Tenure: A Summary, Explanation, and "Defense"

Originally published in the September 1971 issue of the AAUP Bulletin.
By William Van Alstyne

In the wake of student unrest and in the presence of strong competition for the diversion of funds to other national priorities, severe demands are now being made for greater professional accountability and for greater efficiency in higher education. Unsurprisingly, tenure has been singled out as an obstacle to both of these goals and, consequently, as a blockade to educational progress. Simultaneously, the felt dissatisfaction with the general adequacy of teaching has renewed the common suspicion that tenure is a professional masquerade: that it lingers as a sophistical phrase obscuring the dark reality of uniquely selfish claims of a right to lifetime employment for the incompetent and irresponsible.

Older members of the profession may well be inclined to shrug off these critical suggestions, having heard them more than once before and remembering the careful answers that ably replied to them. (It is in fact quite true that the issue has been joined many times, i.e., that the concept of tenure has never been allowed to pass unexamined, simply as part of the conventional wisdom.) Nevertheless, even if it is true that little new can possibly be said on the subject, some brief reconsideration may serve at least to rekindle a livelier understanding of a vital concept which has tended of late to suffer from a hardening of the categories.

See the full article "Tenure: A Summary, Explanation, and "Defense" (.pdf)


Yes, this a critically important topic. In a comment to the NYT on an August 2014 article called "The Trouble with Tenure," I wrote:

The problem is not with tenure but the fact that it is commonly misrepresented and
misunderstood. The point is not to protect incompetents -- who should not be awarded tenure in
the first place. Rather, it is to protect solid professionals from arbitrary retribution. In a properly functioning tenure system, mechanisms exist to educate, discipline, or remove ineffective or
unethical employees. But they can't be terminated just because their politics are out of step with
those of their supervisors. If we want to attract innovative, energetic, and committed teachers, we
need to make the profession as attractive as possible. Tenure's purpose is to encourage such
teachers to exercise their creative talents without fear of retaliation.

I've also commented at greater length on the political dimensions of tenure in an op ed. in the Akron Beacon Journal, which I'd be happy to share with anyone who contacts me at <katoakitematangi@gmail.com>.

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