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Some Thoughts on Tenure

by Marc L. Kutner

June 1997


An increasing number of college administrators and state legislators see the elimination of tenure as the
solution to economic and pedagogical problems that afflict higher education. They suggest, in ominous
tones, that the system must be changed. In response, faculty members get defensive about these threats to
"academic freedom" and defiantly reject any suggestion of change.

My thoughts are based on twenty years on the faculty of a private university (Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute) as well as sabbaticals at large state universities. At Rensselaer, I went through the usual
progression from untenured Assistant Professor to tenured Full Professor. I was also involved in issues of
faculty governance, including participation in writing a Faculty Senate constitution.

My first thought is that, given the financial constraints on many universities, and the vast
oversupply of people applying for faculty positions it is only a matter of time before the major changes in
the tenure system are unleashed. The main issue is who will decide those changes. If faculty members
collectively (through faculty senates and similar organizations) take the lead in this area then they will get to write the new rules. If faculty members simply say "No!" then changes will be imposed by
administrators or (even worse) state legislatures.

My second thought is that if we lived in an ideal world, in which faculty and administrators totally trusted each other, then tenure would not be necessary. However, that trust does not exist, and given the heavy-handed actions of many administrators I don't see that trust coming on a useful time scale. Therefore, modifications of the current system, based on "Trust me" are doomed to fail to protect faculty members.
If we accept that some things must change, the next step is to think about the perceived benefits and
drawbacks of tenure. By perceived benefits I mean the positive features that the proponents of tenure
claim that it provides; by perceived drawbacks I mean those negative features which the critics
of tenure point to. We can then look at whether the current system actually provides those benefits or
creates the drawbacks. We can then think about how a modified system might do a better job in providing
the needed benefits and eliminating the actual drawbacks.

Benefits of Tenure?

What are the expected benefits? Tenure is supposed to encourage creative approaches to teaching and
research by allowing tenured people to think in terms of longer time scales (than annual) for measuring
success. It is also supposed to protect faculty members from reprisals arising from unpopular political views
(both in terms of general political issues and those of university governance). Finally, it is supposed to
help foster institutional loyalty.

Does tenure allow creative long term approaches to teaching and research? I think that this works in
many cases, especially with the new emphasis on undergraduate science education. It is encouraging to
see groups of tenured faculty at a number of schools working on curriculum and pedagogy innovations.
However, as attrition leads to smaller faculty sizes and increased teaching loads, with a continued
expectation of research, more and more faculty are too overloaded to take advantage of the opportunity to
think creatively about their teaching. Moreover, the rigors that junior faculty must go through to get tenure
seems to leave many of them shellshocked and incapable of innovative thinking for years after they
get tenure. On the research side, even if getting tenure encourages faculty members to try innovative ideas in research, those are for the most part discouraged by the polices of the funding agencies.

What about protection from reprisals? While it is true that it is very hard to fire a tenured faculty
member, usually requiring non-performance of duties, like teaching, or moral turpitude, termination is not
the only form of reprisal. I know from personal experience. At most schools it is possible for deans
and department chairs to increase your teaching load. They can do this since many schools have a crippling
maximum load, from which you can get partial release based on research or university service. Usually this release is via some ill-defined rule, and is left at the discretion of the dean or chair. The targeted faculty member can also be moved to an undesirable office or laboratory, or can lose the use of teaching assistants, etc. All of these can ultimately force a tenured faculty member to resign, or at the very least, that faculty member can serve as a reminder to other faculty members about the dangers of becoming an outcast of the
administration. Schools that carry out this kind of harassment rarely have a meaningful grievance procedure which might protect the "outcast" faculty member.

I think that tenure does help promote institutional loyalty. (For example, I got tenure early and felt good
about Rensselaer for many years afterward.) However, there are things, short of agreeing to pay
your salary for the next 30 years, that an institution can do to make you feel good about it. Already, many
schools give awards for outstanding teaching and research. But they can do more. They can give seed
money to encourage the development of new ideas in teaching and research. They can give real raises each
year.

I also think that there is a risk to the faculty member for having institutional loyalty. Once you get tenure
you feel good about your institution, so you develop your career in a way that has the maximum benefit to
the school (e.g. taking on more administrative work). This makes it harder for you to leave if they decide
to make your life miserable in the future.

Drawbacks of Tenure?

What about the purported evils of tenure? The complaint I hear most frequently is that it protects
"deadwood". The other complaint is that it doesn't allow universities to respond, on appropriate time scales, to changes in student interest (e.g. the growth of interest in the biological sciences at the expense of physical sciences).

The issue of responding to changes in student interest is a serious one. It is hard to move from one area of
physics to another, and even more so from physics to biology. With the current tenure system, the time
scale for significantly changing the composition of a faculty is tens of years. While you would not want
administrators to try to respond to every fad, this is too long a time scale. My sense is that being able to
change on a time scale of five to ten years is necessary.

For many years I would have argued that deadwood was not a serious problem. This was not because I thought that there was no deadwood. Rather, I felt the incidence was so low that it was not affecting department productivity. However, as administrations have allowed departments to shrink by attrition, they
have made the problem of deadwood worse. In a department, where faculty members are already
heavily loaded, even one or two members who are not carrying their fair share of the load, places an
incredible burden on an already saturated faculty.

To further analyze the problem, I look at different categories of deadwood (as defined by administrators). First there are the people who get tenure and then do nothing until retirement. While such people would be a problem if they existed, I have yet to hear of one. The gauntlet that we must run to get tenure insures that only those highly motivated to teach and do research will get through. While these people might be a little burnt out after getting tenure, they are still highly motivated to work hard. Another category would be people near the end of their careers who really do turn off years before they officially retire. These people are a problem since they are insensitive to the normal modes of administrative harassment, and they often
do not respond to early retirement incentives.

A third classification of deadwood falls into a gray area – some consider them deadwood, but they can be
assets to a department. These are people who lose their passion to do research – carrying out only a small program or none at all. However, they retain an interest in teaching and are good at it. While these people ay seem to be deadwood in the eyes of deans, who are more interested in research output, they can still make important contributions. I have seen creative department chairs argue to their deans that if these people willingly take higher teaching loads that frees the research active faculty of some of their teaching load. The hard part is to provide suitable rewards to these teaching-oriented faculty.

I will add two other problems that seem to be associated with tenure. It artificially deflates academic salaries and limits academic mobility.

I believe that because tenure is viewed by faculty and administrators as having a certain financial value,
many administrators offer, and faculty accept, a substandard wage. The value to the faculty member
comes from the guaranteed nature of the employment. (This is just like accepting a low interest rate on a safe investment.) The cost to the administration is in having to have the resources to provide the guaranteed salary. I would argue that if faculty members take the lead in revising the tenure system, in return for "giving up" the guaranteed 30 year employment, they should insist that administrators give them a higher wage.

How much should the wages increase? That could be the subject of many additional articles. Among other
things, certainly some actuarial type analysis is needed to decide on the economic value of a
guaranteed wage. However, as a starting point, I would argue that salaries should be high enough for
faculty to survive without having to supplement their income with summer activities (either teaching
or paid research). This is because the summer is the only time when most faculty members have enough
time to do research or work on new teaching ideas – things that are actually part of their academic year
job requirements. It is getting increasingly difficult to get grants to pay summer salaries for such activities.

The final issue that I will discuss is academic mobility. When I was in college in the 1960's, it
seemed that there was a constant movement of faculty from institution to institution. My sense was
that this was a good thing. There was a steady injection of new ideas, both in teaching and research.
However, now, with the oversupply of faculty and the current tenure system, we have what I call
academic gridlock. Too many faculty spend their whole careers at one school. There is very little cross
fertilization of ideas. Sabbaticals help a little, but after one, you return to the same rut. I believe that
this lack of mobility has a severe negative impact nationally on research and teaching quality.

Where do we go from here?

So where do we go from here? I have heard numerous suggestions for replacing tenure with some form of
long term contract. The basic units that I have heard are multiples of five years. I have heard versions where
you are evaluated after five years and if there is a problem, you have five years to improve. There are other plans where there would be rolling contracts, but they would have to give you five years notice if they want to terminate you. These types of plans provide some of the important benefits of tenure, especially the security of a reasonably long (5 to 10 year) commitment, which would allow faculty to develop creative long-term approaches to teaching and research. These benefits could be provided without locking an institution indefinitely into an individual or a program.

A crucial feature of any modification of the tenure system is the development of an effective grievance
process. This would have to provide real protection from improper termination and various forms of
harassment. This would be the guardian of academic freedom. As I said above, tenure is not as good a
protection from harassment and for academic freedom as we think.

In talking to faculty at many schools, I have been amazed at how few schools have a real grievance
procedure. Many places have appeals processes for tenure and promotion decisions, but that addresses
only a narrow range of circumstances. (Likewise some schools have review procedures in certain narrow
areas, like patent rights.) However general grievance procedures rarely exist. This tells me that there must be something about such procedures that scares many administrators. At Rensselaer, when a new Faculty Senate constitution, which included a grievance procedure, was adopted by the faculty, the university president unilaterally told the Faculty Senate leaders that he would not recognize the new constitution unless they dropped the grievance procedure.

Conclusion

I have two conclusory thoughts. First, it is crucial that faculty take the lead in developing these new
non-tenure systems. Otherwise, the new system will be designed by people whose interests are counter to
those of the faculty.

Second, in any non–tenure system, faculty must have recourse should their jobs or academic freedom be
threatened by capricious administrative actions. There must be a concrete grievance process to address issues related to performance evaluations, or teaching load, lab space, etc. The grievance process should be operated by a committee composed primarily of elected faculty members. This committee might even be broken into two levels, where part of the committee would make a finding, and the rest of the committee would review that finding. For the most effective protection, this committee must be totally autonomous. Their decisions must be binding and not subject to review by any administrators (even the provost or president).

I know that this sounds difficult and revolutionary, but giving up tenure is also difficult and revolutionary.

Marc L. Kutner is a Visiting Scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, AZ

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