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Editor's Note

Talking Tenure

University Business, Sep 2010

Back when I was a reporter for my college newspaper, we ran several stories concerning a professor who had threatened legal action against the school for being denied tenure. He was a controversial figure on campus, and he claimed that the administration's fear of his outspokenness lay behind his refusal.

I was reminded of this after reading a few stories about the declining rate of tenured professors, and the debate over whether the tenure model is still a viable one today.

It seems clear that what was once considered the "traditional" tenure model no longer works. In fact, calling it traditional isn't even accurate because the number of faculty members who have tenure or are on track for it has been declining dramatically in the last several decades. As has been reported elsewhere, the number of full-time college professors with tenure has fallen from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. When the Department of Education releases its latest report on the subject later this fall, the number is expected to be far lower.

Tenure supporters often say that having it lets them teach and conduct research as they wish. They also say it gives them the freedom to speak out against the administration without fear of reprisal. While that "benefit" does exist, is it truly a reason to seek tenure? Should we assume that someone on track for tenure is just biting his or her tongue until the golden moment when that "immunity" is granted?

Maybe. But at least in the case of my professor the claim rings hollow. The man was already quite vocal, and the fact that he hadn't previously been censured seemed to indicate that the administration respected his freedom of speech, even if they didn't agree with what he had to say.

What was once considered the "traditional" tenure model no longer works.

Then there is the counter argument that tenured teachers "stop trying." Though the number may be small, there is anecdotal evidence that some percentage of tenured faculty simply ride out their careers until retirement, under the blanket of job security. Such an attitude doesn't serve the institution, the students, or the profession. Why deny students a professor with a love of teaching and learning, who is eager to explore new technologies and trends, in favor of someone who "did their time" 20 years ago and doesn't have the interest or desire to stay current?

But perhaps the biggest argument against tenure is that it is simply no longer a practical business model. A significant portion of endowments and budgets is set aside to pay tenured faculty for however long they choose to remain. Would it not be better to redirect this money to provide the resources that non-tenured teachers and adjuncts need to do their jobs?

So why not end tenure altogether? It's a remnant of another time. The argument has been made that tenure might be replaced with renewable contracts. I believe this is a great idea. They would offer the same general benefits and securities of tenure, but would be revisited after so many years to ensure that the faculty member is still serving the institution's mission. This is not such a bad thing in the "new normal" economy. Why should a school not be able to protect its investment?

Where do you stand? Does your institution have tenured faculty? If so, what percentage are either tenured or on track? If it were up to you, would you end the practice or continue it? Let me know.


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