Some Implications of Tenure for the Profession and Society

Ernst Benjamin | Apr 1, 1997

The advocates of tenure emphasize its contributions to professional excellence and the social quest for truth. These common benefits are deemed more important than the benefits to individuals with tenure or the costs to those who do not achieve tenure and institutions that desire greater flexibility. Critics reply that tenure creates excessive social, as well as individual, costs when unproductive tenured faculty diminish opportunities for new faculty and programmatic development.

The critics draw support from many sources, but especially younger faculty. One such critic, Richard Chait, cites the 1989 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching survey finding that "29 percent of all faculty, 32 percent of women faculty, and 39 percent of faculty under age 39 agreed that 'abolition of tenure would, on the whole, improve the quality of American higher education.'”1 A more recent survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 38 percent of faculty (35 percent of men and 46 percent of women) agreed that "tenure is an outmoded concept.”2

Professor Chait attributes the decline in support for tenure, somewhat narrowly, to "the secrecy and inflexibility of the tenure process."3 The diminishing appreciation of tenure also reflects the declining proportion of faculty who benefit from tenure. Many younger faculty agree with those nonacademic critics who link the protection of a tenured senior professorate to the diminishing number and quality of opportunities for new entrants to the profession and the stifling of academic innovation and improvement.

These critical perspectives directly challenge the fundamental principles of tenure expressed in the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) 1940 "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure." Does tenure, as claimed, "make the profession attractive to men and women of ability"? Or does it discourage talented recruits? Does tenure ensure "freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities"?4 Or does it stifle creativity and protect mediocrity? Can we confidently rebut the claim that the effects of tenure are opposite its intended consequences?

Does the Tenure System Attract Men and Women of Ability to the Profession?

Tenure is intended to make the profession attractive, in part, through the promise of economic security. But for many prospective faculty, the security provided those who already hold tenure negates this promise. Of course, it is the occupied position, not tenure that creates the obstacle. Abolishing tenure would not create vacancies, but it might increase turnover and thereby increase opportunities for new faculty.

However, investigators, including Professor Chait, have found, that institutions without tenure have no more, and sometimes less, faculty turnover. The absence of long-term commitments combined with the mutual desire for security promote weaker standards of review. Even if abandoning tenure did increase vacancies, it would diminish their attractiveness. Nontenure-track positions do not, in fact, attract prospective faculty who are as professionally qualified as those who avidly compete for more rigorously selective tenure-track appointments.

Those who see tenure as an obstacle to their careers or those of disadvantaged groups, such as women and minorities, may also assume that there are many tenured, unproductive faculty who resist replacement. There are some, but tenured faculty generally are not less productive than their nontenured counterparts.6 The number of unproductive tenured faculty is not sufficient to justify scrapping the tenure system, which includes procedures to improve or dismiss truly unproductive faculty. If administrators and colleagues have inadequately pursued these procedures, the fault lies not with tenure but with the failure to pursue these measures as conscientiously as those for reappointment and tenure.

Nor is tenure responsible for the lack of equal opportunity. The low rate of minority participation is not a result of tenuring-in. Rather, it derives from the societal discrimination that limits the number of minorities in the applicant pool and the institutional discrimination that impedes their opportunities. Despite tenure, the participation of women in the academy has increased rapidly, but at a rate that exceeds gains in more desirable appointments, promotion, and tenure itself. Abolishing tenure will merely diminish the quality of available academic opportunities.7

It is not tenure but the current system of review for tenure that particularly disadvantages women. Rigorous review of probationary appointments is essential to the tenure system. The probationary appointment serves to complete the training of new faculty, assess performance, and ensure the potential for the relatively autonomous performance of their professional duties afforded by the tenure system. But the probationary system has come to serve a second, contrary purpose that disadvantages all newer faculty, especially those women who compete for tenure during their childbearing and childrearing years.

Probationary review has become a way to ration scarce tenured positions. This scarcity results in part from an increase in part-time and nontenure-track positions. But universities also preserve an illusion of opportunity by creating a revolving tenure track. Instead of explicit tenure quotas that would discourage applications from career-oriented faculty, many universities have established implicit tenure quotas by unduly raising the standards of review for tenure. In such cases, probation becomes primarily a means of limiting access to tenured positions.

Using the tenure hurdle to ration positions compromises fair consideration for tenure, as fixed expectations give way to ever-higher and less predictable standards meant more to limit access than to ensure accomplishment. Many senior faculty acknowledge that they administer standards for tenure that they would not have met. This diminishes respect for tenure and encourages excessive and premature publication rather than thoughtful scholarship. However, if the tenure standard is only used as intended-to ensure institutionally appropriate levels of academic performance-how would universities cope with the potential excess of demand over supply?

Only 35 percent of all university instructors hold tenure-track appointments-25 percent have achieved tenure and 10 percent are in probationary positions. The remaining 65 percent are full-time nontenure- track faculty, part-time faculty, and graduate assistants, who provide an almost interchangeable contingent labor force. Compare, for example, the use of part-time faculty at independent colleges and universities and graduate assistants at public four-year schools (Table 1). The alleged "Ph.D. glut" is a consequence of this increasing use of non-Ph.D. faculty in nontenure-track positions. The opportunities for tenure could be increased and the rationing system moderated if even one-third of the 700,000 part- and full-time nontenure-track positions were converted back to the tenure track.

We now have a two-tier system of faculty appointments, with excessive standards for tenure-track faculty and inadequate standards for a larger second tier. Career-oriented faculty unable to achieve tenure often leave the profession. Most faculty who are offered contingent positions lack terminal degrees. Few benefit from professional review, institutional support, and collegial participation. Within institutions and across higher education, the two-tiered system of appointments denies academic careers to many able faculty, even while retaining less qualified or professionally supported faculty.

Nontenure-track positions pay less than tenure track, and proliferate in disciplines where an oversupply of candidates and an increasing proportion of women permit institutions to offer less advantageous terms of employment.8 The fact that nontenure- track positions offer inferior terms of employment rebuts the view that abolishing tenure would increase compensation and the attraction of the profession. On the contrary, increasing the number of tenure-track lines would increase faculty quality and diminish the hostility of younger faculty to the tenure system.

Restoring the tenure system would also increase costs. To say this, however, is to recognize that it is not tenure but the inadequately funded expansion of higher education that has frustrated new entrants to the profession. The tenure system has attracted able men and, increasingly, able women to the profession. It will continue to do so if it survives the economic constraints that new shape higher education.

Does Tenure Impair the Free Search for Truth and Its Free Exposition?

The 1940 AAUP Statement argues that tenure, by ensuring academic freedom, contributes to the common good through the search for truth and its free expression.

This argument was elaborated by Kingman Brewster, former president of Yale University:

This spirit of academic freedom within the university has a value which goes beyond protecting the individual's broad scope of thought and inquiry. It bears crucially upon the distinctive quality of the university as a community. If a university is alive and productive, it is a place where colleagues are in constant dispute; defending their latest intellectual enthusiasm, attacking the contrary views of others. From this trial by combat emerges a sharper insight, later to be blunted by other, sharper minds. It is vital that this contest be uninhibited by fear of reprisal…9

Critics respond that many faculty are not risk takers, True, but faculty should not have to risk their livelihoods to engage in ordinary research and teaching that may become controversial.

Currently, any class discussion of race, gender, religion, evolution, or sexuality may erupt in a career-threatening controversy. Recent controversies include research on children' 5 smoking, fetal tissue, DNA, IQ, and crime, as well as historical exhibits on the Enola Gay, Freud, slavery, and the display of ethnic stereotypes in an exhibit of the Ashcan School These kinds of issues combine with less noticed, but even more prevalent, academic disputes regarding grading, curricula, and programs.

Everyday teaching and research require a measure of professional autonomy to ensure professional integrity and academic quality.10 But it need not follow that the tenure system best affords this protection. Critics argue reasonably that probationary faculty and faculty outside the tenure track t academic freedom, but excessive competition for tenure encourages low- risk, noncontroversial research and teaching.

Historically, senior faculty were responsible for protecting their junior colleagues as part of the task .of mentoring their apprenticeship, Independent protection came, appropriately, with full professional qualification, Now tenured faculty often avoid involvement with probationary colleagues whom they expect to fall victim to tenure-rationing and often ignore contingent faculty, Worse, they often counsel nontenured faculty to avoid risk, collegial work, and even their students to achieve the quantity of publication required for tenure.

Collegial protection has also weakened as university-wide review, meant to limit tenure rates, has diminished departmental authority. The desire to avoid litigation and centralized review prompts many universities to rely more on quantity of publication or citation than on quality. This fosters low-risk research and habits of scholarship that run counter to the purpose of tenure: witness the Ivy League provost I heard extoll tenure for providing a faculty member the security to invest 15 years to produce a single, but definitive, book and then note that it now takes two books (within six years) to get tenure,

Although many faculty objections to the tenure system could be met by a modest increase in the proportion of tenurable positions, many administrators believe that this would impose not only economic costs, but increased institutional rigidity as well, They contend that tenure impedes reallocation of academic resources, institutional reorganization, and academic innovation.

Certainly, university staffing and curricula must adapt to changes such as the shift in student orientation from the humanities to business that began in the 1970s, Many administrators claimed that tenure impeded readjustment of faculty as they sought to replace professors of literature and history with professors of business and computer science. Even so, the demand for new technical faculty exceeded supply by such a wide margin that it created serious interdisciplinary salary inequities and raised questions about the quality of new tenure-track faculty in the high-demand areas.

Institutions shifted to nontenure-track appointments in fields with diminished demand. This did little to increase flexibility—students remained to be taught—but it did reduce the places for professionally supported full-time faculty. The cost savings realized through conversion of positions from tenure to nontenure-track appointments were shifted from instruction to other types of expenditures, making higher education more dependent on low-cost faculty. The effort to protect flexibility ultimately substituted cost constraints for the supposed constraints of tenure, as higher education became financially unable to restore the pre-existing ratio of tenurable to nontenurable positions.

Moreover, conservative critics, many of whom had decried student disinterest in business careers in the sixties, now discovered the loss of the humanities. Business leaders complained of students' lack of liberal arts training, even as their personnel directors demanded technical skills. Students, parents, the press, and politicians expressed dismay at the absence of tenured faculty from the undergraduate classroom. Few understood that reallocating resources away from tenure lines would diminish rather than increase the availability to students of senior faculty. Tenure did not prevent excessive reallocation of faculty resources. Would that it had.

Now it is argued that tenure prevents institutional restructuring and innovation. Faculty have resisted some innovations, and tenure has provided, as intended, some protection against retaliation, but it has not ensured that the faculty view would prevail. The fact that tenured faculty have resisted specific changes, however, has become the basis for the claim that tenured faculty generally resist change, and that tenure is the basis for this resistance.

It is essential to note, therefore, the vast ongoing changes in higher education. The spread of the research model as normal and the transformation of technical schools into universities is widely recognized, though often stigmatized, by those who mistakenly assume that public regional colleges had been mostly, rather than rarely, liberal arts colleges. In turn, these new universities are increasingly dominated by professional and technical programs with the reduction of the liberal arts to service programs. Many private, often denominational, former liberal arts colleges now provide largely vocational programs staffed by adjunct faculty. Fifty percent of entering first-year students attend a vast new system of increasingly vocationally oriented community colleges.

Tenure has not halted, but often aided, a revolution in faculty perspectives. The tenure hurdle assisted conversion of teaching colleges into research universities as new faculty had to meet research obligations. Most disciplines redefined their paradigms and areas of emphasis. The desire to leap the tenure hurdle with cutting-edge research fueled the development of new perspectives. Many faculty adopted new technologies, promoted the computer revolution, and participated in adult and distance learning. Most students are commuting adults, not campus-based 18- to 22- year-olds. As a consequence, faculty often have to teach at night, on weekends, and in the summer.

Critics of tenure regard faculty-supported change, such as the emphasis on research or new disciplinary directions, mainly as evidence of misdirected faculty energy improperly protected by tenure. But faculty resistance to externally inspired change provides critics with evidence of the conservatism of tenure. Faculty, some say, too slowly embrace new pedagogies, technologies, and distance education, but respond too readily to student interest in multiculturalism or race and gender studies. Such critics ignore the contribution of tenured faculty to America's distinctive advances in basic research and uniquely participatory classroom.

Administrators who used the tenure system to encourage the race for publication and institutional recognition later complain that faculty are disinterested in teaching. Some of those who seek to revise the reward system or even eliminate tenure to reemphasize teaching, not only maintain the pressure for publication but require faculty to subordinate their teaching to the quest for external funding. At bottom, what many such critics seek is not flexibility but the control necessary to impose their specific programmatic objectives.

Tenure's Contribution to Professional Integrity

Professional integrity includes not only ideological autonomy but also the right of independent academic judgment. It is this right that those who seek to manage faculty would constrain. 'Consider the following: "Changes in how the faculty regard themselves and their institutions lie at the heart of the restructuring process. What faculty are being asked to do is return—in effect, to give back—a portion of their independence and ability to define their own tasks and performance standards.11 This view does not seem extreme in light of a draft tenure code for the University of Minnesota, which stated that adequate cause for dismissal or sanctions would include failure to maintain "a proper attitude of industry and cooperation with others within and without the university community.”12

The effort to increase management of faculty performance has profound implications. The survey that found that 38 percent of the faculty regard tenure as an outmoded concept. The survey also found that faculty identified the following items as most important in choosing their careers: intellectual challenge (84 percent), intellectual freedom (79 percent), freedom to pursue individual scholarly/teaching interests (75 percent), opportunities for teaching (72 percent), autonomy (70 percent), and a flexible schedule (65 percent). The next item, research opportunities, scored only 39 percent.13 The loss of tenure would clearly diminish the ability to attract faculty with such aspirations and expectations.

Professional independence is even more a condition of competent performance. Howard Mumford Jones suggested a common sense explanation: "You can't tell the lawyer what the law is, can you? You don't take a vote to determine whether a doctor should prescribe medicine or a surgeon perform an operation, do you?”14 Now that lawyers are viewed as "hired guns" and doctors subject to "managed care," this explanation may be less persuasive to those who have not experienced the effects of diminished professional integrity, but it remains sound.

Faculty recognize institutional constraints. Where physicians often managed hospitals and lawyers managed firms, faculty have, at best, shared in governance. Nonetheless, faculty accountability has been primarily ensured through professional standards and peer review rather than managerial directive. As Kingman Brewster observed, “The more subtle condition of academic freedom is that faculty members, once they have proved their potential during a period of junior probation, should not feel beholden to anyone, especially department chairs, deans, provosts, or presidents, for favor, let alone for survival.”15 Brewster continues that any system of periodic review subject to the sanction of dismissal,

would both dampen the willingness to take on long term intellectual risks and inhibit if not corrupt the free and spirited exchanges on which the vitality of a community of scholars depends. This, not the aberrational external interference, is the threat to the freedom of the academic community which tenure seeks to mitigate.16

Accordingly, whatever the purpose of diminishing the protections of tenure, the consequence will be to destroy the essential foundation for professional integrity.

Higher education without tenure will in time become a system of training schools whose instructors are neither educators nor scholars. For the notion that one can improve the university by destroying tenure ultimately presupposes that one can maintain the university without attracting or sustaining the teacher-scholar. On the contrary, tenure alone enables faculty to preserve their professional integrity and the creative conflict essential to the advancement of learning amid the intensifying institutional constraints of contemporary higher education.


1. Richard Chait, "The Future of Academic Tenure," AGB Priorities 3 (spring 1995): 6.

2. Chronicle of Higher Education 43, no. 3 (September 13, 1996): A12-15.

3. Chait, 6

4. American Association of University Professors, Policy Documents and Reports (Washington, D.C., 1995), 3.

5. Chait, 9.

6. Chait, 8.

7. See Annette Kolodny, "The dismantling of tenure is aimed at those who have yet to attain a firm foothold within academe," Chronicle of Higher Education (March 22,1996): B5.

8. Hirschel Kasper, "On Understanding the Rise in Non-tenure-Track Appointments," Industrial Relations Section, Princeton University Working Paper no. 211 (mimeo), August 1986, 11.

9. Kingman Brewster, "On Tenure," AAUP Bulletin 58, no. 4 (winter 1972): 382-3.

10. Academic Freedom: All Everyday Concern, Ernst Benjamin and Donald R. Wagner, eds., "New Directions for Higher Education," no. 88 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, winter 1994).

11. Pew Higher Education Research Program, Policy Perspectives 4, no. 4 (February 1993): A9.

12. Board of Regents Policy on Faculty Tenure, Section 10.2, Draft of September 5, 1996.

13. The Chronicle of Higher Education 43, no. 3 (September 13, 1996): A15.

14. "The American Concept of Academic Freedom," AAUP Bulletin 46, no. 1 (spring 1960): 69.

15. Brewster, 381.

16. Brewster, 383.

Ernst Benjamin is a general secretary at the American Association of University Professors.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

The American Historical Association welcomes comments in the discussion area below, at AHA Communities, and in letters to the editor. Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.


Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.