Most Presidents Prefer No Tenure for Majority of Faculty

Even many leaders of private and public colleges want more long-term contracts for professors

Whitney Curtis for The Chronicle

Jason D. Lively, an associate professor of communications at Lindenwood U., prepares his students for finals. He likes the contract system there and says he is antitenure: "In many cases, you have professors locked into positions where they become complacent."
May 15, 2011

The deteriorating number of tenured positions in higher education is a common source of concern for faculty, but few college presidents seem perturbed by the trend.

Less than a quarter of college leaders who responded to a Pew Research Center survey, done in association with The Chronicle, said they would prefer full-time, tenured professors to make up most of the faculty at their institutions. Instead, 69 percent said they would prefer that a majority of faculty work under long-term or annual contracts.

Leaders of private four-year institutions were less enamored of tenure than were their public peers. Forty percent of leaders of four-year private colleges who responded to the survey, conducted this spring, expressed a preference for faculty with long-term contracts, while 30 percent favored tenure.

At four-year public institutions, half of the presidents surveyed said they preferred tenured faculty. Thirty-six percent preferred professors on long-term contracts.

Advocates of tenure say it is the surest protection of academic freedom, creating a system of due process in which the burden of proof is upon administrators to demonstrate that a professor's dismissal is for cause, rather than a response to controversial scholarship.

But critics say that tenure's protections make it difficult to get rid of incompetent faculty and can promote a culture of complacency among those who have attained the status.

Cathy A. Trower, an advocate of tenure alternatives who is research director at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, said the survey's findings did not surprise her. In a tough budgetary environment, she said, it makes sense that presidents want to reduce the number of professors who "are with you until death, essentially."

But Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine, said he believes tenure is essential and found the results of the survey "disturbing." Compared with tenure, a contract does not give "nearly the same psychological assurances that are needed for academic freedom," he said.

Benefits of Contracts

If a majority of presidents who were surveyed got their way, their campuses might work something like the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering or Lindenwood University, neither of which offers tenure. When Olin opened, in 2002, all of the inaugural faculty were placed on five-year contracts. The Massachusetts college's founders said a nontenure system would give the institution more flexibility to phase programs in and out as the needs of industry demanded, said Richard K. Miller, president of the college.

"Nobody comes to Olin because they're looking for job security," he said. "People come to Olin because they're looking to make a difference."

Some professors have decided on their own to leave Olin, but the college has yet to refuse any contract renewals, said Mr. Miller, who attributes the renewals to recruiting "very good faculty."

Mr. Miller previously held a tenured position as dean of the University of Iowa's College of Engineering, and he said he had to "think long and hard" about what it meant to lead a college without tenure. While not personally concerned about losing academic freedom, Mr. Miller said, he had some initial trepidation about whether the college would exercise sufficient care in hiring professors, because the appointments were seen as less permanent.

Other potential problems for colleges without tenure include challenges in faculty recruitment and an absence of due process for professors faced with dismissal.

After Lindenwood University abolished tenure for all faculty, in 1994, the American Association of University Professors sanctioned the Missouri university and said the removal of tenure coincided with a series of governance changes that silenced the faculty's role in educational policy, among other areas. Now under a new president, the university has made a number of changes, including the recent adoption of a process that allows faculty members to appeal nonrenewals of their contracts to the Faculty Council. The AAUP will consider removing the university from its sanctions list at its annual meeting next month.

James D. Evans, who became Lindenwood's president in 2007 and was not involved in the decision to eliminate tenure, said strong protections are now in place for professors. At the same time, he said, "I would candidly admit there is slightly more strength in the normal due process if it comes under the label 'tenure' with a capital T."

Jason D. Lively, chair of the Faculty Council and an associate professor of communications, said he likes Lindenwood's system. He called himself "antitenure."

"In many cases," he said, "you have professors locked into positions where they become complacent."

Efforts to eliminate complacency, however, may spark controversy. At Tiffin University, which spent five years on the AAUP's censure list, there is evidence that the lack of tenure has hampered faculty recruitment, said James Rovira, who has a three-year contract as an associate professor of English and is chair of Tiffin's humanities program. The past three faculty searches in the Ohio university's School of Arts and Sciences have failed, and Mr. Rovira attributes the small applicant pools to the candidates' concerns about academic freedom. Some faculty members have also said they are afraid to speak out on controversial issues, but Mr. Rovira said he was unsure if those fears were justified.

Rather than eliminate tenure, some colleges give faculty the choice of tenure or a status that comes with other benefits. Such is the case at Webster University, a Missouri institution where, since the 1970s, professors have been able to earn either tenure or "faculty-development leave" status, which allows sabbaticals every five years instead of every seven. Professors with development leave undergo a peer review every five years, and the review theoretically makes them more vulnerable to dismissal. But there is little precedent for a review's leading to termination, current faculty members say.

Bruce Umbaugh, a philosophy professor who declined tenure at Webster, said he valued the sabbatical benefits and believed that the reviews bring accountability, even if dismissal is uncommon. "We have all sorts of evidence that just knowing that people are paying attention" through reviews "changes the way people behave," he said.

Differences in Views

Among the presidents surveyed, those who had previously served in faculty positions were more likely than leaders who had not to say they preferred a mostly tenured professoriate on their campuses. At public four-year institutions, 52 percent of presidents who previously held faculty positions favored tenure, while just 37 percent without prior faculty experience did. At private four-year colleges, 35 percent of presidents with prior faculty experience favored tenure, compared with 20 percent of those with no faculty background.

Kent J. Chabotar, president of Guilford College and a professor of political science at the North Carolina institution, said he was not surprised that presidents with prior faculty experience would be more inclined to support tenure. "When you come to have some influence over the same system that produced you, you're going to support it," he said.

Mr. Chabotar has never held a tenured position, and he said he believes the continuity of long-term faculty appointments is more important than providing tenure.

Presidents' responses also differed based on the selectivity of their institutions. Those at highly selective, nonprofit four-year colleges were more likely to support tenured faculty positions than those at less selective institutions. The split was particularly pronounced among private institutions, where 55 percent of presidents at highly selective colleges favored tenure, compared with 18 percent at less selective institutions.

The most-tepid support for tenure came from presidents of for-profit and two-year colleges, both of which rely heavily on part-time and adjunct professors. Just 4 percent of for-profit presidents and 11 percent of two-year-college presidents favored having tenured professors make up a majority of their faculties, while more than half of those surveyed at both types of institutions preferred having a majority of full-time faculty on annual contracts.