Is Tenure Doomed?

In early December, the Board of Regents of the Kentucky Community and Technical College system agreed to vote in a few months on a proposal that may have far-reaching effects on higher education. The proposal would end the practice of offering tenured or tenure-track posts to new faculty hires. Is this a crack in the tenure dam that will produce a cascade of other schools eradicating tenure from the ranks?

Whether other universities go that far or not, in fact, the tenure system has been deteriorating for years. Administrations haven’t directly taken it away. They simply let tenured professors retire and didn’t give departments tenured or tenure-track replacement lines. Or, in responding to rising enrollments, they hired more part-time faculty than full-time faculty to fill classrooms. Indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the portions of tenured and tenure-track faculty in the American professorate nose-dived in the last 30 years.

And according to a recent report by the American Federation of Teachers, “contingent faculty members teach 49 percent” all undergraduate courses (Reversing Course: The Troubled State of Academic Staffing and a Path Forward, i). The proportion doesn’t include graduate student teachers, either, those doctoral candidates picking up courses as part of their training, which AFT estimates at 16-32 percent of the courses offered.

That means tenured and tenure-track faculty handle only one-third to one-quarter of the undergraduate teaching load. Because tenured and tenure-track faculty work largely amidst one another—adjuncts don’t attend department meetings, serve on committees, or otherwise fraternize with professors—professors don’t realize the extent of their waning numbers. But from the perch of an undergraduate dean or a vice president for finance, tenure looks like a minority attribute less and less essential to the workings of the institution.

From a financial standpoint, tenure looks like a positive hindrance. Consider the relative costs as calculated by AFT. In 2003-04, part-time or adjunct teachers earned about $2,800 per course, while full-timers earned $11,000 per course. Add in the benefits full-timers receive (pension, health care) and the discrepancy widens. Administrators can’t resist the temptation cut costs by hiring adjuncts. Mindful department chairs defy it, warning that the retirement of a senior colleague must be replaced with a tenure-track line or else the department will slip in academic prestige. But when the dean determines that immediate instructional needs of the college outweigh research needs, the decision is easy.

Consider, too, the investment an administration makes with every tenured appointment. An assistant professor hired at age 30 might very well remain in place for another 40 years. As Terri Giltner, spokeswoman for the Kentucky system, stated in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “With tenure you get locked into faculty” (“Tenure at Risk in Kentucky’s Community Colleges,” 5 Dec 08). A tenured professor signifies a virtually unmovable fixture, sometimes a costly one who provides little support of university operations. If a department with several tenured professors sees its majors decline into the low two-figures, as has happened in some language departments, administrations have little flexibility to react.

Such situations override common objections to the adjunct trend. Faculty members and professional organizations protest strenuously the loss of tenure, and they cite two reasons. First, they say that any university dropping tenure won’t attract superior talents, and second, they maintain that the loss of tenure entails the loss of academic freedom. Once again, however, instructional needs dispel the criterion of best and brightest, for there is little evidence that full-time faculty are better teachers than part-timers are. And as for academic freedom, sad to say, tenure has devolved from a system that encourages independence into a system that ensures conformity. Tenure is supposed to protect against-the-grain thinking so long as it observes academic norms, but after five years of graduate training, a year or two as post-doc or adjunct, then six years as an assistant professor, individuals fortunate enough to win tenure have other ambitions than challenging reigning ideas and practices. They’ve spent too many years adapting to professional etiquette and internalizing protocols to change at age 40. Those things got them hired, published, and promoted, and the acculturation is set.

This is to say that faculty members and professional organizations need other arguments against “adjunctization.” It is also to recognize that administrators cannot withstand financial pressures to cut tenure bit by bit, especially in the current moment. Teachers do need and deserve some form of job security. We can’t reasonably ask them to complete five to eight years as doctoral students and post-docs and not provide some stability once they’ve finished. We also can’t make them directly subject to forces as volatile as student enrollments, endowment fluctuation, and annual budgeting.

But however appealing the tenure system might appear to them, it is too rigid and costly to last. To fend off adjunctization, then, individuals and professional organizations need to craft and defend a different model. They need to develop employment schemes less absolute but still protective and meritocratic. One possibility might be to grant teachers some form of tenure, but on the basis of teaching duties, not research expertise. That is, they would be hired to handle undergraduate student demands more than to fulfill a disciplinary field. So, as the burdens shift in the undergraduate student body—for instance, fewer students in Romance languages, more in freshman composition—professors would shift as well, in this case, with Romance language professors reducing their language courses and assuming freshman comp duties (after some re-training). That would require, of course, that professors lighten their research identities and raise their teaching profiles—a welcome adjustment in all humanities and “softer” social science fields. Agreeable or not, however, some adjustment is necessary. Administrators and trustees already have a system in place, and they’re not going to change it unless a viable alternative comes along.


Mark Baulerlein is a Professor of English at Emory University and former Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the author of The Dumbest Generation


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

One thought on “Is Tenure Doomed?”

  1. Another downside of tenure in modern academia is this: In the humanities and the “softer” social science fields, tenure becomes increasingly anachronistic as academic fields increasingly diverge away from a common core canon of each academic discipline and more and more into minor splinter groups and pop theories.
    Tenure bestows an enormous amount of intellectual authority within a field upon those who possess it, (most notably in imparting upon them the exclusive right to approve the Ph.D. work of graduate students). Vesting this intellectual authority for life within a small coterie of learned individuals made sense up to about 50 years ago when there was general agreement within each major discipline about the core content for that field. But as academic fields have diverged away from a shared canon and more towards expressions of personal or political beliefs, its questionable whether the authority-granting function of the tenure system still makes sense.
    In this respect, the tenure system is at variance with the “publish or perish” ethic. The need to constantly publish “new” material, in fields where in fact there is “nothing new under the sun”, pushes people into publishing off-beat and trivial theories. Tenure then validates these off-beat and trivial theories with a social imprimatur which, from the standpoint of the broader society, they most assuredly do not deserve. So in that sense, the more this happens, the more tenure becomes an outdated relic of the past, even from an intellectual perspective.

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