tenure: A Term Tenure Proposal

What if tenure was awarded for a set term—say, 35 years—regardless of your age at the time you received it? Herman Berliner explores the advantages.

November 29, 2021
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I was awarded tenure at a time when the mandatory retirement age was 65, and I was happily looking forward to a 35-year career as a tenured faculty member. In 1982, 70 became the age for mandatory retirement. Then, beginning in 1994, there was no longer any mandatory retirement age for faculty at all. My wonderful 35-year opportunity had become even more wonderful!

Standing for tenure, as every faculty member knows, is stressful. It typically entails a detailed assessment and evaluation of a faculty member’s teaching, scholarship and service within the context of the long-term needs of the university involved—criteria often only tangentially under control of the faculty member standing for tenure. Those criteria center on the demand for faculty in the discipline involved, especially full-time, tenure-track and tenured faculty members. How large is the supply of these faculty? What are the needs in the other disciplines? What does enrollment look like in each discipline and over all? What are the priorities of the college or university? Much of this is both objective and subjective, and open to interpretation.

In my case, when I was granted tenure in 1975, all full-time faculty members in economics became tenured—and this at a time when both departmental enrollment and total enrollment were a concern. What strengthened the case for our tenure was that several faculty members were approaching retirement, providing an opportunity to hire new faculty, whether on the tenure track or not, and to fill those positions, even if student demand for the discipline did not increase. That, together with optimism for the future, made the difference in the criteria.

Today, however, tenure throughout higher education is clearly in peril, as is our ability to advance the knowledge base and assure the preservation of academic freedom. Besides the traditional longer-term needs, the academic side of a college or university now competes for resources with numerous other institutional areas—including, among others, student scholarships, health services, advising and other student support, diversity/inclusion/equity programs, legal guidance, athletics, and technology and cybersecurity—in an expanding universe.

Tenured faculty are the heart of that universe, and a sizable number remain well past what had earlier been the time to leave their positions. On this continuum, we can find faculty with 25 years of service, 30 and 35 years, 40 years and growing numbers with 50 years. Those senior faculty are earning senior salaries and fringe benefits that only increase in cost over time; in fact, their compensation is often double or more what new faculty members receive. Many of those faculty are still terrific in all areas—teaching, scholarship and service. Others are not so terrific in one or more of theme, and some are on autopilot (or worse).

Posttenure review, in theory, should highlight both the terrific and the not so terrific and provide an impetus for change. But those reviews, after the promotion to full professor and except for sabbaticals, which often focus solely on scholarship, have been limited in their effectiveness. Being a full professor, having seniority, still provides significant privilege and power. Being willing to only teach during certain hours or certain courses, or to carry out only certain departmental responsibilities, are often manifestations of that privilege and power. And on a personal level, how can you give a negative review to your next-door senior colleague, your coffee buddy and your colleague for decades? And what would that person then say when evaluating you?

Higher education leaders are aware of the situation but are often not dealing with it. Instead, they are hiring fewer full-time, tenure-track faculty and more adjunct and contract faculty who are usually less expensive—making more resources available for the many other needs that their institutions are confronting. The changes to date have been dramatic. When I started teaching, about 75 percent of the faculty in the United States were tenured or on the tenure track, and now about the same percentage are not tenured or on the tenure track.

But while the financial savings are clear, not as visible are the costs involved. Adjunct faculty do excellent work, but with a very different commitment of time and effort tied to their conditions of employment. Counseling and mentoring of students and engagement in curricular reform, governance and the like are often not expected of adjuncts, although those initiatives are needed in order to create an excellent educational experience. And while research is required for each discipline’s knowledge base to retain its vitality, adjuncts and contract faculty are often not trained in or focused on scholarship.

A New Proposition

We are in a challenging situation. A mandatory retirement age is not an option—we can’t address our issues through age discrimination. We also can’t resolve them by further reducing the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty; in fact, we should be affirming their importance. We also need to admit that to preserve and restore tenure to its level of prominence will require an adjustment, that, under a scenario I am proposing, takes the form of returning to the traditional benefits that accompanied tenure. Let’s consider, what if tenure was awarded for a set term—say, 35 years—regardless of your age at the time you received it? Isn’t a 35-year contract a wonderful long-term opportunity? Age is no longer a factor, and “forever appointments” are no longer possible. How great is the productivity toward the end of a “forever” appointment? It is important to note that 35-year (term) tenure would still work if you changed institutions. Just as prior service can count toward a tenure probationary period, prior service can also count toward the 35-year term.

With 35-year tenure, all concerns are not resolved, but institutional planning is possible. We would know when faculty members who are tenured were scheduled to leave, and we could plan for replacements accordingly. We should still advocate for a more substantive posttenure review system, but even absent such a program, additional turnover would be built into the system.

In implementing this term tenure system, we also need to include a commitment that as resources are saved, they are reinvested in tenure-track faculty in those areas with a clear need. Just as we can determine appropriate class sizes by discipline and course and adhere to them, we can also determine by discipline what classes should best be taught by full-time faculty members and what departmental or collegewide responsibilities should be carried out to maintain quality and invest in the future. We also can incorporate short-term demographic data and plan for what the likely impact will be. Therefore, we can determine what our needs are in terms of both full-time-equivalent faculty and, more precisely, full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty. We must be intentional in these determinations, rather than filling or not filling those openings that just happen to occur.

For decades, accrediting agencies have used these variables to determine personnel needs, which they often translate into requirements. We can extend this type of analysis to determine the need for faculty in a similar manner across the board.

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What if, after these 35 years, a faculty member would like to stay, or the institution would like the faculty member to stay? Should there be any exceptions? Not in my opinion. But the faculty member should have the opportunity to apply for a one-year contracts with annual reviews, so it would not be an entitlement but a merit-based opportunity. Merit, which typically works well when a person stands for tenure and promotion, should also function more prominently at the later stages of a person’s career.

This type of term tenure program could take as long as 40 years after first implemented to realize the maximum benefit in additional full-time faculty lines. Yet the benefits would be continuous and accumulate over time as we approach a more optimal situation. Meanwhile, the consequences of not changing the system are to further erode the heart of the system. If we look back and restore what worked better than what is happening now, we would be at least making much-needed progress.

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Herman Berliner is the Lawrence Herbert Distinguished Professor at Hofstra University. He has also served a total of 28 years as provost of the university and 12 years as dean of the Zarb School of Business.


Herman Berliner

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