The Eroding Foundations of Academic Freedom and Professional Integrity: Implications of the Diminishing Proportion of Tenured Faculty for Organizational Effectiveness in Higher Education

By Ernst Benjamin

The tenure system is the predominant faculty personnel system in the vast majority of universities and colleges, but a declining proportion of faculty actually hold tenure-track appointments. The full significance of this decline is often underestimated because an appreciation of the tenure system requires an understanding not only of its contribution to academic freedom, but also of how tenure contributes to effective academic organizations. 

Critics of tenure argue that, though tenure may be advantageous to individual faculty, increased use of non-tenure-track appointments best contributes to organizational economy and flexibility through cost savings, eased response to enrollment shifts, and reduced resistance to curricular adaptation and programmatic reforms. Advocates of tenure respond that non-tenure-track appointments weaken the academic profession through the establishment of a two-tier employment structure and diminished protections for professional autonomy. Each of these perspectives finds the value of tenure primarily in its contribution to the rights or privileges of faculty members or of the academic profession. Neither perspective adequately recognizes that tenure is an integral and essential component of academic organization.

Of course, tenure’s defenders, like many of its critics, recognize that tenure safeguards faculty academic freedom, but even the defenders often overlook or minimize the contribution of tenure to routine institutional performance. Peter Blau’s important study, The Organization of Academic Work, asserts, “Tenure and, generally, academic freedom supply many scientists and scholars with rewards that enable a very few to make greater contributions to knowledge than they could without such protection.” The argument that many benefit from a privilege necessary to only a few fuels the argument of critics that many or most faculty or even institutions do not need the protections of tenure. This perspective increases the danger that tenure may become in future what some critics have already proclaimed it: a privileged status afforded to a diminishing top tier in a two-tier faculty employment structure.

View the entire article "The Eroding Foundations of Academic Freedom and Professional Integrity: Implications of the Diminishing Proportion of Tenured Faculty for Organizational Effectiveness in Higher Education."

Ernst Benjamin is a senior consultant to the AAUP and a consultant member of the AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Prior to his retirement he served AAUP twice as General Secretary (2006–08 and 1984– 94) and as Director of Research (1995–2001). Benjamin taught at Wayne State University from 1965 to 1984 where he was AAUP chapter chief negotiator, chapter president 1975–79, and a director and dean (1981–84). He was chair of the national AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress (1976–80) and a member of the AAUP National Council. His publications include ”Academic Freedom: An Everyday Concern” (with Don Wagner), 1994; and Exploring the Role of Contingent Instructional Staff in Undergraduate Learning, 2004; and Academic Collective Bargaining (ed. with Michael Mauer), 2006.

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