Fundamental Freedom or Fringe Benefit? Rice University and the Administrative History of Tenure, 1935–1963

By Caitlin Rosenthal

Despite deep historical roots, tenure as we know it today has a relatively short history. Although the most prominent professors occasionally received special tenure privileges as early as the Middle Ages, tenure as a general practice is a twentieth-century invention.

In 1915, the recently established AAUP published a Declaration of Principles recognizing that the “dignity” of the professorial office required “security of tenure.” But the declaration provided little detail about what exactly “security of tenure” might mean or which policies should be adopted. The meaning of tenure remained unstable until at least 1940, when the AAUP codified its evolving position in a new Statement of Principles. This platform outlined the need for a “probationary period” in tenure-track positions and also specified two goals: (1) “freedom of teaching and research” and (2) “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive.”

Most research has focused on the first of these, depicting tenure as the handmaiden of academic freedom. Scholars have focused on the advocacy of professors, with administrators most often appearing as reluctant collaborators or in the role of the villain. This picture is incomplete: at many universities, administrators took the lead. In his classic account, Walter Metzger acknowledged that the Association of American Colleges, an organization of university presidents, played an important role in the development of the 1940 Statement of Principles. The Statement was formulated in a series of joint conferences in 1937 and 1938. However, despite this collaborative process, relatively little attention been paid to the broader role of administrators in formalizing tenure practices at American universities.

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