The Georgia University System Board of Regents recently adopted a new policy making it easier for administrators to remove a tenured professor, in order to “ensure accountability and continued strong performance from faculty members” posttenure. Critics denounced the policy as a “deep ideological attack on higher education” that would “destroy protections for academic freedom” and the quality of education it supports.
Battles over tenure have been fought for decades, but attempts to limit or abolish it are again on the rise. In 2017, conservative lawmakers in Missouri and Iowa proposed legislation that would largely end tenure for public university and college faculty, following a similar effort in Wisconsin two years earlier. Iowa Republicans renewed their efforts this year, arguing arguing that tenure protects the unproductive and allows progressive faculty members to silence conservative viewpoints. This fall, legislators in Florida began discussing a posttenure-review proposal that critics fear will sharply undercut the protections of tenure.
Tenure has critics on the left, as well. The Boston Globe, for example, called earlier this year for tenure term limits, “to promote racial, gender, and ideological diversity, as well as to better advance academic freedom.”
These assaults come at a time of declining confidence in and respect for institutions of higher education and the professoriate. According to recent Pew Research Center surveys, “only half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect”; as many as 61 percent think higher education is headed in the wrong direction. When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked Americans this summer which professions “contribute to the general good of society,” they ranked college professors well below doctors, teachers, scientists and construction workers.
“Hyperpartisan trends” throughout the country suggest that further attacks are likely. At the University of Florida, university officials recently prohibited three political science faculty from testifying in a lawsuit against the voting rights policies of Republican governor Ron DeSantis. The university reversed course only after a “storm of protest.”
In this environment, tenure remains essential to the core mission of higher education: the creation, preservation and dissemination of knowledge, without fear or favor.
In a seminal 1940 statement, the American Association of University Professors identified two principal reasons for tenure: to ensure “freedom of teaching and research” and to offer “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” To these two we would add a third: enabling faculty members to participate effectively in institutional governance, including the formulation and implementation of college and university policies.
Faculty members will find it much more difficult to challenge received orthodoxies or explore sensitive subjects if they face dismissal because their research, teaching or public statements offend administrators, donors, parents or politicians. Students and society, not just faculty members, will pay the price; ideas that are indispensable to society may be snuffed out when they are most needed.
Tenured faculty tend to ensure a stable environment for teaching, learning and governing colleges and universities. Unfortunately, the past 50 years have seen a steady decline in the percentage of tenured or tenure-track positions. Once a large majority, some 73 percent of college and university teachers are now not eligible for tenure. Contingent faculty, many of whom stay for short periods or teach for multiple institutions, cannot provide the same stability or institutional commitment.
Tenure also helps attract and retain talented people. Many faculty, particularly in the STEM fields, could easily pursue more lucrative careers in the private sector. The job security afforded by tenure, and the freedom to pursue whatever research is of greatest interest to the faculty member rather than the employer, is an important benefit. Without tenure, the pool of highly qualified candidates will be reduced and colleges and universities will find it necessary to offer higher salaries.
Tenure also supports robust faculty participation in institutional governance. Faculty members have the primary responsibility for issues requiring subject matter and pedagogical expertise, from decisions on appointments, promotion and tenure to curriculum development, mentoring and advising. Faculty also have shared responsibility, along with administrators and trustees, for most other aspects of college and university governance. In fulfilling those responsibilities, tenure gives faculty members the freedom to exercise their best judgment without fear of repercussion. It also helps insulate college administrators from external pressure, since they can cite academic freedom and faculty autonomy when rejecting calls to discipline or dismiss professors caught in the crosshairs of the left or right.
There are, of course, legitimate concerns about tenure, particularly following the elimination of mandatory retirement in 1994. As people live and work longer, tenure can constrain the ability of colleges and universities to adapt to changing curricular and budgetary needs. Tenure sometimes locks in subfields as well as individuals, hindering investment in emerging or expanding areas, such as computational biology, computing and information science, and sustainability. To reduce costs and increase flexibility, institutions often hire adjuncts, visitors and other contingent faculty, exacerbating a two-tier system in which untenured faculty receive little pay and less job security despite high teaching loads and other responsibilities.
Finally, while the vast majority of faculty remain highly productive throughout their careers, some have stalled or stopped research; others have not changed their classroom presentations in years.
Some critics believe that done properly, as an aid to faculty development, posttenure reviews can address these issues. In our view, however, this moment calls for an affirmation of tenure as an essential mechanism to protect the freedom to create, preserve and disseminate knowledge free from outside interference and to secure an appropriate balance between institutional responsibility and faculty autonomy.
After all, despite its flaws, tenure remains a vital part of academic culture. And critics have not offered viable alternatives to an approach that has stood the test of time, one we undermine at our peril.