Tenure Matters: An Historian’s Perspective

By Richard F. Teichgraeber III


This paper juxtaposes (i) the findings of the 2006 Modern Language Association Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion with (ii) the story that Alvin Kernan tells -- in his professorial memoir In Plato’s Cave (1999) -- about his pursuit of tenure at Yale in the 1950s and early 1960s to advance the view that “tenure” is best understood as a practice defined by a set of protocols that have been created and elaborated over time. Seeing that tenure has a history, I argue, requires sorting out a complex set of aims, actions, and expectations that have defined institutional relationships. These include roles of authority, professionals’ standards, constraints, rewards, and sanctions, all of which have changed over time. When Kernan began his career sixty years ago, for example, authority for tenure decisions at almost all American colleges and universities lay entirely in the hands of boards of trustees, presidents, senior academic administrators, and department chairmen. Only in the last decades of the twentieth century did it become standard practice to ground tenure decisions in the assumption that the most competent judges of the qualities of candidates for tenure were already tenured faculty working in a similar field. The aims of “tenure” understood simply as a continuous faculty appointment also have changed over time. Safeguarding academic freedom long has been among them. But there are have been several others: attracting people to poorly paid jobs; reinforcing the desire of talented people to stay at institutions that hire them; upgrading the faculty by carefully screening junior faculty to eliminate all but the most talented; and most recently – as the 2006 MLA Task Force Report makes clear – identifying faculty talent chiefly as a matter of specialized research and published scholarship that is perceived as outstanding by their disciplinary peers. The means have changed too.  Fifty years ago, except at a small handful of elite institutions like Yale, there was nothing resembling today’s elaborate and time-consuming tenure review process, let alone a consensus regarding specific criteria or protocols for acquiring, denying, or terminating continuous faculty appointments. As a result, most American colleges and universities routinely awarded and denied continuous faculty appointments with little regard for due process.  In using  Kernan’s  tenure tale to draw attention to the largely neglected history of tenure, my aim is not to build a new argument for tenure, nor propose alternatives. Rather, I want to call attention to and account for ways of thinking about tenure that go well beyond its familiar but ultimately one-dimensional identification as a necessary safeguard of academic freedom.  My aim is to identify and explore the origins of central pieces of the procedural framework that defines the current American practice of awarding continuous faculty appointments.

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