Academic tenure: desperate for reform or urgent defender?
The term of office is in the headlines again, and not in a good sense.
You may have read articles on Harvard’s denial of tenure to Lorgia Garcia Pena and Cornell West. You have probably heard that MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones was initially denied employment at the University of North Carolina.
But even if the denial of official seats raises concerns about opaque or misguided campus standards and the interference of trustees and donors in official decisions, criticism of the tenure system continues to grow.
This criticism no longer comes exclusively from free market participants who see the term of office as an anachronistic benefice for “elites who study esoteric subjects and brainwash students with left-wing politics”.
Tenure complaints are now just as likely to come from the left as they are from the right.
Alongside traditional complaints – that tenures reward unproductive faculties, stifle institutional change, stifle innovation and risk-taking, especially among junior researchers, make it virtually impossible to fire poor or mediocre performers, and make the institution less adaptable to budget shifts or student interests – other concerns are now emerging expressed:
- That the criteria for the term of office are too narrow.
- That the tenure system hinders diversity.
- The protection of this term of office is limited to a narrow and shrinking portion of the professorship.
- That the tenure system helps institutionalize academic hierarchies and special privileges.
- That the tenure system prevents interdisciplinarity.
- That the tenure system creates barriers to holding permanent teachers accountable for inappropriate behavior, gross misconduct, and actions that demonstrate a lack of professional aptitude.
The Boston Globe recently published an editorial claiming that tenure created a “caste system” that rewards the lucky few while offering “little protection” and “meager paychecks” to others. the globeThe editorial board claimed that tenure promotes sub-par teaching, prevents intellectual diversity, hinders faculty diversification, induces junior staff to self-censure and is awarded in opaque, arbitrary and biased ways.
the globeProposed solution: term limits, anywhere in the range of 30 to 35 years, combined with clearly defined tenure standards and a more transparent tenure process.
In short, the way to save a term is to fundamentally change it.
The New York Times subsequently published an opinion paper by historian Molly Worthen of the University of North Carolina, which also urged colleges and universities to address problems of the tenure system, which she believes are deeply rooted in academic culture.
- The emergence of a two-stage professorship, “one class … essentially inviolable, regardless of productivity or behavior … and another class … walking on eggshells”.
- An overemphasis on tightly focused, highly specialized scientific publications in contrast to teaching, service, public engagement and various measures of social impact.
- Risky and conflict-averse administrators and a faculty lacking intellectual diversity that “undermine one of the central goals of the modern university: to provide a space for energetic debate”.
It is worth recognizing that optimizing the tenure review “will not immediately undo the addition to the faculty or restore public trust in science”. However, she insists that some tweaks “can bring the tenure system back to its original purpose: to allow teachers to explore big ideas, [and] Taking risks in class. “
But the biggest threat to tenure doesn’t come from the factors Worthen lists: lack of public trust in academics or administrative fears from faculties doing controversial research or making inflammatory remarks, or bad apples that teach poorly and are prone to publication. It’s financial: these additional faculties cost less and can be cut back in ways that permanent lecturers cannot.
What optimizations does she recommend? As far as I can tell, these include reversing the prioritization of academic research and expanding tenure standards to include contributions to student development, ongoing course revision, and a broader view of external impact.
It sounds like Bill Clinton’s remark about affirmative action: “Fix it, don’t stop it.”
With defenses like this, the term of office is in even more trouble than I thought.
Tenure is primarily a job security and legal protection system that has the added benefit of protecting freedom of expression and controversial research. The tenure as we know it originated and spread in the first two thirds of the 20th high quality faculty and research given the rapid growth of American higher education after World War II.
Now that undergraduate enrollments are slowly declining, student interests shifting, and a surplus of well-qualified PhD students has become readily available, the circumstances that led to the spread of tenure have eroded, while with the abolition of compulsory retirement, the long-term Costs have become more and more visible.
The defense of the term of office is all the more urgent.
The tenure is a bargain. After an extremely long lead time, an extended probationary period, and a rigorous external evaluation process to determine if a faculty member has a national reputation and the future promises to have a far longer and much more rigorous process than K-12 public schools, the term of office will be awarded or denied, with each institution free to make decisions about tenure based on its particular mission and values.
So the main purpose of tenure is to retain and reward those faculty members who have proven themselves of value and are likely to remain productive contributors in the future. It also gives faculty members a stake in the long-term interests of an institution and strengthens the faculty’s hand in joint governance.
However, access to the types of job security and the benefits associated with employment varies widely between institutions. Over 92 percent of public institutions with a term of 4 years offer a term of office; but only 59 percent for private, non-profit 4-year institutions, 62 percent for 2-year institutions and 8 percent for for-profit institutions.
The outrage over the mistreatment of part-time lecturers has led to some improvements, but much of that progress has been in the better-funded 4-year institutions where colleges and universities have taken steps to curb the worst abuses. These include increasing the number of full-time lecturers with multi-year contracts, expanding access to services, including research funding and professional development opportunities, and a ladder.
Yet these very institutions continue to rely heavily on PhD students and postdocs to teach and grade students, as well as an army of soft-paid academic assistants in their sprawling centers and institutes.
Then there is the question of filling service courses, especially in the lower language, math, rhetoric and composition classes. While some anthropologists, historians, literary critics, philosophers, political scientists, and sociologists enjoy the chance to teach introductory courses to hundreds of students, many do not, and it has been shown to be easier to guide them through assistants, PhD students, postdocs, and visiting scholars.
Since the discussion is structured exclusively as a question of teachers with permanent or non-permanent teachers, other important changes in the composition of the academy are not taken into account: the sharp increase in the number of non-teaching professionals at universities who are active in teaching, disabilities , Writing centers, and other student support agencies.
Many of the non-teaching professionals are, in fact, PhD students who should be given more opportunities to teach and pursue their scholarship.
Any serious tenure discussion should, in my opinion, focus on four key issues:
1. Equity: How can colleges and universities ensure that different candidates – including mothers and color schools – have equal opportunities for employment? What institutional and social support must be created in order to guarantee equal opportunities?
Also, how can institutions ensure that the contributions of scholars who are not white men to science, teaching, and service are fairly valued? What protocols can be implemented to prevent bias from distorting tenure assessments?
2. Standards: Which standards and expectations are appropriate for certain institutions? How can fixed tenure candidates best document not only their publications, teaching effectiveness, and service activities, but also their broader impact on students, their department, and the institution as a whole?
3. Accountability: How can the annual performance appraisal process be strengthened to ensure that faculty scholarships, teaching and services are assessed honestly, impartially and rigorously, and that post-tenure salary increases and departmental responsibilities are fairly distributed?
4. Scope: What steps should institutions, accreditors, governments and trade unions take to ensure that professionals outside the tenure system have the types of job security, due process, and professional development and development opportunities offered by tenure teachers?
I fully agree with a comment written in response to the Worthen-Op-ed: “The travesty in our universities today is not the availability of terms for some, but their absence for many.”
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.