Tenure's Dirty Little Secret

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

January 01, 2012

It seems that tenure is always in the news. Long an article of faith for most faculty members, tenure is being put on the defensive almost everywhere, including within the academy itself. During the past decade, the numbers of tenured and tenure-track professors have sharply declined from nearly one-half of the faculty to about one-third. Most courses in four-year colleges and universities as well as community colleges are now taught by contingent faculty, including part-time adjuncts, graduate students, and holders of full-time nontenure-track positions. Does anyone care?

Tenure is rooted in the American Association of University Professors statement on academic freedom and tenure that for many faculty members has become tantamount to religious dogma, impervious to forces of change, regardless of source. The dogma is that the common good is served by the free pursuit of truth under the principles of academic freedom, buttressed by the lifetime job security of tenure. While an individual's tenure may be revoked for cause, this rarely used action is protected by extraordinary and lengthy procedural requirements equivalent to a trial.

If tenure is so vital, why is it on the defensive and, in fact, seriously losing ground? Where is the public outrage? There is none outside the confines of higher education, and even there it is hardly universal.

Three factors are in play. First, the large expansion of higher education in the United States during the past 50 years has stripped the academy of its mystery as a cloistered monastery. The curtain has been opened, revealing the meaning and consequences of the tenure system. As with any dogma, religious or secular, once its status as truth is questioned and its claims considered dubious, true believers are left with a leap of faith.

Second, colleges—public and private—are firmly embedded in the political system and are major players in the competition for public money. In that environment, political leaders are not sympathetic to claims to ex­traordinary privilege such as lifelong employment for tenured faculty.

Third, at a time of economic uncertainty and high unemployment, the security and independence of tenure is hard for millions of people adversely affected by the economy to understand, much less embrace. This attitude is bolstered by reports that question quality and outcomes in higher education.

The problem, then, is not a lack of public understanding of how colleges work and how the common good is served by tenure. The problem is that the public does understand when self-interest is tied to the common good.

Neither the academy nor the AAUP, the chief guardian of the dogma, has developed a convincing argument that tenure is necessary. What emerges in most media accounts of alleged violations of academic freedom or tenure is the sense that faculty are special people deserving of privileged status both on and off campus. Why? Defenders of tenure believe that all faculty members are on a continuing search for the truth, which authorizes them to speak or publish anything they want to, anywhere, regardless of circumstances, under a special right known as academic freedom, which tenure protects.

The original meaning of academic freedom was that teachers (and students) were to be protected against political, religious, or other restrictions in their pursuit of knowledge. Now it applies to a wide variety of behaviors such as campus governance and faculty members' conduct on or off campus outside their professional expertise or duties. It does indeed require a leap of faith for most people to believe that tenure for life is necessary to preserve these principles.

All who teach, tenured or not, are protected in their academic freedom to teach and learn (as is every student), and anyone may challenge restrictions to that freedom. Cases involving efforts to control teaching and learning are rare. Rather, AAUP-labeled threats to academic freedom more often involve campus controversies over faculty roles in developing university policies or alleged improper procedural or administrative operations. Others involve cases, often publicized, of faculty behavior seen as inappropriate or even outrageous by the public or by elected officials.

A presumption underlying the concept of academic freedom and the need for its protection through tenure is that it assures that the university need serve no master other than the search for truth. A dash of humility reveals that the dogma of tenure's role in maintaining such academic independence has been seriously undermined by higher education's ties to covert government agencies and to certain industries, raising serious conflict-of-interest questions. Reports of abuses involving grant funds, research fraud, or athletic scandals intrude on the mythology of the search for truth and the requirement of lifelong security.

Another dash of humility reveals that industry, government, think tanks, and professional societies, where the university style of tenure does not prevail, can be equal if not greater sites of creativity and the pursuit of truth. The search for truth, without tenure, is everywhere.

Untenured faculty are found on all campuses. Most community colleges do not grant tenure at all and use largely part-time faculty. About 40 percent of students in higher education attend community colleges, and such institutions constitute more than one third of the total of all colleges. Are the untenured under siege in the exercising of their academic freedom? Hardly. Nor do we hear from the general public a cry on behalf of expanding the number of faculty members holding tenured positions. Considering the number of college graduates and their dominance in important social and economic positions, it is notable how few, if any, think about tenure or marshal activities in support of their alma maters' personnel systems.

The median age of existing tenured faculty is around 55, and 75 percent to 80 percent are white males. With no age limits for retirement, changing the composition of the faculty to answer cries for diversity will require a revolution in personnel policies. The dirty little secret of tenure is its protection of doctrinal orthodoxy and curricular inflexibility to accommodate long-serving faculty, which accounts for the perception and reality of an enterprise resistant to change.

The fact is that nontenured and non-tenure-track faculty are toiling in undesirable positions at low pay and subsidizing the interests and security of tenured faculty members whose performance is not necessarily superior to nontenured faculty or even compatible with the needs and interests of students or the institutional mission.

It is not surprising that even aspiring faculty find fault with the tenure system. Critics of the eclipse of tenure often blame university administrators for using the appointment of non-tenure-track faculty as a betrayal of traditional policies and as a long-term financial consideration. If true, it is hardly an irrational decision. Dogma rarely meets a common-sense test.

Milton Greenberg is an emeritus professor of government at American University, where he served as provost and interim president.