Tenure commonly refers to life tenure in a job, and specifically to a senior academic's contractual right not to be fired without cause. Academic tenure is awarded to university professors based on seniority and past performance in research, teaching, and service to their community. The process is subject to ongoing debate between those who believe it useful and those who think it stifles productivity.
Academic tenure is primarily intended to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects respected teachers and researchers so that they are free to investigate the problems and solutions about which they are most passionate, and to report their honest conclusions. The hope is that researchers unfettered by concerns about conditions of their employment will be more creative and productive. On the other hand, the tenure system also encourages those that are self-centered to act in ways that benefit themselves and not the larger society. Another criticism is that the requirements for tenure, known as "publish or perish," are a poor training for excellence in scholarship and research, and devalue teaching. The problems with tenure, however, are not so much due to the idea of providing job security for those who have earned it, but rather to the self-centered attitudes and behavior of those in the academic system. Changing the external form of the system is unlikely to produce improvements; an internal change of heart toward the goal of living for the sake of others is what is needed.
A life tenure or lifetime tenure is a term of office that lasts for the officeholder's lifetime, unless the officeholder is removed from office under extraordinary circumstances. Federal court judges in the United States gain life tenureship once appointed and confirmed. Senior university professors may also be granted academic tenure in this sense. In both cases, a primary goal is to protect the officeholder from external pressures.
Academic tenure is primarily intended to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects respected teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. Thus academic tenure is similar to the lifetime tenure that protects some judges from external pressure. Without job security, the scholarly community as a whole might favor "safe" lines of inquiry. Tenure is intended to make original ideas more likely to arise, by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to investigate the problems and solutions about which they are most passionate, and to report their honest conclusions.
Universities also have economic rationales for adopting tenure systems. First, job security and the accompanying autonomy are significant employee benefits; without them, universities might have to pay higher salaries or take other measures to attract and retain talented or well-known scholars. Second, junior faculty are driven to establish themselves by the high stakes of the tenure decision (lifetime tenure vs. job loss), arguably helping to create a culture of excellence within the university. Finally, tenured faculty may be more likely to invest time in improving the universities where they expect to remain for life; they may also be more willing to hire, mentor, and promote talented junior colleagues who could otherwise threaten their positions. Many of these rationales resemble those for senior partner positions in law and accounting firms.
In the nineteenth century, university professors largely served at the pleasure of the board of trustees of the university. Sometimes, major donors could successfully remove professors or prohibit the hiring of certain ones; nonetheless, a de facto tenure system existed. Usually professors were only fired for interfering with the religious principles of a college, and most boards were reluctant to discipline professors. The courts rarely intervened in dismissals.
In one debate of the Cornell Board of Trustees, in the 1870s, a businessman trustee argued against the prevailing system of de facto tenure, but lost the argument. Despite the power retained in the board, academic freedom prevailed. Another example is the 1894 case of Richard Ely, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who advocated labor strikes and labor law reform. Though the Wisconsin legislature and business interests pressed for his dismissal, the board of trustees of the university passed a resolution committing itself to academic freedom, and to retaining him (without tenure):
In all lines of investigation the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the paths of truth, wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless winnowing and sifting by which alone the truth can be found.
In 1900, the presidents of Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago each made clear that no donor could any longer dictate faculty decisions; such a donor’s contribution would be unwelcome. In 1915, this was followed by the American Association of University Professors' (AAUP) declaration of principles—the traditional justification for academic freedom and tenure.
The AAUP's declaration of principles recommended that:
While the AAUP pushed reform, tenure battles were a campus non-issue. In 1910, a survey of 22 universities showed that most professors held their positions with "presumptive permanence." At a third of colleges, assistant professor appointments were considered permanent, while at most colleges multi-year appointments were subject to renewal. Only at one university did a governing board ratify a president’s decisions on granting tenure. Finally, there were approximately 20 complaints filed in 1928 with the AAUP, and only one merited investigation. Colleges slowly adopted the AAUP’s resolution; de facto tenure reigned; usually reappointments were permanent.
In 1940, the AAUP recommended that the academic tenure probationary period be seven years; still the norm. It also suggested that a tenured professor could not be dismissed without adequate cause, except "under extraordinary circumstances, because of financial emergencies." Also, the statement recommended that the professor be given the written reasons for dismissal and an opportunity to be heard in self-defense. Another purpose of the academic tenure probationary period was raising the performance standards of the faculty by pressing new professors to perform to the standard of the school's established faculty.
Yet, the most significant adoption of academic tenure occurred after 1945, when the influx of returning GIs returning to school and too-quickly expanding universities led to severe professorial faculty shortages. These shortages dogged the Academy for ten years, and that is when the majority of universities started offering formal tenure as a side benefit. The rate of tenure (percent of tenured university faculty) increased to 52 percent, where it has remained with little fluctuation. In fact, the demand for professors was so high in the 1950s that the American Council of Learned Societies held a conference in Cuba noting the too few doctoral candidates to fill positions in English departments. During the McCarthy era, loyalty oaths were required of many state employees, and formal academic tenure was not a protection from dismissal—even regarding free speech and free political association. Some professors were dismissed for their political affiliations, but of these, some likely were veiled dismissals for professional incompetence. During the 1960s, many professors supported the anti-war movement against the war with Vietnam, and more than 20 state legislatures passed resolutions calling for specific professorial dismissals and a change to the academic tenure system. University boards of trustees stood their ground and suffered no consequences.
Two landmark US Supreme Court cases changed tenure in 1972: (i) the Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 US 564; and (ii) Perry v. Sindermann, 408 US 593. These two cases held that a professor’s claim to entitlement must be more than a subjective expectancy of continued employment. Rather, there must be a contractual relationship or a reference in a contract to a specific tenure policy or agreement. Further, the court held that a tenured professor who is discharged from a public college has been deprived of a property interest, and so due process applies, requiring certain procedural safeguards (the right to personally appear in a hearing, the right to examine evidence and respond to accusations, the right to have advisory counsel).
Later cases specified other bases for dismissal: (i) if a professor’s conduct were incompatible with her duties (Trotman v. Bd. of Trustees of Lincoln Univ., 635 F.2d 216 (2d Cir.1980)); (ii) if the discharge decision is based on an objective rule (Johnson v. Bd of Regents of U. Wisc. Sys., 377 F. Supp 277, (W.D. Wisc. 1974)).
During the 1980s there were no notable tenure battles, but three were outstanding in the 1990s. In 1995, the Florida Board of Regents tried to re-evaluate academic tenure, but managed only to institute a weak, post-tenure performance review. Likewise, in 1996 the Arizona Board of Regents attempted to re-evaluate tenure, fearing that few full-time professors actually taught university undergraduate students, mainly because the processes of achieving academic tenure underweighted teaching. However, faculty and administrators defended themselves and the board of trustees dropped its review. Finally, the University of Minnesota Regents tried from 1995 to 1996 to enact 13 proposals, including these policy changes: to allow the regents to cut faculty base salaries for reasons other than a university financial emergency, and included poor performance, and firing tenured professors if their programs were eliminated or restructured and the university were unable to retrain or reassign them. In the Minnesota system, 87 percent of university faculty were either tenured or on the tenure track, and the professors vehemently defended themselves. Eventually, the president of the system opposed these changes, and weakened a compromise plan by the Dean of the law school that failed. The board chairman resigned later that year.
Tenure has continued to be a controversial issue. Expectations for tenure continue to rise, and some scholars fret about the stringent minimum requirements (two books, 12 articles) of a buyer’s market. Female and minority faculty are more likely to regard tenure as "an outmoded concept" and an old boys' club. However, there is no consensus on how to reform the system.
Tenure is not usually given immediately to new professors upon hiring. Instead, open jobs are designated eligible for tenure, or "tenure-track," during the hiring process. Typically, a professor hired in a tenure-eligible position will then work for approximately five years before a formal decision is made on whether tenure will be granted.
The academic department will then vote to recommend the candidate for tenure based on the tenure-eligible professor's record in teaching, research, and service over this initial period. The amount of weight given to each of these areas varies depending on the type of institution the individual works for; for example, research intensive universities value research most highly, while more teaching intensive institutions value teaching and service to the institution more highly. The department's recommendation is given to a tenure review committee made up of faculty members or university administrators, which then makes the decision whether to award tenure, and the university president approves or vetoes the decision.
A candidate denied tenure is sometimes considered to have been dismissed, but this is not entirely accurate: employment is often guaranteed for a year after tenure is denied, so that the non-tenured professor can conduct an extended search for new employment. Also, some prestigious universities and departments in the US award tenure so rarely that being denied it is scarcely an insult.
Professors who have earned tenure at one institution are often offered tenure along with any new position (as "senior hires"); otherwise, tenured faculty would rarely leave to join different universities.
Outside the US, a variety of contractual systems operate. Commonly, a less rigorous procedure is used to move staff members from temporary to "permanent" contracts. Permanent contracts, like tenure, may still be broken by employers in certain circumstances: for example if the staff member works in a department earmarked for closure.
Tenure can only be revoked for cause, normally only following severe misconduct by the professor. In the US, according to the Wall Street Journal (January 10, 2005), it is estimated that only 50 to 75 tenured professors (out of about 280,000) lose their tenure each year. Revocation is usually a lengthy and tedious procedure.
Many in academia take issue with the current system of tenure. They criticize the process, the system itself, and its consequences (such as "publish or perish").
Those who criticize the process say tenure is awarded by many schools solely on publication volume, ignoring other aspects of a professor's work. Some also say that tenure is decided by secret committees, which operate in an opaque manner, making it difficult to review decisions. Finally, department chairpersons can reject a tenure nomination even if the entire faculty supports it, removing some of the democracy from the system.
Those who criticize the system itself use a number of arguments. The first is that professors should be held accountable for their productivity and their opinions. Many argue that professors stop working hard once they have 'made it' by receiving tenure. Others argue that professors with tenure are given free license to use their academic positions to espouse inane, often incorrect views. Finally, life long tenure promotes many professors putting off retirement, keeping younger professors out of academia.
One notorious result of the tenure system is "publish or perish."
"Publish or perish" refers to the pressure to publish work constantly in order to further or sustain one's career in academia. The competition for tenure-track faculty positions in academia puts increasing pressure on scholars to publish new work frequently.
Frequent publication is one of the few methods at a scholar's disposal to improve his visibility, and the attention that successful publications bring to scholars and their sponsoring institutions helps ensure steady progress through the field and continued funding. Scholars who focus on non-publishing-related activities (such as instructing undergraduates), or who publish too infrequently, or whose publications are not clearly connected to one another in topic, may find themselves out of contention for available tenure-track positions.
A scholarly writer may experience pressure to publish constantly, regardless of the academic field in which the writer conducts scholarship. One physicist, for example, has noted evidence of shoddy scholarship in the field.
Arguments in favor of tenure usually center around the benefit of making the faculty unanswerable to the administration. The oft-cited argument is that, via tenure, faculty are free to teach what they consider to be right without fear of retribution. For example, conservative faculty at liberal institutions and liberal faculty at conservative institutions would be free to maintain institutionally contrarian viewpoints. Such diversity of viewpoints is considered beneficial to the educational environment. However, it is not clear that this occurs, as such faculty may be denied promotions and raises and may be ostracized by their peers, or not granted tenure in the first place.
A less cited, though perhaps more persuasive argument, is that tenure helps to preserve academic standards. At all but the few institutions with exceptionally large endowments, administrations are largely motivated to increase the number of students at the institution. This motivation, left unchecked, would result in ever-declining admissions requirements and ever-rising grade inflation. A faculty that is tenured and that does not share directly in the profits of the institution is motivated less by maintaining enrollment numbers than by maintaining its academic reputation among its peers. Thus, tenure protects academic rigor from competitive forces that would erode that rigor in favor of attracting and retaining greater numbers of students.
Tenure, or something similar, is in effect for many employees in other countries. For example, in Norway no-one can be fired without a just cause, and all employees are protected by law. People in these countries cannot be fired unless they break their work contract. The unions pay close attention and have to be a part of all cases where people are being fired to protect the employees interests.
Tenure has traditionally been a feature of western universities, although its place is changing. Academic tenure was officially restructured in public universities in the United Kingdom, by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. It is no longer offered in Australia, New Zealand, and in most of Europe (whereas most European university systems, especially in Germany, do not allow any teaching by young researchers, postgraduates, post doctoral fellows, or residents). In Germany, however, in universities (but not advanced technical colleges) practice differs often from theory: teaching should be restricted to tenured faculty and a few non-tenure staff members paid for research and teaching. In reality much teaching is done by non-tenured research students and adjunct faculty. In France, tenure is granted early: in academic ranks as well as to CNRS and other researchers, who thus have a strong institutional protection that affords intellectual and political independence and enables them to enjoy special rights to free speech unlike other French Civil Servants.
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