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Rethinking Tenure

7.1.97

Tenure has become the abortion issue of the academy--a controversy marked by passion, polemics, and hardened convictions. The often shrill debate situates tenure as either the bulwark of academic freedom and economic security or the bane of institutional flexibility and accountability. Although the issues have arisen most often at public universities, the debate is on throughout academe. Its echoes resonate even at premier private institutions like Harvard: in recent months, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has heard reports on the growing proportion of (expensive) tenured professors among its ranks, and debated the compensation and career paths (mostly away from Cambridge) of junior faculty members.

So far, where the debate is most intense, there appears to be little middle ground between absolute proponents of tenure and advocates of reform--principally legislators and trustees. How might we loosen this logjam?

To begin, the discussion must be recast to focus on objectives. Attacks on tenure often proceed from other causes. Once they declare, "If only we could eliminate tenure, then we could...," critics frequently fall oddly still, unable to detail precisely the educational payoffs of a world without tenure. Instead, lawmakers and regents should clarify their goals and then consider whether tenure presents a substantial obstacle to success.

For the University of Minnesota's regents, the aim was to reallocate resources and enhance programmatic flexibility. Perhaps those goals could be accomplished through reassignment of vacant teaching slots, accelerated retirements, or incremental disinvestment from low-priority programs. Elsewhere, the goal may be to eliminate "deadwood" in the faculty. Rather than attacking tenure per se, a better approach might involve a combination of stringent post-tenure performance reviews, subsequent salary reductions (if warranted), and budgetary levies against departments with more than an occasional substandard performer. Rather than asking how to overturn tenure, trustees and lawmakers--with substantive input from faculty members and administrators--should establish desired outcomes and then ask the professionals to design policies and practices to achieve them.

But academics often respond even to these modest inquiries and initiatives--whether about productivity, flexibility, or assessment--with indignation, resistance, and counterattacks. Just as too many critics begin by assailing tenure, too many faculty members ask first, "How do we preserve tenure?" rather than "How can we achieve educational objectives?" Academics should be mindful that trustees and legislators, with few exceptions, question tenure not out of malice but out of frustration with persistent educational and financial problems.

Unfortunately, however, too many faculty playbooks have only one entry under the tenure tab--the American Association of University Professors' recommended policy. But the times have changed since 1915, when the AAUP was established. Then, there were 951 institutions of higher education and no two-year colleges. By 1940, the date of the AAUP's landmark statement on academic tenure, there were 1,708 institutions; today there are more than twice that number, including community colleges, technical institutes, and many more professional schools.

One size no longer fits all. This means that the gridlocked debate over tenure, heretofore an exercise in stale semantics, in fact involves matters of real substance. The academy needs to invent new employment arrangements to create more alternatives that better serve the diverse needs of individual faculty members, academic programs, departments, and entire institutions. Rather than constricting the latitude of professors and universities, we should encourage experiments that multiply mutually beneficial terms and conditions of employment. The twenty-first-century byword on tenure should be choice, not conformity.

Tenure will continue to exist as an appropriate arrangement for some faculty members on some campuses, but why not afford more professors the occasion to accept voluntarily a term contract in return for a higher salary, as Greensboro College does, or more frequent sabbaticals, as Webster University does? Why not offer more people the chance to serve indefinitely as senior lecturers or clinical educators, as various schools at Harvard do? The University of Virginia Medical School now has six tracks for full-time faculty members: one leads to a mandatory tenure decision, two offer the possibility of tenure, and three do not offer tenure--yet all offer the opportunity for promotion through the ranks.

Particularly in professional schools--where the emphasis on practice requires clinical faculty, and professors have the safety net of full-time employment opportunities outside the academy--full-time, long-term, non-tenured jobs have become attractive to institutions and individuals. Yet even within the arts and sciences, some faculty members elect to work on campuses with contract systems. In a recent study, "Where Tenure Does Not Reign," a colleague and I concluded that the preponderance of faculty members at these colleges experience academic life as agreeable, collegial, and free from the pressures that the search for tenure--and its attainment--create.

 

 

So much for faculty members' personal perspectives. what about "threats to academic freedom"? That issue is certain to surface whenever unconventional employment arrangements are mentioned, especially by "outsiders." The professorial dogma posits that tenure and academic freedom are inseparable--that this atom cannot be split. Are there ways here, too, that might let us shift constructively from ideological to practical considerations?

"Academic Freedom without Tenure?" by J. Peter Byrne, a professor at the Georgetown Law Center, offers a useful basis for rational discourse. The recently published article outlines a procedure to provide due process to all faculty members (tenured or not) concerning alleged violations of academic freedom. The key elements include: a peer-dominated review panel; the requirement that the faculty member make a prima facie case, whereupon the burden of proof shifts to the institution; an oral hearing to air the issues; and the possibility, when claims are still disputed, of further arbitration by an external panel of trusted academic experts. Byrne concludes that academic freedom can be reasonably assured without benefit of tenure.

Such arrangements are not simply a matter of legal theory; numerous four-year colleges, such as Hampshire College and Evergreen State College, have comparable provisions with no adverse effects reported by the faculty members. Since about one-half of all American faculty members work without tenure, the supposedly unbreakable bond between academic freedom and tenure is already suspect. That alone more than justifies creative efforts to guarantee academic freedom for all faculty members.

As a constructive step, a panel of distinguished law professors, university attorneys, and other knowledgeable professionals met recently to discuss contract language that would furnish all faculty members with a legally enforceable right to academic freedom and due process; an attorney has been commissioned to produce a revised draft for broader distribution and commentary. If we succeed, then perhaps some professors, now committed to tenure mainly as an assurance of academic freedom, might voluntarily accept a 5- or 10-year appointment with academic freedom contractually guaranteed. If significant numbers of colleagues followed suit, the public might finally understand the value the profession truly attaches to academic freedom as a fundamental principle, rather than a convenient rationale for near-absolute employment security.

 

 

Finally, although academics routinely insist upon empirical evidence and factual data, the debate on tenure often proceeds without either. To a remarkable degree, colleges and universities lack (or ignore) basic information such as the percentage of the instructional payroll attached to tenured faculty, projected faculty turnover, or the number and percentage of positions reallocated from one department to another. Few institutions collect or disseminate data on tenure probability rates for probationary faculty. Ask a provost, president, or faculty leader "How many tenured faculty members are deadwood?" and the most common replies are "I do not know," or "No more than any other profession." The same answers are offered to queries about the number of faculty prodded to resign or retire or the number terminated for unsatisfactory performance.

Comparative data on personnel policies and tenure decisions are scarcer still. In the absence of readily available information on provisions for financial exigency and programmatic discontinuation, criteria and standards for tenure, grounds for dismissal for cause, or the relationship of tenure to salary guarantees, the debate will inevitably turn on anecdote, hearsay, and emotion.

In sum, deliberations about tenure should exemplify the best of the academy, not the worst. As we regularly remind the world, the academic profession thrives on systematic inquiry, careful experiments, and robust debate. Lest we properly be labeled hypocrites on other fronts, we must create conditions conducive to civilized discourse and incisive analysis of the value of academic tenure and alternative employment practices. We must insist that the quality of the discussion surpass the minimum standards we set for students: no unexamined assumptions, no unsubstantiated claims, and no blind allegiance to convention.

If we fail, the academy's aversion to a robust, open-minded exploration of employment arrangements would signal to society at large that the bastion of academic freedom rests on a very insecure foundation.