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Some Implications of Tenure for the Profession and Society

By Ernst Benjamin

Advocates emphasize the contributions of tenure to professional excellence and the social quest for truth. They deem these common benefits more important than either the individual benefits or the costs to those who do not achieve tenure and to institutions which desire greater flexibility. Critics reply that tenure creates excessive social, as well as individual, costs because unproductive tenured faculty limit opportunities for new faculty and programmatic innovation.

This view draws support from many, especially younger, faculty. Richard Chait, a critic of tenure, cites a Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching survey finding in 1989 that "29 percent of all faculty, 32 percent of women faculty, and 39 percent of faculty under age 39 agreed that 'abolition of tenure would, on the whole, improve the quality of American higher education.'" [Chait, "The Future of Academic Tenure," AGB Priorities, Number 3, Spring 1995, p. 6.] A more recent survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has found that 38% of faculty (35% of men and 46% of women) agreed that "tenure is an outmoded concept." [The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 13, 1996 (Vol. XLIII, No. 3), pp. 12-15A]

Professor Chait attributes the decline in support for tenure, somewhat narrowly, to "the secrecy and inflexibility of the tenure process." [Op. cit., p. 6.] The diminishing appreciation of tenure also reflects the declining proportion of faculty who benefit from tenure. Many younger faculty agree with those non-academic critics who link the protection of a tenured senior professorate to the diminishing number and quality of opportunities for new entrants to the profession and the stifling of academic innovation and improvement.

These critical perspectives directly challenge the foundation principles of tenure expressed in the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure." Does tenure, as claimed, "make the profession attractive to men and women of ability?" Or does tenure discourage talented recruits? Does tenure ensure "freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities?" [AAUP, Policy Documents and Reports, Washington, DC: 1995, p. 3.] Or does tenure stifle creativity and protect mediocrity? Can we confidently rebut the claim that the effects of tenure are opposite its intended consequences?

Does the Tenure System Attract Men and Women of Ability to the Profession?

Tenure is intended to make the profession attractive, in part, through the promise of economic security. But for many prospective faculty this promise is contradicted by the security provided those who already hold tenure. Of course, it is the occupied position, not tenure, which creates the obstacle. Abolishing tenure would not create vacancies. Nonetheless, abolishing tenure might increase turnover and thereby increase opportunities for new faculty.

Investigators, including Professor Chait, have found, however, that institutions without tenure have no more, and sometimes less, faculty turn-over. [Op. cit., p.9] The absence of long term commitments combines with the mutual desire for security to promote weaker standards of review. Even if abandoning tenure did increase vacancies, it would diminish their attractiveness. Non-tenure-track positions do not, in fact, attract prospective faculty who are as professionally qualified as those who avidly compete for more rigorously selective tenure-track appointments.

Those who see tenure as an obstacle to their careers or those of disadvantaged groups may also suppose that there are many tenured, unproductive faculty who resist replacement or renewal. There are some, but tenured faculty generally are not less productive than their non- tenured counterparts. [Chait, Op. cit., p. 8.] The number of unproductive tenured faculty is insufficient to justify scrapping tenure and the tenure system includes procedures to improve or dismiss truly unproductive faculty. If administrators, and colleagues, have inadequately pursued these procedures, the fault is not with tenure but the failure to pursue these measures as conscientiously as those for re-appointment and tenure.

Nor is tenure responsible for the lack of equal opportunity. Low minority participation, whether due to societal discrimination which impairs availability or institutional discrimination that impedes opportunity, does not result from tenuring-in. The participation of women has increased at a rate far exceeding their gains in more desirable appointments, promotion, and tenure itself. Abolishing tenure will merely diminish the quality of academic opportunities available. [See, Annette Kolodny, "The dismantling of tenure is aimed at those who have yet to attain a firm foothold within academe," The Chronicle of Higher Education," March 22, 1996, page B5.]

Not tenure but the current system of tenure review disadvantages women. Rigorous probation is essential to assure faculty productively employ the professional autonomy assured by tenure. But probation now serves a second, contrary purpose that disadvantages all newer faculty, but especially those women who compete for tenure during their child bearing and child rearing years. Probationary review is often employed to ration scarce tenured positions. This scarcity results in part from a disproportionate increase in part-time and non-tenure-track positions. But universities also preserve an illusion of opportunity by creating a revolving tenure-track. Instead of explicit tenure quotas, that discourage applications from career-oriented faculty, many universities use the tenure hurdle to maintain implicit tenure quotas.

Using the tenure hurdle to ration positions compromises fair consideration for tenure. Fixed expectations give way to ever higher and less predictable standards meant more to limit access than to ensure accomplishment. Such barriers, which often entail performance far more voluminous than that of those who administer them, not only diminish respect for tenure but encourage excessive and premature publication rather than thoughtful scholarship. If, however, the tenure standard is only, as intended, to assure institutionally appropriate levels of academic performance, how would universities cope with the potential excess of demand over supply?

Only 35% of all university instructors hold tenure-track appointments; 25% have tenure and 10% are probationary. The remaining 65% are full-time non-tenure-track, part-time and graduate assistants who provide an almost interchangeable contingent labor force; compare, for example, the use of part-time faculty at independent and graduate assistants at public four-year schools. The alleged "PhD glut" is a consequence of the increasing use of non-PhD faculty in these contingent positions. The opportunities for tenure could be increased and the rationing system moderated, if even one-third of the 700,000 part- and full- time non-tenure-track positions were converted back to tenure-track.

We now have a two-tier system of faculty appointments with arbitrary standards for many tenure-track faculty and inadequate standards for a larger second-tier. Career-oriented faculty unable to achieve tenure often leave the profession. Most faculty offered contingent positions lack terminal degrees. Few benefit from professional review, support and participation. Within institutions and across higher education, the two-tiered system of appointments denies academic careers to many able faculty, even as it retains less qualified or professionally supported faculty.

Non-tenure-track positions pay less than tenure-track and proliferate in disciplines where an oversupply of candidates and an increasing proportion of women permit institutions to offer less advantageous terms of employment. [Hirschel Kasper, "On Understanding the Rise in Non- Tenure-Track Appointments," Industrial Relations Section, Princeton University Working Paper #211 (Mimeo), August 1986, p. 11.)] The fact that non-tenure-track positions offer inferior terms of employment rebuts the view that abolishing tenure would increase compensation and the attraction of the profession. On the contrary, it is increasing tenure-track lines that would both increase faculty quality and diminish the hostility of younger faculty to the tenure system.

Restoring the tenure system would increase costs. To say this, however, is to recognize that it is not tenure, but the inadequately funded expansion of higher education, which has frustrated new entrants to the profession. The tenure system has attracted able men and, increasingly, able women to the profession. It will continue to do so if it survives the economic constraints which now shape higher education.

Does Tenure Impair the Free Search for Truth and its Free Exposition?

The 1940 Statement argues tenure, by ensuring academic freedom, contributes to the common good through the search for truth and its free expression. This argument was well elaborated by Kingman Brewster, then president of Yale University:

This spirit of academic freedom within the university has a value which goes beyond protecting the individual's broad scope of thought and inquiry. . . . If a university is alive and productive, it is a place where colleagues are in constant dispute; defending their latest intellectual enthusiasm, attacking the contrary views of others. From this trial by combat emerges a sharper insight, later to be blunted by other, sharper minds. It is vital that this contest be uninhibited by fear of reprisal. . . . ["On Tenure," AAUP Bulletin," Winter 1972, (Vol. 58, No. 4) pp. 382-3.]

Critics respond that many faculty are not risk takers. True, but faculty should not have to risk their livelihoods to engage in ordinary research and teaching that may become controversial.

Currently, any class discussion of race, gender, religion, evolution or sexuality may erupt in a career threatening controversy. Recent research controversies include children's smoking, fetal tissue, DNA, IQ, and crime. Washington historical exhibit controversies included the Enola Gay, Freud, slavery, and even display of ethnic stereotypes in an exhibit of the Ashcan School.

Everyday teaching and research require a measure of professional autonomy to assure professional integrity and academic quality. [Academic Freedom: An Everyday Concern, Edited by Ernst Benjamin and Donald R. Wagner, "New Directions for Higher Education," Number 88 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Winter 1994)] But it need not follow that the tenure system best affords this protection. Critics argue reasonably that probationary faculty, as well as faculty on contingent appointments, merit academic freedom and that excessive competition for tenure encourages low risk, non-controversial research and teaching.

Historically, senior faculty were responsible to protect their junior colleagues as part of the task of mentoring their apprenticeship. Independent protection came appropriately with full professional qualification. Now tenured faculty often avoid involvement with probationary colleagues whom they expect to fall victim to tenure-rationing and often ignore contingent faculty. Worse, wise counsel is too often that non-tenured faculty should avoid risk, collegial work, and even their students to achieve the quantity of publication requisite to tenure.

Collegial protection has also weakened as university-wide review, meant to limit tenure rates, has diminished departmental authority. The desire to avoid litigation and centralized review prompt many universities to rely more on quantity of publication or citation than quality. This fosters low risk scholarship counter to the purpose of tenure: witness the ivy league provost I heard extoll tenure for assuring a faculty member the 15 years required to produce a single, but definitive, book and then note that it now takes two books (within six years) to get tenure.

Although many faculty objections to tenure system could be nullified by a modest increase in the proportion of tenurable positions, many administrators believe that this would impose not only economic costs but institutional rigidity. They urge that tenure impedes reallocation of academic resources, institutional reorganization and academic innovation.

Certainly university staffing and curricula must adapt to changes such as the shift in student orientation from the humanities to business begun in the 1970s. Many administrators claimed that tenure impeded readjustment as they sought to replace professors of literature and history with professors of business and computer science. Even so, the demand for new technical faculty so far exceeded supply as to create serious inter-disciplinary salary inequities and questions about the quality of new tenure-track faculty in the high demand areas.

In fields with diminished demand institutions shifted to non-tenure-track appointments. These did little to increase flexibility, as students remained to be taught, but did reduce the places for professionally supported full-time faculty. As the cost savings realized through conversion of positions from first- to second-tier were shifted from instruction to other types of expenditures, higher education became more dependent on low cost faculty. The effort to protect flexibility ultimately substituted cost constraints for the supposed constraints of tenure. Higher education became financially unable to restore the pre-existing ratio of tenurable to second-tier positions.

Moreover, conservative critics, many of whom had decried student disinterest in business careers in the sixties, now discovered the loss of the humanities. Business leaders complained of students' lack of liberal arts training even as their personnel directors demanded technical skills. Students, parents, press and politicians expressed dismay at the absence of tenured faculty from the undergraduate classroom. Few understood that reallocating resources away from tenure lines would diminish rather than increase the availability to students of fully qualified faculty. Tenure did not prevent excessive reallocation of faculty resources. Would that it had.

Now it is argued that tenure prevents institutional restructuring and innovation. Faculty have resisted some innovations and tenure has provided, as intended, some protection against retaliation. Tenure has not ensured that the faculty view prevail. The fact that tenured faculty have resisted specific changes has, however, become the basis for the claim that tenured faculty generally resist change and that tenure is the basis for this resistance.

It is essential to note, therefore, the vast on-going changes in higher education. The spread of the research model as normal and technical schools have become universities is widely recognized; though stigmatized by those who mistakenly assume that public regional colleges had been mostly, rather than rarely, liberal arts colleges. These new universities are increasingly dominated by professional and technical programs as the liberal arts are reduced to service programs. Many private, often denominational, former liberal arts colleges now provide largely vocational programs staffed by adjunct faculty. Fifty percent of first-time entering first-year students attend a vast new system of vocationally oriented community colleges.

Tenure has not halted, but often aided, a revolution in faculty perspectives. The tenure hurdle assisted conversion of teaching colleges into research universities as new faculty had to meet research obligations. Most disciplines redefined their paradigms and areas of emphasis. New perspectives were fueled by the desire to leap the tenure hurdle with cutting edge research. Many faculty adopted new technologies, promoted the computer revolution, and participated in adult and distance learning. Most students are commuting adults, not campus-based 18 to 22 year-olds, and faculty regularly teach at night, on weekends, and in summer.

Tenure critics regard faculty supported change, such as the research emphasis or new disciplinary directions, mainly as evidence of misdirected faculty energy improperly protected by tenure. On the other hand, faculty resistance to externally inspired change provides critics with evidence of the conservatism of tenure. Faculty, some say, too slowly embrace new pedagogies, technologies, and distance education, but respond too readily to student interest in multi- culturalism or race and gender studies. Such critics ignore the contribution of tenured faculty to America's distinctive accomplishments in basic research and uniquely participatory classroom.

Administrators who used the tenure system to encourage the race for publication and institutional recognition later complain that faculty are disinterested in teaching. Some of those who seek to revise the reward system or even eliminate tenure to re-emphasize teaching, not only maintain the pressure for publication but require faculty to subordinate their teaching to the quest for external funding. At bottom, what many such critics seek is not flexibility but the control necessary to impose their specific programmatic objectives.

The Contribution of Tenure to Professional Integrity

Professional integrity includes not only ideological autonomy but the right to exercise academic judgment. It is the latter which those who seek to manage faculty would constrain. Consider the following: "Changes in how the faculty regard themselves and their institutions lie at the heart of the restructuring process. What faculty are being asked to do is return--in effect, to give back--a portion of their independence and ability to define their own tasks and performance standards. [Policy Perspectives, Pew Higher Education Research Program, February 1993, Vol. 4, No.4; p. 9A.] Similarly, a draft tenure code for the University of Minnesota stated that adequate cause for dismissal or sanctions include failure to maintain "a proper attitude of industry and cooperation with others within and without the university community." [Board of Regents Policy on Faculty Tenure, Section 10.2, Draft of September 5, 1996.]

The effort to increase management of faculty performance has profound implications. The survey which found that 38% of the faculty regard tenure as an outmoded concept, also found that faculty noted the following items as most important in choosing their careers: intellectual challenge (84%), intellectual freedom (79%), freedom to pursue my scholarly/teaching interests 75%, opportunities for teaching (72%), autonomy (70%), and flexible schedule (65%). The next item, research opportunities, scored only 39%. [Op. cit., p. A15.] The loss of tenure would clearly diminish the ability to attract faculty with such aspirations and expectations.

Professional independence is, even more, a condition of competent performance. Howard Mumford Jones suggested a common sense explanation: "You can't tell the lawyer what the law is, can you? You don't take a vote to determine whether a doctor should prescribe medicine or a surgeon perform an operation, do you.?" ["The American Concept of Academic Freedom," AAUP Bulletin, Spring 1960 (Vol 46, No 1), p. 69.] Now that lawyers are viewed as "hired guns" and doctors subject to "managed care," this explanation may be less persuasive to those who have not experienced the effects of diminished professional integrity, but it remains sound.

Faculty recognize institutional constraints. Where physicians often managed hospitals and lawyers firms, faculty have, at best, shared in governance. Nonetheless, faculty accountability has been primarily ensured through professional standards and peer review rather than managerial directive. As Kingman Brewster observed: "The more subtle condition of academic freedom is that faculty members, once they have proved their potential during a period of junior probation, should not feel beholden to anyone, especially Department Chairmen, Deans, Provosts, or Presidents, for favor, let alone for survival." [Op. cit., p.381.] Any system of periodic review subject to the sanction of dismissal, Brewster continued:

would both dampen the willingness to take on long term intellectual risks and inhibit if not corrupt the free and spirited exchanges on which the vitality of a community of scholars depends. This, not the aberrational external interference, is the threat to the freedom of the academic community which tenure seeks to mitigate. [Ibid., p. 383.]

Accordingly, whatever the purpose of diminishing the protections of tenure, the consequence will be to destroy the essential foundation for professional integrity.

Higher education without tenure would in time become a system of training schools whose instructors were neither educators nor scholars. For the notion that one can improve the university by destroying tenure ultimately presupposes that one can maintain the university without attracting or sustaining the teacher-scholar. On the contrary, tenure alone enables faculty to preserve their professional integrity and the creative conflict essential to the advancement of learning amid the intensifying institutional constraints of contemporary higher education.