Tenure’s Dirty Little Secret - The Chronicle of Higher Education
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.