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Tenure is a sacred word in higher education. But its long-standing dominance in academia may be coming to an end, in part due to mounting financial pressures facing college and university administrators across the country. Actually, it’s more than that: tenure will eventually come under review because municipal and state budgets are upside-down and must be cut to re-establish some kind of financial sanity—education is a part of the pie.

Boards of trustees, school boards, and legislators are reconsidering the wisdom of continuing to create an administratively untouchable class of employees whose compensation acts as a “negative endowment” upon the institution, especially when these personnel retire. Citizens are wondering why individuals employed to serve the public good are granted greater benefits, higher average salaries, extended time off, and contracts for life while the rest of us have to work for a living.

Tenure may be earned by fulltime faculty members, usually after they’ve taught five or six years, when they demonstrate knowledge of their discipline, ability to write and publish research, and one would hope, positive student feedback, and teaching competency. Assuming this is so, faculty peers who consider evaluated colleagues worthy of a long-term commitment may recommend them to the institution for tenure.

Tenured faculty members can pretty much consider themselves employed for life or good behavior. Tenure is a legally defined “property right” that once extended can only be retracted through due process. While it’s possible to release a tenured faculty member for cause, the process is fraught with emotional and legal hurdles, so it is rare indeed.

Tenure originated in the Middle Ages as a means of protecting teachers from arbitrary professional harm. It’s called “academic freedom,” the idea a professor can pursue a line of inquiry or propound views that may not be considered acceptable by others, who may be in a position to suppress the ideas or fire the professor for holding to “wrong views.” In some notable examples the idea has worked.

Meanwhile, about two-thirds of faculty members nationally do not hold tenure. As non-tenure track adjuncts they teach heavy loads, are compensated less, and yet for the most part serve students well and otherwise perform admirably. They do not enjoy the protections of the special one-third.

I should note that tenured faculty members are not a recently discovered new “enemy,” or at least they shouldn’t be considered such. Tenured faculty members in general are not the problem. And among the two-thirds non-tenured professors many are cultivating notable careers. It’s the few among them who abuse the system who are the problem, and even more, it’s the system itself that’s become unnecessary and financially unsustainable.

Tenure is now more about job security than academic freedom. I say this because there is so much case law and other precedent protecting freedom of speech or expression that faculty members are well protected as citizens of these United States. Tenure acts more often as a protection of position than ideas.

Tenure reduces accountability and undermines competitive incentives—faculty peer reviews can come under great pressure to overlook problems and endorse a suspect colleague. When this happens, the system helps perpetuate poor professors, thus robbing students of the high caliber their high education costs should give them the right to expect.

Tenure creates highly inflexible financial and operational commitments for institutions that can no longer maintain them. If an institution needs to reposition its workforce for better productivity or if an institution needs to reduce the size of its workforce, tenure gets in the way. In fact, tenure protects the highest paid teachers, which translates to lower paid teachers taking the brunt of cuts even if at least some of them may be better in-classroom instructors. Tenure protects teachers in disciplines supporting majors students may no longer want, so schools are left with faculty/student ratios that can’t support the program but can’t be changed.

Tenure isolates faculty and reinforces disciplinary values rather than institutional values. So if they’re so inclined, faculty can teach the way they wish and no longer respond to administrative influence, much less directives, to improve pedagogy or increase excellence. They can focus more on advancing within their professional disciplines than upon teaching.

Tenure is an impediment to academic excellence. Even if it must be phased out via new hires, I’d argue public or private secondary schools and low endowed postsecondary institutions interested in surviving should eliminate tenure, which no longer protects academic freedom. It just protects poor teaching and poor teachers.

In lieu of tenure, institutions can put in place longer contracts, sometimes called “term tenure,” of up to five years. They can tie professor advancement and salaries to actual in-class teaching excellence, not solely advanced degrees and most of all, not simply seniority. They can reward excellence and achievement in a multitude of other ways short of granting employment for life.

Tenure isn’t evil. It’s just a system that’s seen its day and should be set aside. Like cutting taxes, an act that first seems to produce less will in a short time produce more—competitive excellence and financially sound institutions. Most of the rest of the workforce outside teaching does quite nicely without tenure. Education can too.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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