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Tenure in Academia, the Past, Present and Future

This month we explore the topic of tenure in higher education and ideas surrounding it. Why was the tenure system created, what purpose does it hold and in what direction is it headed? Dr. Gregory Scholtz from the American Association of University Professors discusses these questions and shares enlightening information on the sometimes controversial subject.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Dr. Scholtz, previously you were a department chair and faculty member at two different higher education institutions. What prompted you to make the transition to your current position at the American Association of University Professors?

Gregory Scholtz, Ph.D., American Association of University Professors: As a result of a bad experience obtaining tenure at the second institution (I earned tenure at both colleges), I became interested in finding ways to (1) increase the faculty's power at that institution and (2) revise its inadequate policies and procedures. Because I saw that the AAUP could be a means for accomplishing both goals--through its principles, standards, and credibility in higher education--I helped to resurrect the AAUP chapter on campus. My activity in the chapter led to involvement at the state level and, eventually, to involvement at the national level, with the help and encouragement of national officers and staff. I eventually served on several national AAUP bodies--including Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. That service led to my being appointed to five academic freedom and tenure investigating committees.

As a result of this volunteer service, I developed some expertise in these areas and became well known to the staff in the national office. When the director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance announced his retirement in 2008, the chair of the search committee for his successor encouraged me to apply. To be honest, even though it was my dream job, I felt serious trepidation about accepting the position. But I asked the college to give me a leave of absence so that if the job didn't work out, I could go back. After two years, I let the college know I wasn't returning and retired from my position there as professor emeritus.

Hibel: At AAUP, you are responsible for addressing policy issues in higher education. Will you discuss some of the major developments that are currently affecting faculty careers?

Scholtz: I think most students of American higher education would agree that the most serious problem affecting colleges and universities today--and also faculty careers--is the "contingentization" (to coin a word) of academic labor. Less than 30 percent of college and university faculty members have tenure or are eligible for it. The rest hold what we call contingent appointments--either part-time or full-time faculty positions that are ineligible for tenure.

Most faculty members on contingent appointments serve on a term-to-term basis and can be let go with very little notice. Pay and benefits are significantly lower than that of the tenured and tenure-track faculty. Many part timers teach at several institutions, sometimes as many as six or seven courses a term, just to make ends meet. Most of these faculty members have advanced degrees--including the Ph.D.--in their chosen fields. The AAUP has issued a number of policy documents and reports addressing this problem, which, it believes, has created an exploited class of faculty members, diminished academic quality, and significantly reduced the attractiveness of the academic teaching profession.

Hibel: Can you give some background on the AAUP?

Scholtz: The professors who founded the AAUP in 1915 did so with the stated purpose of protecting academic freedom. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were a number of highly publicized cases of governing boards and administrations dismissing prominent faculty members because they had voiced unpopular views. Disciplinary associations to which professors belonged were highly critical of these actions, but seemed powerless to find a solution. Members of these groups came together in the AAUP--a transdisciplinary organization that on behalf of the entire academic community would defend indefinite tenure as essential for academic freedom. The argument the Association's founders made in the AAUP's classic 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure was that academic freedom was necessary for high-quality education and research in service of the common good. The 1915 Declaration ends with "Practical Proposals" for protecting academic freedom. Those practical proposals are the basis of the tenure system current in American higher education.

The essence of tenure, as fully developed and set forth in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which the AAUP jointly formulated with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, is that, "after the expiration of a probationary period, teachers or investigators [researchers] should have permanent or continuous tenure, and their service should be terminated only for adequate cause."

Prior to a decision on granting tenure, a faculty member serves on probationary term appointments, which the institution can choose to renew or not renew when they expire. After receiving tenure, a faculty member serves on an indefinite appointment that the institution can terminate only for adequate cause. According to the 1915 Declaration and the 1940 Statement, the burden of demonstrating adequate cause for dismissal of a tenured faculty member lies with the administration, which must make its case before a faculty body in an on-the-record adjudicative hearing. The result of the tenure system, as outlined above, is to remove post-probationary faculty members from the at-will employment category.

Hibel: Another part of your job is recommending AAUP-supported standards and responding to complaints of violations of those standards. What are some of the most common complaints and what are the suggested standards for resolving the complaints?

Scholtz: The standards that we support are the procedural rules that the AAUP has formulated for protecting academic freedom, primarily the due-process standards having to do with tenure, but also procedural standards that the AAUP has developed to provide protections for non-tenured faculty members, including those on contingent appointments. These standards are set forth in the AAUP's Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure and other documents. The AAUP has also developed complementary standards about the faculty's role in institutional governance. The key source for governance principles and standards is the AAUP's Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which was developed in cooperation with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the American Council on Education.

The faculty members who contact us commonly do so because they are in danger of losing their jobs through not being reappointed (including being denied tenure) or through being dismissed for cause or laid off for financial reasons. Others contact us because they are being sanctioned in some way. In dealing with these complaints, we advise faculty members of their rights under applicable AAUP procedural standards. If their situations are such that it appears that their administration in acting against them departed from core AAUP principles and standards, we convey our concerns to the institution's president and urge corrective action. In particularly severe cases that we cannot resolve, the Association may conduct an investigation, issue a report of the investigation, and censure the administration.

Hibel: In a recent Bloomberg Business article, the author states, "Academic freedom is the esteemed argument made for tenure. This rationale dates back to the late 18th century, when professors at religious schools needed protection from trustees and donors who might demand termination of those faculty who taught outside the accepted doctrine." He goes on to say that "academic freedom is protected under the First Amendment and therefore tenure is not necessary, at least at public universities." Please explain the role and purpose of tenure in today's higher education system. Also, what are your thoughts on his comments?

Scholtz: As I stated previously, the role and purpose of tenure in American higher education is to protect academic freedom in order to promote the discovery and dissemination of knowledge and thus serve the common good. Academic freedom, as understood by the AAUP, is a professor's freedom "to teach, both in and outside the classroom, to conduct research and to publish the results of those investigations, and to address any matter of institutional policy or action whether or not [one is] a member of an agency of institutional governance. Professors should also have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence" (From the executive summary of a 2009 AAUP report on the fallout from the Supreme Court's decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos).

According to academic freedom and Constitutional experts, the First and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual faculty member at a public university from government interference that is external and based on content. They do not protect that faculty member from administrators and governing board members--or, indeed, from other members of the faculty--who would interfere in their teaching, their scholarship, or their speech about institutional matters and matters of public concern. For further elaboration, see Walter P. Metzger, "Profession and Constitution: Two Definitions of Academic Freedom in America" (Texas Law Review 1265 [1988]), David M. Rabban, "Academic Freedom," in Encyclopedia of the American Constitution 12 (1986); and Neil Hamilton, Zealotry and Academic Freedom: A Legal and Historical Perspective (1995), 187-194.

In other words, constitutional academic freedom in some ways falls far short of professional academic freedom, as commonly understood in American higher education. So the idea that tenure is not needed to protect academic freedom at public colleges and universities because Constitutional protections are adequate is incorrect. To understand the importance of tenure for protecting academic freedom at such institutions, all one need do is to talk to their faculty members who do not have tenure. And, as the Bloomberg author acknowledges, these Constitutional rights do not apply to faculty members in their professional capacities at private colleges and universities.

Hibel: The article, The Good, the Bad, the Tenured, shows a variety of views on tenure from administration, faculty and students. Some professors say that tenure produces conformity and has not protected intellectual diversity; others say it allows them to teach more effectively. And, one tenured faculty member admitted, "The downside is that it protects you from getting fired, so you can get away with not doing your best." What are your feelings on his comment about encouraging mediocrity?

Scholtz: We have all heard the term "tenured deadwood." I would be the last to deny that there are professors with tenure whose performance is less than excellent. But the tenure system is not designed to protect the incompetent and the unfit. Contrary to a common misconception, the tenure system does not prevent faculty members from being "fired." The purpose of the tenure system is to prevent faculty members from being fired for the wrong reasons, that is, for reasons unrelated to professional fitness: voicing unpopular ideas, pursuing currently unfashionable lines of research, challenging students, having standards that are perceived as too high, exercising their rights as citizens, and being critical of the administration and governing board. The widely adopted tenure standards developed by the AAUP do permit an institution to dismiss a faculty member who is shown to be professionally unfit.

Hibel: In a paper entitled, Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?, the authors indicate that the granting of tenure has dramatically decreased in recent decades. In 1975, 57% of faculty were in the tenure system; by 2009 it had dropped to 30% and some predict it could bottom out at 15-20%.1 Why do you think these numbers have decreased over the years and do you agree with the "bottoming out" predictions?

Scholtz: I have no basis on which to predict whether the percentage of faculty members with tenure or on the tenure track will bottom out at 15-20 percent. I certainly hope the authors are correct in their prediction [that the rate will not go below 15-20 percent], and I hope the percentage will soon begin to increase. As to the causes of the decline in the numbers of tenure-track faculty and the corresponding increase in the numbers of contingent faculty, most studies suggest that the causes are financial. The use of contingent labor saves universities considerable money, since contingent faculty members are typically paid much less than their tenure-line counterparts, and provides administrations considerable flexibility, because they can hire and remove contingent faculty members at will (which is why they are called "contingent").

Hibel: How does the view and/or the role of tenure at large public universities and private universities differ from the role at smaller public universities?

Scholtz: I am not aware of any differences, except that at institutions where research is highly valued, the granting of tenure will tend to be based on research accomplishments. At institutions where teaching is a priority, the professor's classroom performance will ordinarily be given the most weight when it comes time to make a decision on tenure.

Hibel: Ultimately, the quality of education the student receives is arguably the most important factor from a student's standpoint. Should students be concerned with the education they receive from a tenured professor, versus a non-tenured professor, versus an adjunct or contingent faculty member?

Scholtz: No. But a student should be concerned about the institution's general commitment to educational quality as manifested in its commitment to attracting and retaining the best-qualified teachers. As one of the AAUP's reports on contingent appointments states, "It seems clear that the expanded use of [contingent] appointments can be an expedient answer to fiscal and enrollment problems facing colleges and universities--if saving money is the key consideration. But... the savings realized are at an inordinately high cost to the quality of the entire academic enterprise.... [The use of contingent appointments has] serious adverse repercussions... for individual faculty members, for scholarship and learning, for students, and for the institutions of higher learning themselves."

Hibel: With many universities relying more on the use of part-time or contingent faculty, how does this affect the tenure system?

Scholtz: The increased reliance on part-time and full-time nontenure-track faculty could potentially undermine the credibility of the tenure system. Fortunately, for those of us who believe in its value, there is certainly no indication that the increased reliance on contingent faculty has enhanced the quality of American higher education. And I have not seen any colleges and universities bragging in their viewbooks about how many faculty members they hire off the tenure track. In fact, I find the opposite to be the case.

Hibel: In a recent article, a professor writes, "The tenure system provides higher job security than would, say, a for-profit company, but it provides far less in monetary compensation. The correct view of the tenure contract is that universities get high-priced talent at a low monetary price; they pay instead by providing job security."2 What is your view on this observation?

Scholtz: I think it is self-evident. I should also note that it is implicit in the 1940 Statement of Principles: "Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability."

So how do we get "high-priced talent" without job security?

Hibel: There are many positives of tenure on campus, but an informative article from the American Federation of Teachers indicates, "The tenure process can be too rigid. For example, it's not easy for faculty to take a break during the three- to seven-year year tenure clock in order to care for young children." But as the article ends, "higher education unions are pushing to place more emphasis on teaching and improve tenure procedures." How do you see this emphasis being implemented on college campuses in order to improve the tenure process?

Scholtz: With respect to the childcare issue, I should note that in 1974 the AAUP first developed guidelines for accommodating child-rearing responsibilities during the probationary period.

As to the question of improving the tenure process, I think a distinction must be made between the tenure system and the tenure process. The AAUP is primarily responsible for the tenure system in American higher education, as I described it earlier, but individual institutions design the specific procedures by which they implement that system. The AAUP has emphasized that the faculty should play a primary role in designing the tenure process. The AAUP has also articulated principles and standards promoting fairness and peer review in the tenure process. But institutions vary greatly in size and mission, and the AAUP has accordingly not dictated to colleges and universities the precise procedures to use when determining who receives and who doesn't receive tenure. In other words, whatever rigidities might exist in a particular tenure process may have more to do with that institution's own policies than they do with the tenure system. And we would agree that it is a laudable undertaking to improve the tenure process, especially if such improvement results in greater fairness, better outcomes, and a greater degree of faculty oversight.