Incentives to Forgo Tenure

The statement that follows, prepared by a subcommittee of the Association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, was approved for publication by Committee A in November 2000.

Tenure is "indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society." So declares the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The academic community, however, has never lacked for proposals that would undermine tenure and thus its role in serving students and society. Among such current proposals, one in particular requires comment because it has surfaced in recent cases considered by Committee A.1  It proposes that prospective faculty members accept renewable term appointments and forgo consideration for tenure and/or that current faculty members renounce tenure in return for some advantage, such as a higher salary, accelerated leave, or other pecuniary consideration. Proponents of these agreements argue that they embody a free exchange of mutual benefit to the parties. If academic tenure withers in consequence, they claim, that only demonstrates that, in a free market, faculty will have demonstrated their unwillingness to support tenure.

We first address the terms in which these offers are couched: as giving the recipient a voluntary and informed choice. With respect to nontenured faculty, the bartering of future tenure for present advantage is sometimes based on the claim that the tenure system actually harms them. Critics of the present system allege widespread arbitrary treatment during the probationary period, pointing to survey data indicating hostility to tenure and to interviews with probationary faculty members critical of the "pressure" of laboring under a tenure deadline.2 The critics’ concern  serves to cloak the "signal" sent by the offer that a candidate's refusal to accept an offer to forgo tenure may weigh negatively at the time of a later review for tenure.

Institutions that put this choice to their junior faculty members necessarily convey the message that they prize a "flexibility" inimical to tenure, and it would be foolish to deny the possibility that subsequent personnel decisions will depend on whether faculty members are willing to cooperate in achieving this goal. The junior faculty members who receive this message are already an exceptionally vulnerable academic class, caught in a tight labor market (made even tighter by the proliferation of part-time positions) for any kind of academic appointment. Such a message merely heightens that vulnerability.

With respect to incumbent, tenured faculty, the appeal is made to immediate economic self-interest coupled with a promise (expressed or implied) of fair treatment in the future, as, perhaps, heightened by the administration’s gratitude for their having given it greater flexibility. For them, acceptance implies either that they attach little significance to the protection of their academic freedom when faced with a suitable economic blandishment, or, less insultingly, that they feel secure enough in the traditions of the institution as respected by the prior and current administrations to run the risks the exchange entails.

Neither the junior nor the senior faculty members who accept the institution’s offer can have any ground to complain if they are later removed in exercise of the very "flexibility" their acceptances have allowed, for such faculty members, by their acceptances, will have agreed to a status of permanent probation. In both cases, the faculty member is, in essence, gambling on the good faith of some future administration whose inclinations are, by definition, unknowable. Unlike incumbent faculty members, the prospective appointee cannot even draw upon experience in the institutional culture in evaluating the risks of such a repose of trust.

A deeper ground of criticism remains apart from whether the exchange reflects a truly voluntary and fully informed choice. The proposal is premised on the idea that tenure exists as a perquisite, a personal entitlement, and nothing more. That premise is false. To be sure, it is legally possible for an individual voluntarily to relinquish tenure and, under certain circumstances, it may even be desirable for that option to be available: negotiations for a mutually agreeable exit from the institution for a senior faculty member are facilitated by the ability to make such an exchange, as are even more systematic policies to secure early retirements. In these instances, the presence of tenure serves as a protection for the faculty and as a civilizing influence on the institution, ensuring that early retirement is truly voluntary. Not so the proposal at hand.

The 1940 Statement holds that "[i]nstitutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole." The document goes on to state that

Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (a) freedom of teaching and research and extramural activities, and (b) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society. [Emphasis added.]

In the proposal at hand, the claim of a mutually optimal exchange assumes not only that both parties are better off, but also that no one is made worse off by the bargain. We have suggested that there is reason to be skeptical about whether or not the individual faculty member really is made "better" off. But there is no doubt that the faculty as a whole and the long-term interests of the academic enterprise are the worse for it. Tenure is accorded for the common good of the academy and society. The rigor of the decision-making process conduces toward maintaining a faculty of high quality. Equally, tenured faculty members are free to teach, do research, publish, and participate fully in civic and institutional life; should the occasion arise, they are free to rise to the defense of the outspoken or in defense of academic freedom. Too much evidence has been accumulated since the Association proclaimed the need for tenure in 1915 to deny that the presence of tenured faculty members is vital to maintain freedom in the academy.

It follows that the renunciation of tenure, or of the ability to be a candidate for tenure, is not merely a private exchange; it has much larger institutional and social consequences. Such an offer to relinquish tenure or not to be considered for tenure ought not only be refused; it ought not be made.


1. See "Academic Freedom and Tenure: Minneapolis College of Art and Design," Academe: Bulletin of the AAUP 83 (May–June 1997): 53–58, and "Academic Freedom and Tenure: University of Central Arkansas," ibid., 86 (March–April 2000): 101–14. Back to Text

2. Suffice it to say that there is no evidence of systematic—or even widespread—abuse of or arbitrariness in the tenure process. On the contrary, the overwhelming number of personnel actions affecting tenure occasion no controversy and reflect the academic expectations of the profession. Further, a 1998 survey indicated that 62 percent of nontenured assistant professors disagreed that tenure is an outmoded concept—an increase in the sensed need for a tenure system of 9 percent over a survey taken just three years previous. (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 September 1999, A19.) It seems obvious that opinion surveys are shifting sand on which to found a policy. Back to Text

(Updated 03/03)