Over the past 10 years, tenure at colleges and universities has come under fire from a variety of sources, especially legislators and politicians, most of whom have little or only tangential experience within the academic community. A recent pro and con about tenure by those more connected to the academy also appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Most surprising among recent attention to this issue is a survey of university presidents, a majority of whom would do away with tenure if they could. As one who earned tenure, and has served as a faculty member and administrator, I would like to speak about the advantages of tenure from a primarily administrative standpoint.
Universities, like society, are financially at their healthiest when resources circulate and when monies can be allocated for new enterprises. In fact, institutions whose budgets from year to year reflect little internal change or reallocations are by definition ones which do not advance programmatically, extend their curricular footprint, or respond innovatively to changing circumstances. Were institutions able to automatically rely on significant year-to-year increases in revenues—from tuition, new sources, fundraising, the government, grants, etc.—their ability to invest in new initiatives would be easy; but few, if any, can boast this as a matter of course.
A robust system of tenure with an equal spread of tenure-eligible assistant professors, tenured associate and full professors, and retirement-eligible faculty is the single most important factor that enables institutions to regularly invest in new initiatives. In fact, the less robust the tenure process and the spread of faculty within all ranks, the more an institution is forced to look at infinite expansion of its resource base from year to year, a focus that is untenable in the long term. If the housing bubble and the disasters on Wall Street have taught us one thing during the last few years, it is that unlimited growth is not a statistical reality or worth pursuing in any realm. Many institutions have, in fact, reached the tipping point by sacrificing the power of tenure and by opting instead for curricular expansion without investing in full-time faculty.
The workforce within an institution might be broadly divided into faculty and non-faculty. When non-faculty vacancies occur, unless the position itself is formally downgraded, most new appointments occur at or above the salary level of the previous holder, primarily in response to changes in the market. This is especially true of administrative and leadership positions where candidates are appointed from outside the institution—a new dean is often hired at or above the salary of the previous dean, new provosts typically cost more than the previous provost, and presidents only infrequently accept salaries lower than that of their predecessor. The replacement pattern for faculty, however, differs radically from the above. In fact, colleges typically replace tenured senior members with newly-minted PhDs—current experts teaching in the same fields and holding similar responsibilities as their retiring colleagues—at significantly lower salaries. Faculty retirements, in fact, provide the surest release of funds from departments for new initiatives or for strengthening existing programs.
A robust tenure and retirement system thus ensures the circulation of resources within institutions. An ongoing cycle of newly-hired, newly-tenured, tenured, and retiring faculty ensures a healthy process of institutional continuity and change. All the arguments I have seen for preserving tenure are worth remembering in this context; tenure matters for many reasons. But from an administrative standpoint, I regard it vital that leaders strengthen and sustain the tenure system, design desirable phased retirement programs, and prevent large gap years in hiring and tenuring faculty. Indeed, over the last two decades, freed resources from the retirements of tenured faculty have helped fund the extensive growth in administrative structures at many institutions, including in the areas of student life, technology, compliance, and advancement. One might even say that universities and colleges across the country have relied (at times unfairly) on the flexibility afforded by a historically-stronger tenure system to fund expansions elsewhere than on the academic front. If our system of tenure becomes fully eroded, institutions will be faced with the dilemma of matching the continuous increase in expenses they face in many areas by ensuring a parallel steady growth in revenues to fund new directions and initiatives, a pattern that defines the corporate world where organizations always aim to grow and expand. The most damaging impact of corporatization on the academy will thus be the erosion of tenure on our campuses.
Strong institutional stewardship, as I see it, begins with a robust tenure system and strong commitment by institutions to sustain and strengthen this financially precious source of long-term institutional health. In fact, a long-term administrative view of the academy compels us to resist eroding a system that has served us well and to find other ways of responding to annual pressures and challenges than by replacing tenure-track faculty lines with contingent appointments.
This is not an argument against maintaining and ensuring competitive faculty salaries. Though a topic for another article, I will note here that many studies have shown that the rising cost of higher education has been accompanied by significant increases on the staff and administrative side both in numbers and expenses while neither faculty size nor compensation have benefited from increasing costs to students and parents. The proliferation of administrative roles and functions seems to occur easily within institutions while faculty expansion is often a long and hard road infrequently traveled; the perception of tenure as expensive because it is a long-term commitment has contributed to this, of course.