Toward a New Consensus for Tenure in the Twenty-First Century

How should we understand tenure today?
By Clark G. Ross

Historical accounts of the origins of tenure frequently cite two early incidents in which administrators dismissed faculty members for political reasons. The first took place in 1900, when Stanford University economics professor Edward A. Ross was removed from his faculty position at the urging of Jane Stanford, the widow of the university’s founder, who objected strenuously to Ross’s criticism of the use of Chinese immigrant workers in Leland Stanford’s railroad construction business. Other Stanford faculty members resigned in sympathy with Ross. The second incident, which took place in 1917, centered on the actions of Columbia University professor Charles Beard, who resigned from his position in protest of the university’s interference with faculty teaching, scholarship, and public utterance. Beard objected, in particular, to actions taken by the trustees and administration to terminate the appointments of two faculty members who had criticized US involvement in World War I.

The American Association of University Professors has argued, since its founding in 1915, that tenure is necessary in order to protect academic freedom. Many institutions of higher education have adopted policies based on the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, a document that emerged from a series of meetings in the late 1930s between the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities).

The 1940 Statement provides two principal arguments for granting continuous tenure. The first concerns tenure’s role in protecting academic freedom in research and teaching. While defending academic freedom in these areas, the statement also cautions faculty to refrain from persistently introducing “controversial matter which has no relation to their subject” into their teaching and to “show respect for the opinions of others.” The second argument put forth in the 1940 Statement is that tenure affords faculty “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.”

Historian Caitlin Rosenthal found that fewer than 50 percent of the universities in a sample she studied had a formal tenure policy in 1935, while nearly 100 percent did by the 1970s. As colleges and universities increasingly accepted tenure as a standard condition of faculty employment in the years after the drafting of the 1940 Statement, administrators, Rosenthal argues, steadily shifted toward the “economic security” rationale for tenure. This economic benefit—in economic terms, a form of compensating wage differential— became standard in the academic job market of the 1960s, when relative shortages of qualified faculty members existed.

In recent decades, however, the percentage of college and university faculty members holding tenure or eligible for it has decreased sharply. The absence of a legal mandatory retirement age, increased specialization within academic disciplines, and new financial constraints are among the factors that have contributed to the erosion of tenure. As higher education evolves, a more diverse range of faculty employment practices is likely to emerge.

Retirement Age

Since 1994, federal legislation has prevented colleges and universities from having a mandatory retirement age for faculty. With longer life expectancy, many faculty members have decided to extend their income-earning years. Increased health-care costs, coupled with a reduction in retirement health-care provisions, have contributed to this trend as growing numbers of faculty work beyond the age of sixty-five, when they become eligible for Medicare. Another factor contributing to the trend is the sharp decline in home equity values and the decline in the value of retirement accounts during the recent recession, which significantly reduced household net worth.

If faculty postpone retirement and receive annual salary increases, instructional costs rise. It is possible that these costs would also increase in the absence of tenure. However, renewable annual contracts have a lower threshold for non-renewal on the basis of incompetence than do tenured appointments.

When tenure was instituted, a mandatory retirement age existed. Now, in the absence of any mandatory retirement age, the costs of tenure—as well as the risks and costs of maintaining faculty members whose competence could be waning—have increased.

Specialization

In the past twenty years, graduate education has become increasingly specialized. Research questions in most disciplines are more focused and limited, encouraging graduate students, who know that their future success will be influenced by their scholarly output, to concentrate on narrower specialties. As courses become narrower, faculty must be more deeply trained.

The result is that today’s PhDs are less able to teach a range of courses within their discipline than were their predecessors. A strong liberal arts college could once expect to hire an individual who could effectively teach courses in the modern history of Austria, Germany, and perhaps even Russia. Finding such breadth today in a new history PhD is more difficult. In making a tenure appointment, an institution must be relatively confident that the specific expertise the individual brings will be needed for the professional life of the individual hired—perhaps forty years.

At the same time, interdisciplinary work has increased at nearly all institutions. Does the existence of tenure slow or facilitate interdisciplinary work? On the one hand, faculty with narrow disciplinary knowledge may not easily adapt to it. On the other hand, tenured faculty can afford the time and the risk of undertaking it.

Financial Constraints

The recession that began in 2007 accelerated reductions in state and federal funding of higher education. Salary increases for continuing faculty at public institutions have consequently been very low. Moreover, the recession increased the practice of replacing retirees who had tenure with non-tenure-track contingent faculty, reducing the percentage of courses offered by tenured and tenure-track faculty.

The same phenomenon is occurring, with perhaps less severity, at private institutions. As the AAUP’s 2014–15 Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession shows, an erosion in the value of endowments at private colleges and universities, particularly in the years immediately following the recent recession, exerted significant financial pressure on them.

Implications of the Decline in Tenure

Is tenure still needed to protect academic freedom? One could argue that freedom of expression is well protected at both the state and the federal levels. Neither the administration nor the trustees of an institution of higher learning can easily dismiss an individual for the tenor of his or her research. Most institutions now have review processes to assess full-time faculty performance and hearing processes for any faculty dismissals. One could also argue that the existence of tenure is likely to have a minimal impact on the research agendas of most tenured faculty. Mark Taylor, the chair of the religion department at Columbia University, argues in Crisis on Campus that the claim that tenure is needed to guarantee academic freedom is “completely without merit—in forty years of teaching, I cannot think of a single person who was more willing to express his or her views after tenure than before.” A counter-argument would be that tenure provides a deterrent to any action aimed at reducing academic freedom, as the existence of antitrust laws provides a deterrent to uncompetitive business mergers.

It is possible that the existence of tenure leads to a stronger pool of candidates and greater research productivity. A tenure-track position is likely to attract a stronger set of candidates. Tenure and job security are inducements for any potential employee. At many institutions, however, earning tenure requires successful research performance—increasingly so, the evidence suggests.

Another argument in favor of tenure is that tenured faculty are more likely to seek the strongest candidates as colleagues. As the economist H. Lorne Carmichael reminds us, in academia, department members do the hiring. The tenure system makes it less likely that those involved with searches will be concerned about hiring candidates who could push them aside.

Would academic departments be stronger if the administration hired all new academicians in the way that management hires new members of a professional sports team? If a history department is looking to hire a specialist in nineteenth-century colonial Africa, other members of the history department will be best able to assess candidates. However, teaching and service potential could be analyzed just as well by members of the administration.

Consider another analogy. Law firms and medical firms recruit associates annually. Senior partners, without having formally received tenure, have an incentive to seek the best candidates from the applicant pool, because they share in the revenues generated by new colleagues. In academic departments, there is a “halo effect” when junior colleagues publish excellent work, because the enhanced reputation of the department enhances the prestige of all its faculty. But senior faculty may also be negatively compared with more accomplished new colleagues.

The existence of tenure contributes to a bond between the individual and the institution. With the assurance that the institution has made a commitment to employment, the faculty member may be more likely to be supportive. Teaching, research, and college or university service can be considered complementary and may be performed at a higher level. Moreover, the individual faculty member will have less incentive to look for employment elsewhere.

If teaching and research are activities that compete for faculty time, and if tenure is often linked to success in research and publication, then faculty members may have an incentive to devote time to research at the expense of teaching. In 2006, the executive council of the Modern Language Association investigated claims that publication expectations for tenure have been increasing. It found that “over 62 percent of all departments report that publication has increased in importance in tenure decisions over the last 10 years. The percentage of departments ranking scholarship of primary importance (over teaching) has more than doubled . . . from 35.4 percent to 75.4 percent.” Time devoted to research activity likely detracts from time spent with students, especially undergraduates.

Could tenure lead an individual to be less active, reducing the quality and quantity of teaching, research, and college service? In a 1999 Journal of Economic Perspectives article, economists Michael McPherson and Morton Schapiro cite one study showing that research productivity by scientists tends to fall with age and another showing the same for economists. These studies, however, tend to concentrate on the quantity of articles, not their quality. It is not impossible to envision a senior tenured scholar interested in writing a single seminal article without worry that she is not producing several articles per year.

Tenure may allow faculty to participate more fully and more honestly in institutional governance. As McPherson and Schapiro write, tenure can be seen as “as a set of constraints on the discretion of managers (the ‘administration’) over various aspects of the academic enterprise . . . to influence the distribution of authority between administration and faculty.” A vocal faculty member with particularly contrary views could be seen by administrators, whether fairly or unfairly, as a liability. A less than fully tolerant administration could be tempted to remove a dissident faculty member, which would likely reduce countervailing views and discussion within the faculty.

Work by education scholar Richard Chait lends credence to this argument. In a study of colleges with and without tenured faculty, Chait found that “faculty at institutions without tenure generally exercised less power and influence than faculty on campuses with tenure.” He concludes, “On balance, colleges with tenure exhibited more properties of shared governance, and the faculties there had more sway than colleagues at institutions with contracts.” However, Chait cautions that tenure may have “signaled rather than created these conditions.” A variety of other institutional factors, such as financial stability, size, age, and location, may be conducive both to the institution of tenure and to the higher degree of faculty involvement in governance. It would be possible for an institution without tenure to have a faculty intensively involved in governance.

Tenure allows faculty to offer professional judgments on student work, to assess the performance of other faculty members, and to conduct public research with greater independence. Tenure can also provide protection from administrative pressures that result from development or fundraising objectives.

During the process of earning tenure, faculty can endure significant stress. Harvard’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education has attempted to measure job satisfaction for pretenure faculty using data from fifteen thousand individuals from more than two hundred four-year US institutions. The study found that junior faculty “are most interested in clarity of standards, process, and criteria; in transparency, consistency, and equity; and in reasonable expectations for achieving it.” Given the dearth of tenure-track openings, departments and institutions can raise expectations for tenure without significant repercussions. Rising expectations, coupled with diminished resources to support professional activity, have increased pressure on pretenure faculty. This increased pressure can result in a diversion of attention from teaching, loss of time for family and personal activities, and anxiety.

Increasingly, liberal arts colleges and universities more known for undergraduate teaching are using “market power” to demand greater research productivity. In some cases, pretenure faculty are expected to teach four courses per semester and annually produce published work. Evidence suggests that this pressure can disproportionately affect female faculty and faculty of color. These faculty members may devote more effort than their colleagues to service, a contribution less rewarded in the tenure process. And, as Chait points out, these faculty members are being assessed disproportionately by white male counterparts whose experiences differ from their own.

The pressures facing the faculty today are in some respects the same and in other respects very different from those that existed at the time of the AAUP’s founding. Yet, notwithstanding the pressures associated with tenure, Chait concludes that “the vast majority of faculty remains committed to the concept of academic tenure . . . and the lion’s share of prospective faculty prefer a tenure-track appointment.”

Varieties of Academic Appointments 

Four general types of appointments exist today in undergraduate education at traditional academic institutions: tenure-track and tenured appointments, multiyear renewable contracts, combined faculty and administrative positions, and per-course appointments.

Tenure-track and tenured appointments: With a positive tenure decision, the faculty member has an indefinite appointment—one now without mandatory retirement age—with protection from arbitrary dismissal. Dismissal can still occur in cases involving moral turpitude, incompetence that might be documented with post-tenure reviews, or the elimination of an entire academic program or department. Examples of abridgments of employment are rare.

Tenure-track appointments are most appealing for an institution under the following circumstances:

  • The specific field of the appointment is one of durable interest or the appointee is expected to exhibit flexibility.
  • The institution has a strong teaching mission and a significant commitment to time with students expected from faculty. The faculty member devotes more time to students; the institution guarantees employment.
  • Faculty are expected to assume significant roles in governance or need protection from donors or other interest groups.
  • Faculty assume a significant role in the hiring process. 

Multiyear renewable contracts: Faculty members under multiyear renewable contracts are assumed to receive salary and benefits comparable to those of tenure-track and tenured faculty. These positions should carry faculty benefits such as mentoring, professional development funding, and other resources needed for effective teaching. Contracts can be for a year or for multiple years, with renewals associated with satisfactory performance.

Many institutions employ full-time non-tenure-eligible faculty to teach basic, introductory courses in foreign languages or in first-year writing. The institution may prefer that these individuals specialize in teaching and working directly with students, with the demands of research and professional activity minimized. In these cases, the professional expectations will differ from those associated with a tenure-track position.

Institutions may use temporary, full-time faculty to investigate the desirability of a particular area of study before committing to a tenure-track position. A liberal arts college may, for example, be debating whether to add a corporate-finance course sequence. Existing faculty may be skeptical of such a business-like course, and the demand for the course from current students may be unclear. Having a two- or three-year visitor could be a prudent course of action before committing to a tenure-track position.

Institutions have used nontenureable appointments purposefully in place of making tenure-track commitments. Frequently, the impetus for this course of action is the presumption of increased flexibility for the institution and enhanced compensation for the faculty member. Multiyear renewable contracts may carry a salary premium to compensate for the lack of employment security. Both James Madison University and the University of Central Arkansas have experimented with appointments of this nature. In both cases, presidents, without significant consultation with the faculty, opted to hire a limited number of faculty members without tenure and with an accompanying salary premium. In each case, the experiments were generally opposed by the faculty and were discontinued by the board after a year or two.

At the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, the faculty have been in non-tenure-eligible positions since the institution’s founding in 1997. Initial and subsequent contracts are for six years. A reappointment and promotions committee provides peer review, assisting the provost and president in making recommendations to the Olin board of trustees. By all accounts, the Olin model provides appropriate employment security for a faculty that expresses high job satisfaction and experiences low turnover. The small size of the faculty, the faculty’s cohesion and acceptance of the institution’s overall mission, the strong financial position of the institution, and the relative homogeneity of the faculty may contribute to the success of this model.

Combined faculty and administrative positions: Some institutions have treated blended faculty and administrative positions as nontenurable. For example, a university might appoint a mathematics and science instructional laboratory director who is also expected to teach the equivalent of a quarter-teaching load. In such a case, a nontenurable position with a lengthened contract could be desirable. Such positions may also be useful in situations where individuals excel in administrative and teaching functions but do not publish.

Blended positions may become more prevalent among faculty members who are also practitioners— for instance, accountants who have both teaching and professional responsibilities—and among individuals who provide important student academic services that are growing in prevalence, such as writing center directors or information technology experts. Such individuals, while pursuing professional activity to remain current in their work, need to be assessed principally on their teaching and on their administrative service. In using blended appointments, however, institutions run the risk of creating a tiered faculty.

Per-course appointments: The per-course faculty member represents a form of hiring that is particularly transitory. These faculty members are often called “adjunct” or “contingent.” In 2014, they numbered more than 1 million people, or half of all higher education faculty. Typically, per-course instructors receive no benefits.

Reliance on per-course positions has serious drawbacks for undergraduate education. If these individuals are cobbling together several courses over different campuses, they have reduced time to plan courses, to provide feedback, and to meet with students. Even the most professional, well-trained, and dedicated of these individuals will be operating under serious constraints. Additionally, the low compensation and lack of benefits associated with these positions are exploitative. If the typical adjunct meets with students for three hours per week for fourteen weeks and spends three hours on preparation and grading per hour of class time, he or she devotes 168 hours to a course. At $2,700 per course—a typical rate of pay—this represents approximately $16 per hour. Many adjuncts will spend far more than 168 hours per course.

Assessment of Alternative Faculty Models

From a student perspective, high-quality teaching is of paramount importance. The interest and expertise of the faculty member, the quality of the assignments given the students, and the time spent working individually with students all are factors in good teaching. A tenured or tenure-track faculty member may bring the greatest expertise but not be the most successful teacher. Full-time non-tenure-track faculty, perhaps teaching introductory language courses or composition, may be superb teachers in terms of their willingness to challenge and spend time with students but not produce original research and publications.

From most perspectives, the per-course instructor is not likely to be the most effective teacher, given that adjuncts have reduced faculty development opportunities, resources, and, most important, time with students. However, a recent study at Northwestern University suggested that students may learn more from adjunct faculty than from tenure-track professors. The authors of the study found that students tracked from 2001 to 2008 were more likely to enroll in a subsequent course in the subject and earn a better grade when the first course was taught by an adjunct. According to the study, “results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure-track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem.” The underlying assumption is that adjunct faculty, lacking tenure, will be motivated annually to teach well and not encumbered with the time demands of other professional activity.

Both the cohort of current faculty and current graduate students can have varying views on the relative importance of tenure. Most will express clear preference for tenure when all other considerations—location, salary and benefits, teaching-research division, and so on—are equal. Rarely, however, would an individual in real life face such a choice. In actuality, different faculty positions have different attributes. Education researcher Cathy Trower explored the sensitivity of current and potential faculty members to a range of attributes including tenure, mix of research and teaching, location, length of a nontenure contract, and the probability of receiving tenure. Secondary factors included salary, benefits, sabbaticals, release time, and other forms of faculty development. Trower found that “the type of appointment, whether on or off the tenure track, was important to doctoral candidates and new faculty alike, but views on this varied greatly, making it difficult to generalize. For some, unable to imagine academic life without it, tenure was crucial in the job choice process. For others, tenure was far less important than were other factors, such as location, the mix of teaching and research, and the quality of the department.”

Different faculty profiles can be associated with different preferred arrangements. A faculty member at a liberal arts institution who will disproportionately teach courses, spend time with students, and be involved in faculty governance may well prefer the security and the protection of tenure. That individual, even if professionally active, is not as likely to have the kind of strong professional research profile that makes it easy to move between institutions, and he or she should be rewarded for choosing to assume a more teaching-intensive position. In contrast, a leading professional whose works leave her or him in a position to move easily across institutions is likely to prefer an arrangement with reduced in-class teaching and, perhaps, a higher salary. In this scenario, the researchintensive professor is less inclined to seek tenure, while the teaching-intensive professor is seeking tenure. The economic benefit of tenure in terms of job security, including the protection of those whose efforts disproportionately involve teaching, would seem to trump the research benefit (academic freedom) in the academic world of the twenty-first century.

For current graduate students, tenure can provide a mixed incentive. In a world where there are far more graduate students interested in teaching than teaching openings, tenure can be viewed as a further constraint, reducing the probability of any one individual being hired. In such cases, the graduate student, particularly one with concerns about the strength of her or his own qualifications, might wish to see more nontenure-track openings.

Many reasonable individuals are talking about new models for addressing the simplistic and unnecessary binary choice between “senior tenured faculty over the age of seventy” and “per-course adjuncts barely paid the legal minimum wage.” In the future, it is likely that institutions will develop varying blends of faculty categories to meet their educational objectives and the needs of the faculty they employ. The most successful institutions will match institutional purpose with course and curricular offerings and with corresponding types of faculty appointments. There will not be a standard model of faculty employment; rather, different ones will be tailored to institutional objectives.

Clark G. Ross, the Frontis W. Johnston Professor of Economics, has taught at Davidson College since 1979. From 1998 until 2013, he served as the vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Davidson College. During this time he was involved in studies, conversations, and decisions relating to differing faculty models. His e-mail address is clross@davidson.edu.

The author wishes to thank Davidson College colleagues Keyne Cheshire, Hansford Epes, and Linda LeFauve for their very helpful suggestions and Noah Woodward of the class of 2014 for his excellent work as a research assistant.

Comments

This article neglects to address or even acknowledge the fundamentally exploitative nature of hiring "multiyear renewable contracts" as a cost-cutting measure at public and private institutions. Rarely are "multiyear renewable contract" positions paid comparably to tenure-track positions; rather, institutions use these positions to ensure that tenured faculty can continue to make six-figure salaries and teach their increasingly specialized subject areas , while the lion's share of required courses are taught by overworked and underpaid contractual faculty. Use of contractual faculty also creates a "tiered system." More plainly, it creates a system in which certain (often equally-qualified) faculty are treated as second-class citizens. Only a tenured faculty member would be tone-deaf enough to claim that contractual faculty don't have pressure to publish, when publishing is usually the only way they can hope to land a tenure-track job. Instead, contractual faculty publish while doing a yearly job search and teaching the most time and labor-intensive courses.

The previous commenter is exactly right. Also, I question why this important issue was assigned to a person who have been mostly a Dean for the past decades. This is hardly the voice of the faculty, most of whom have no tenure or access to it. the person seems not to have even read the AAUP documents on contingent faculty.

Ross's metaphorical use of the term "erosion" is telling. If Ross is simply crystal-ball gazing, that's one thing, but he writes as though his predictions are inescapable. The implication is that there are no prescriptive arguments for tenure that faculty can pursue with any hope of success. Ross's implied recommendation seems to be that faculty should just lie back and think of England.

The grand mistake here, of course, is the belief that there is some ineluctable natural process that has caused the decline in tenure. That's palpably false. The decline is the consequence of deliberate, willfull actions that harm tenure performed by individual human beings in positions of sufficient political power. It's as simple as that.

An analogy may help here. Childhood vaccination rates in U. S. middle class families have "eroded" in recent years. Does this mean that we are faced with some bizarre natural law that mandates an increase in preventable childhood disease? No. It simply means that individual human beings in positions of sufficient political power (parents) are making willful--and stupid--decisions about their children. Physicians are now reported to be "firing" parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Will faculty and like-minded administrators, and members of governing boards "fire" those administrators, board members, and politicians who seek to weaken academic tenure and shared governance? Let's just hope that Ross isn't leading the charge. It looks like he's already unpacked the white flag.

Great article.

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