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Trusteeship Magazine

Academic Tenure and the Traditional Assumptions Boards Should Question

By Cathy A. Trower

While tenure remains a major employment practice in higher education, far more faculty members are now hired outside of the tenure stream, either in part-time or non-tenure-track positions.

Assumptions about the tenure system as it currently operates in the United States at most four-year colleges and universities bear reconsideration by boards.

Today, tenure may very well be like what Winston Churchill called democracy: “the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” In any case, boards should engage the issue.

Find out more facts about tenure in our Tenure Test!

Consequential governance requires critical thinking on big issues that affect the institution’s success over the long term. A major issue in the academy is tenure—guaranteeing faculty members lifelong employment and academic freedom—bestowed after a probationary period of several years during which the faculty member is responsible for proving excellence in teaching and research and competence as a campus citizen. It is not without controversy, and it is something that boards need to be thinking about.

For the past 22 years, first as a graduate student, then as an administrator and faculty member, and now as a researcher, I have studied tenure and faculty employment policies and practices. Recently, I wrote a book based on my research called Success on the Tenure Track: Five Keys to Faculty Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Over the course of writing those nearly 250 pages on all the steps that campuses were taking to become and remain great places for tenure-track faculty to work, it became increasingly clear that we in academe are a bit like Sisyphus, whose fate it was to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a steep mountain, only to watch it roll back down again and again.

So much time and energy are spent by so many trying to make the tenure-track fair, equitable, and reasonable for today’s scholars—a truly Sisyphean task. Rather than changing tenure, or considering alternatives, we toil endlessly to work around it, through it, or over it, as if it were some magical, immovable force rather than a man-made employment policy.

It is possible that tenure will die a natural death. Despite steady trends, driven by seemingly inexorable market forces, leading to an ever-smaller proportion of tenured faculty (in 1997, 52 percent of full-time faculty were tenured compared with 45 percent in 2007), tenure’s advocates somehow believe the practice will persist and even experience a revival. Proponents of tenure have battled relentlessly and, in some ways, successfully against policy changes, overlooking erosion in practice.

Part of the issue is that the core assumptions upon which tenure has stood are also eroding. I will briefly outline seven long-held assumptions underlying the “tenure system” as it currently operates in the United States at most four-year colleges and universities. These assumptions bear reconsideration today by boards and college and university administrations.

1. Tenure is a “means to certain ends”—preserving academic freedom and providing employment security to make the academic profession attractive.

The foundation for tenure that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) delineated in its 1940 statement, Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure, and that I reference above, begs two questions: 1) Is it possible to effectively decouple tenure and academic freedom? and 2) Is tenure still a sufficient lure to academic life?

Regarding decoupling tenure and academic freedom, there is no shortage of defenders and detractors. Those who believe that tenure and academic freedom cannot and should not be decoupled reason that there is no truly viable alternative; that politics and economics will increasingly dominate institutional decisions about faculty as business models and efficiencies become the norm; that commercial interests will prevail over pure scholarly research; that faculty members will take fewer risks and not teach or research controversial subjects; and that relying on the First Amendment to protect academic freedom (rather than tenure) would result in lengthy and costly court cases that would favor boards of trustees over faculty.

Those who believe it is possible to decouple tenure and academic freedom say that tenure is not a necessary condition for the freedom to inquire and teach critically; that tenure is an obstacle to improving higher education; that tenure systems place more emphasis on research at the expense of teaching; that there are alternatives to tenure that could protect academic freedom while eliminating the negatives of tenure, like cost and stagnation; and that tenure inhibits rather than preserves academic freedom because faculty who do not have it are restricted by those who do.

Regarding the AAUP’s other “certain end”—that tenure is necessary to attract capable men and women to the profession—data show declining interest in academic careers among doctoral candidates. A 1998 study of 4,000 doctoral candidates, which I wrote about in these pages (“Your Faculty, Reluctantly,” July/ August 2000), revealed that, since entering graduate school, 37 percent had declining interest in becoming a university professor (the sharpest drop for any career category). Research that appeared in a 2009 Academe article shows that large percentages of graduate students are, in fact, rejecting the research university “fast track.” When starting their doctoral programs, 45 percent of men and 39 percent of women wanted to pursue a professorship with a research focus. However, at follow-up (one to seven years later), only 36 percent of men and 27 percent of women maintained this career goal. Of all faculty—full-time and part-time—in 2007, tenured and tenure-track comprised 30 percent.

Doctoral students are concerned about the faculty lifestyle and perceived lack of work-life balance, inconsistent messages about the proper mix of teaching and research, and having time and space for their own passions. In addition, many are ambivalent about tenure as a condition of employment. While tenure is the one symbol the academy has of legitimacy and validation of peers and is synonymous with security, status, and prestige, doctoral students expressed deep reservations about the tenure process and felt that too many faculty members stagnate after receiving it.

2. All faculty members must excel in not only research, but teaching and service, as well.

Researchers and practitioners alike question whether it was ever possible for more than a small number of productive and highly motivated and efficient individuals to achieve excellence in research, teaching, and service. In 2010, Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, said in an interview with the Associated Press that colleges and universities should reevaluate their policies regarding tenure. He contended that the customary emphasis on the publication of academic articles instead of on teaching, service to the institution, or administrative activity—such as chairing a department or running an interdisciplinary center—is antiquated and often values the quantity of a faculty member’s work more than its quality.

3. The scholarship of discovery—rather than integration, application, or teaching—should count the most in tenure decisions.

Many faculty members feel pressure to discover new knowledge and publish those discoveries as original research, also known as traditional scholarship. In his seminal 1990 work Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Ernest L. Boyer took issue with the assumptions we make about what constitutes “scholarship,” noting that scholarly work does not flow in linear fashion from research to publication to teaching; theory leads to practice, but practice also leads to theory. While asking such questions as “What is to be known? What is yet to be found?” is important and essential to academic life, faculty members should be rewarded also for integration (e.g., making connections across disciplines, placing the specialties in a larger context, and bringing new insight), application (e.g., applying knowledge to a specific problem, and connecting theory to practice), and teaching.

4. Research in the discipline, rather than interdisciplinary work, should count the most in tenure decisions.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reported in 2004, in Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (National Academies Press), that the tenure and promotion system, as presently configured, is a substantial barrier to interdisciplinary scholarship. The book suggests numerous reforms, including longer start-up times, more time overall for one’s research to bear fruit, and more flexibility in the time to tenure and for researchers to collaborate across disciplinary lines. It also recommends that being a Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI) should count toward tenure and that interdisciplinary committees should be established to critically assess the work that does not fall neatly along the typical disciplinary lines that traditional scholars are most comfortable assessing.

5. Tenure should be “forever,” even in the absence of mandatory retirement and the reality of longer lives and careers.

The issue of the “aging and staying” professoriate is tricky and fraught with controversy. While there is no easy answer, the concept is certainly being reconsidered. A look at a 2010 discussion in the New York Times provides food for thought. History professor Claire B. Potter, of Wesleyan University, believes that faculty members should set a date for voluntary retirement, well in advance of any decline, and be held to it. Sociology professor Fabio Rojas of Indiana University has suggested that phased retirement, incentives, and post-tenure reviews are good policies. Columbia University religion chair Mark C. Taylor has written that older faculty members should step aside; he is in favor of reestablishing a mandatory retirement age of 70. George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Joel Trachtenberg has noted that most professors have done their best research by the time they reach age 60 and that they make fewer contributions, if they stay on and on, during their last 25 years. He favors job security until age 70 and then year-to-year contracts.

6. Tenure ensures that faculty will remain productive over an entire academic career.

The literature on research productivity after tenure is mixed. Various studies have shown that scholarship increases post-tenure; that pre-tenure published output was substantially higher than post-tenure output; and that, regardless of tenure status, few faculty members are able to maintain both above-average teaching and research levels simultaneously over the course of a career. Other research has shown that faculty members with tenure are not less productive than their counterparts without tenure but that their focus is different—those with tenure teach less but perform more service and administrative activity.

7. To be an effective faculty member, one must spend one’s entire career in academe.

What was once the normative faculty career—moving from doctoral work and a post-doctoral appointment in some discipline to assistant professor on the tenure-track to associate professor for some number of years to full professor at the same institution—is simply no longer the norm, nor is it necessarily everyone’s ideal. The selfless 24/7 total devotion to career and the rewards that result from such a commitment—often framed around the traditional life patterns of men with stay-at-home wives—is no longer considered the goal for early-career faculty and doctoral students considering faculty careers.

Regardless of your views on tenure, three things are clear: Fewer faculty members have it than don’t; the number of faculty members with it is dwindling; and the assumptions upon which it was built and practiced make less sense today than they did when AAUP released its statement in 1940. Trustees can, and should, be engaged on the topic of tenure including its history; how it is viewed by faculty past, present, and future; and what it means in the 21st century and on their campus.

See how much you really know about tenure in our Tenure Test.

Tenure Facts

(for a retreat or general information for a board)

The American Association of University Professors’ 1940 statement, Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure, defined tenure as follows: “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. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”

While tenure remains a major employment practice in higher education, far more faculty members are now hired outside of the tenure stream, either in part-time or non-tenure-track positions. The primary alternative to tenure for full-time faculty is contracts—some short-term (1–2 years), others long-term (3–10 years). Some institutions are “hybrids”—offering faculty a choice of a tenured appointment or a non-tenuretrack post (usually with an incentive such as more frequent sabbaticals or a pay premium) after faculty members have proven themselves worthy during a probationary period.

Today, tenure may very well be like what Winston Churchill called democracy: “the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” In any case, boards should engage the issue.


Some things boards should know about tenure at their institution:

  • Numbers and percentages of the various faculty appointment types, by school and overall;
  • Gender and race/ethnicity by appointment type, by school and overall;
  • Ratio of full-time to part-time faculty, age distribution, etc.; and
  • Primary faculty employment policies: tenure and contracts.

The overarching question for each board

Given our context (mission, ranking, what we do, who we are, and who we want to be), and our ultimate goal of producing capable students who have productive careers and fulfilling lives (this should be mission-specific to your institution), what faculty employment policies make the most sense now, and for the future?

Engaging the faculty

Boards should consider inviting several faculty members with different types of employment status (e.g., on the tenure track, tenured, on contracts/non tenure track, and adjunct or part-time) to speak as panelists with the board. Panelists might discuss why they chose to work at the institution, a bit about how their career has progressed, and perhaps what they like and dislike about their employment status. The goal is to help trustees understand the experience of faculty members and the culture of the institution.

Other questions to consider

  • What is the evidence that the tenure system is working well currently?
  • What is the evidence that the tenure system does not work well currently?
  • What would be the upside ramifications of offering faculty contracts instead of tenure? Or a choice of contracts or tenure (a hybrid model)?
  • What are the downside risks of offering faculty contracts instead of tenure? Or a choice of contracts or tenure (a hybrid model)?
  • What difference, if any, does the academic field or discipline (e.g., humanities, biology, business, or engineering) make in examining the tradeoffs between tenure and contracts?
  • What faculty employment policies do we want to make sure we preserve? Why?
  • What, if anything, might we want to change in terms of faculty employment policies? Why?
  • What steps might we take now on the issue of faculty employment policies to ensure that the institution remains competitive and an attractive place for faculty to work?


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