by Robert A. Scott
Tenure was adopted in the U.S. in the early 20th Century to protect college and university faculty from interference in teaching and scholarship. Then, as now, politicians and donors threatened the authority and livelihood of faculty and the autonomy and integrity of higher education institutions.
In recent years, numerous state governors and legislators have proposed or passed legislation to eliminate or restrict academic tenure. These actions attack the foundation of American higher education and what makes it attractive to scholars and students from all over the world: institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and protection of professors from the biases and interference of trustees, politicians, donors, and others.
Tenure provides a lifetime appointment that can be terminated only for cause or exceptional circumstances, such as a fiscal exigency of the institution or a discontinued academic program. It is similar to lifetime appointments for justices to protect their independence in adjudicating disputes and interpreting the Constitution.
At its founding in 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement on academic freedom, tenure, and professional responsibilities, including a section detailing procedures. Beginning in 1934, the AAUP and the American Council on Education, the umbrella group for higher education institutions and their leaders, hosted periodic discussions resulting in the 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” still in use.
Tenure is often associated with freedom to pursue scholarship in uncharted areas, not with teaching. Yet curricular and programmatic development is an important form of scholarship that requires imaginative thinking and rethinking of what is taught and how it is taught. Furthermore, tenure benefits students because faculty with it are more likely to engage in a breadth of research, introduce potentially difficult truths, foster a diversity of discovery, and be free from doctrinal constraints.
Critics decry the intellectual freedom of professors to seek the truth no matter where it may lead, especially when they challenge conventional wisdom or reveal inconvenient facts.
Assertions about Tenure
Those who attack tenure often cite myths more than reality. One myth is that tenure is guaranteed lifetime employment. This is not the case, as noted above. Another assertion is that tenure protects “dead wood.” This ignores the rigorous review of candidates for tenure and their potential for continued professional growth as well as the processes of post-tenure review. Another assertion is that the protection of academic freedom by tenure is not needed because of the First Amendment. This argument ignores the difference between an individual’s right to free speech and academic freedom, which is a reciprocal right involving the institution, the scholar, and society.
Still another assertion about tenure is that it is not needed when there is a union contract. This ignores the distinctive features of tenure and collective bargaining agreements.
Tenure Process and Faculty Responsibilities
Tenure is only granted only after a probationary period by the governing board following a recommendation by the president. Over the past several decades, the professoriate has shifted from mostly full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty positions to mostly part-time, adjunct, contingent, or otherwise non-tenure track.
Only about one-third of American college and university faculty were tenured or on tenure-track appointments in 2021, as compared to 53% in 1987.
Part-time faculty members are beneficial in many cases, especially in providing expertise not needed full-time, but they are not an adequate substitute for full-time, tenured faculty. Many have jobs on multiple campuses and neither the office space nor the time necessary to properly advise students, engage in scholarship, or shape academic programs.
Some argue that multiple-year contracts serve as an alternative to tenure-track and tenured faculty positions. These are a poor substitute. Full-time, tenured faculty are partners in governance with the board of trustees and president in fulfilling the mission and satisfying the requirements of an institution’s public charter and its regional and professional accreditations. These are roles for those who have a long-term and vested interest in the institution, not for those who hold temporary appointments.
As higher education continues to evolve in response to demographic, political, economic, and technological forces, so too will the design of academic programs and the qualifications of those hired to teach. Even so, the safeguards for the academic freedom of inquiry and teaching should continue if high quality is to be maintained.
Nevertheless, college and university policies regarding faculty professional development and tenure can be improved. A simple review of the alignment of mission statements and the proportion of students who graduate in even six years indicates that there is a misalignment of goals, strategies, the use of resources, rewards, and results. Institutions should employ rigorous periodic external reviews of academic programs, including their purpose, curricula, faculty expertise, resources, and student expectations and opportunities. Institutions should sponsor post-tenure reviews on a regular schedule to help identify areas of faculty strengths and needs for continuing development. Sabbatical leaves of one or two semesters every five to seven years are an excellent form of continuous improvement. Every other profession requires a form of continuing professional education, and higher education should also.
By engaging the faculty as important partners in governance and mission fulfillment, embracing their academic freedom and the protections of tenure, we can continue to strengthen institutional capacities for fulfilling collegiate purposes and serving the public good.
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