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From the Editor: Tenure under Pressure

By Michael Ferguson

One answer to the question posed by this issue—What’s happening to tenure?—is well established: tenure is in serious decline, and it has been for decades. Fewer than one-third of US faculty members now hold tenured or tenure-track appointments, according to AAUP analysis of federal data, and faculty members on contingent appointments have made up a majority of the professoriate since the 1980s. The trend lines leave little room for optimism. In this respect, as one colleague commented, “What happened to tenure?” might be a more apt question for framing the issue.

Yet something new is happening to tenure. To the public disinvestment that has contributed to tenure’s erosion we can now add a climate of open hostility to tenure, particularly in conservative states. A proposal currently under consideration in Florida threatens to undercut tenure’s role in protecting academic freedom by adding compliance with state law—including laws that restrict teaching about racism—as a criterion in post-tenure review. A policy change that removed due-process rights from post-tenure review in the University System of Georgia has already “effectively abolished tenure” there, in the words of the 2021 AAUP report that led to censure. Elsewhere, proposed legislation would not even nominally preserve tenure. Republicans in Iowa have repeatedly introduced bills to abolish tenure in state colleges and universities, and Texas’s lieutenant governor, who has significant power to shape the state’s legislative agenda, announced last year that he would push to end tenure for new faculty appointments at public institutions. Such efforts, while alarming, also provide evidence that tenure continues to serve its central functions where it still exists. As journalist Daniel Golden put it in a recent ProPublica article, “Perhaps the surest indication that tenure helps safeguard critical race theory and other controversial curricula is that conservatives are trying to jettison it.”

This issue of Academe examines both new and long-standing pressures on tenure as well as the crisis of contingency created by tenure’s decline. Contributors dismantle the myths about tenure that have made it particularly vulnerable in a time of increased suspicion of educators (Henry Reichman) and provide a historical perspective on what tenure is and is not according to AAUP policy (Hans-Joerg Tiede). They offer dispatches from red states (Lois K. Cox and Katherine H. Tachau) and blue ones (Marc Stein), documenting the threats to tenure in each. They consider institutional policy changes to address the underrepresentation of faculty members of color in the tenured ranks (Chavella T. Pittman) and to improve conditions for faculty members currently on contingent appointments (Adrianna Kezar and Jordan Harper). And they lay out strategies for better equipping AAUP members to advocate for non-tenure-track faculty colleagues (Caprice Lawless).

Tenure, as the articles in this issue make clear, should be viewed as neither a reward for merit nor an irrelevant holdover from another era but as an essential component of higher education that serves the common good. It is worth fighting for.

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