What Is Tenure? A Look at the Past, Present, and Future

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What Is Tenure? A Look at the Past, Present, and Future

March 5, 2021

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Tenure has been a fixture of American higher education for almost a century, yet the practice remains mired in controversy. To some, it's a necessary aspect of faculty life, a protector of academic freedom and the unfettered pursuit of knowledge. To others, it's an outdated concept, a "boondoggle" that shelters unproductive professors and hamstrings universities eager to adapt to current marketplace demands.

Is tenure still a viable reality for colleges and universities? Are the alternatives truly better options? And is tenure here to stay — or are its days numbered?

A Definition of Tenure in Higher Education

Universities offer faculty various types of appointments. Some professors work full time, while others are part time or adjunct. Among full-time faculty, the main distinction involves tenure.

A newly hired professor begins as either tenure track or non-tenure track. A non-tenure-track professor will have a short-term contract — usually one to three years, though some range as high as five or more — that can be renewed at the institution's discretion.

A tenure-track professor will have a probationary period, up to seven years, in which to earn tenure. If they do, they have an indefinite appointment. If tenure is denied, however, they can remain on the faculty for one "terminal" year while searching for a position elsewhere.

What Is the Purpose of the Tenure Track?

The primary reason tenure exists is to protect academic freedom. If faculty can be fired for unpopular or controversial speech, research findings, or publications, then they cannot freely pursue and transmit knowledge.

Consider a faculty member whose scholarship or opinions run counter to the campus political culture and to the beliefs held by the school's administration and board. Might that professor's academic work be stifled by fear of recrimination? Universities champion the unbridled pursuit of the truth and the free marketplace of ideas, and tenure exists to guarantee these rights.

Ah, you say, but what about the First Amendment? Doesn't that protect academic free speech? Yes, and no. While it's true the First Amendment prevents government agencies, including public colleges, from restricting speech, that right doesn't extend as fully to private colleges. Still, the Supreme Court has noted that academic freedom is a "special concern of the First Amendment."

In addition to protecting academic freedom, tenure provides mutual benefits to both the professor and the university.

Tenure also provides mutual benefits to both the professor and the university. In exchange for offering greater job security and reduced risk of unemployment, institutions can pay lower salaries to attract faculty and woo them away from more lucrative opportunities in the private sector.

The concept and practice of academic tenure was codified by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which was formed in 1915. The group's 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure advanced the notion that the "common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition."

This statement was endorsed by AAUP, which to this day upholds the value of academic freedom and censures institutions that violate such rights.

Tenured Professors Can Still Be Fired

Despite offering a lifetime of security and protection, tenure doesn't guarantee a professor can't be fired or otherwise released. If a university suffers "financial exigency" — a serious fiscal crisis — tenured faculty can lose their jobs. Similarly, if a program, department, or school within a university is eliminated, tenured faculty could be eliminated as well.

These days, with enrollment dropping and colleges losing revenue from tuition, room, and board due to the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions are forced to make difficult decisions, such as cutting tenured faculty.

A thornier situation involves tenured professors fired for cause, including what the original 1940 statement termed "moral turpitude." A faculty member can be terminated for incompetence, violation of institutional policies, negligence, immoral conduct, and, increasingly, speech deemed offensive.

In recent years, professors at the University of Southern California, Central Michigan University, and Duquesne University have been fired for using racial slurs in class. Even making controversial posts on social media can lead to recrimination and termination, as professors at Indiana University Bloomington, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Louisiana at Monroe discovered.

Critics of tenure suggest it shields incompetent faculty, especially older professors who have become complacent and teach outdated material.

Critics of tenure suggest it shields incompetent faculty, especially older professors who have become complacent and teach outdated material from yellowed lecture notes. Until 1982, many universities had a mandatory retirement age of 65. That year, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act raised it to 70, and further amendments in 1986 prohibited any mandatory retirement age.

As a result, the number of professors aged 65 or older nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010. How productive these older faculty are remains unclear, but more faculty teaching well into their golden years means fewer openings for young professors.

To encourage continued professional development and teaching quality, universities conduct post-tenure reviews. These peer evaluations examine various aspects of a professor's activities, including their teaching, research, and service to the institution and the profession as a whole.

Some colleges require faculty to undergo post-tenure reviews every few years, while others carry them out only under special circumstances, such as following numerous negative teaching evaluations. In extreme cases, continued poor performance on post-tenure reviews can lead to termination.

States and Schools Seek Alternatives to Tenure

Once a bedrock of faculty life, tenure now appears to be eroding on college campuses. Increasingly, faculty positions are held by part-time adjuncts and professors not on the tenure track.

From 1975 to 2015, full-time tenured positions declined 26%, and tenure-track positions dropped 50%. At the same time, non-tenure-track appointments increased 62%. Today, 3 out of 4 faculty hired are off the tenure track.

Today, 3 out of 4 faculty hired are off the tenure track.

Some states have begun measures to reduce or eliminate tenure at public universities. Responding to efforts by the system's board to meddle in post-tenure review procedures, faculty at the University of Tennessee called the actions "a stealth move to chip away at tenure, part of a steady campaign taking place throughout higher education that, if it continues, might just eventually kill tenure."

Legislators in Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Arkansas have made similar moves to weaken tenure, and officials in Iowa and Missouri have introduced measures to end it completely.

At the institutional level, some colleges are forgoing tenure appointments in favor of long-term contracts. The University of Denver, for instance, employs professors who've taught at the school for more than 20 years but have never been on the tenure track.

Faculty such as this — at DU and elsewhere — are called "teaching professors," "clinical professors," and "professors of the practice." Even without tenure, faculty at DU are afforded the same guarantee of academic freedom their tenured counterparts receive.

The Future of Tenure at U.S. Colleges

So if the primary benefit of tenure is to protect academic freedom — and academic freedom is protected without tenure — then why keep tenure?

From the administration's perspective, tenure is an expensive and unwieldy proposition. The decision to tenure a faculty member can cost a university hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, over that person's career. Hiring part-time adjuncts to teach the same courses is far less expensive.

Hiring part-time adjuncts to teach the same courses is far less expensive than hiring tenured faculty.

In addition, a heavily tenured faculty limits an institution's ability to create new programs, redeploy resources, and remain nimble and responsive to market demands. In today's competitive higher education environment, having a tenure-heavy institution is akin to steering the Queen Mary through a slalom course.

One problematic scenario involves the elimination of tenure on some campuses and not others. If legislators succeed in eradicating tenure at their public institutions, those universities likely will lose top faculty and new recruits to private schools and publics in other states.

And don't assume colleges that eliminate tenure would have to pay faculty more to compensate for the relative lack of job security. The market for new faculty features far more supply than demand. Fierce competition for positions will keep salaries in check.

Tenure is unlikely to disappear from American campuses anytime soon, but if trends continue as they have for the past couple of generations, tenure might eventually become a relic of a bygone era.

Feature Image: Adam Crowley / Getty Images

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