The End of Tenure and the Fate of Dissent

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story this week by Robin Wilson entitled “Tenure, RIP: What the Vanishing Status Means for the Future of Education”. It announces a study by the U.S. Dept of Education due out in the fall covering employment in higher education. Its findings regarding tenure are dire:

Over just three decades, the proportion of college instructors who are tenured or on the tenure track plummeted: from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The new report is expected to show that that proportion fell even further in 2009. If you add graduate teaching assistants to the mix, those with some kind of tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors.

In fact, at many for-profit institutions and two-year colleges, tenure is “a completely foreign concept.” Generally, the decline of tenure hasn’t happened through direct edict, but rather through a slow process of personnel change. As tenured faculty members have retired, they haven’t been replaced. As schools and departments have grown, they have hired adjuncts and graduate students to handle crowded classrooms, not new tenure-track professors.

The trend compels people quoted in the article to reflect upon the value of tenure, especially its role in preserving academic freedom. Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, recounts conditions at Principia College, a school in Illinois with a no-tenure policy. “You could cut the fear with a knife,” he says. “Faculty members are guarded, they’re not making courageous decisions about what to say, what to think, and how to challenge their students.” Another observer, Martin J. Finkelstein of Seton Hall, notes what the lack of tenure does to teachers. “One of the jobs of tenured faculty is to raise a lot of questions and make people uncomfortable. Nontenured faculty are very cautious. They want to be retained.”
Tenure gives people confidence and integrity, the argument goes. It protects them from reprisal if they believe and say the wrong thing. Take it away and you create a labor force cowed and vulnerable. And that outcome, as several commenters on the story stated, only pleases “arrogant administrators” and trustees with a “corporate model” in mind.
There is a problem with the whole set-up, however, and it goes to the origin of tenure some 100 years ago. Tenure started as a system to protect teachers and researchers from outside forces that didn’t like what they said. If a professor espoused an outlook that a big donor or settled trustee or newspaper editor or state politician despised, those figures couldn’t demand his or her ouster. Faculty members, it was then argued, should enjoy the freedom to inquire and instruct in any direction they wanted so long as they observed scholarly norms, and people not accredited had no right to challenge them.
But one group posing a threat to academic freedom isn’t included in this conception: the professors themselves. What if the danger to open inquiry comes not only from the outside but from the inside as well? What if in their votes on tenure and promotion other professors enforce ideological or other non-scholarly standards just as bindingly as do donors and politicians?
I believe this is sometimes the case, and in those instances tenure functions not as a guarantee of academic freedom but as an instrument of conformity. One piece of evidence for it lies in Cary Nelson’s comment about fear among non-tenured folks. I think that he is likely correct in his perceptions, but that they can be extended, for in nearly three decades of higher ed experience I’ve seen rampant timidity and conformity among the tenured and tenure-track crowds as well.
It’s an inscrutable situation, but nonetheless palpable. People are afraid to say or do the wrong thing. When delicate issues of race, politics, sexuality, and religion in particular come up, they hesitate and reflect, making a subtle sounding of the room to measure the appropriate opinion. At conferences they speak reticently about anything except their narrow expertise—unless, of course, they feel the winds of politically-correct orthodoxy behind them, at which point they make up for their trepidation with forceful expression of what everyone in the room already believes.
In these situations, they don’t fear a displeased dean or donor. They fear the bad opinion of their colleagues. Remember that in the “softer” fields of the humanities their salary, promotion, publication, awards, etc. depend upon the judgment of a few peers. Grant money doesn’t measure their worth, nor does how much their students learn. They get published because a couple of experts wrote glowing reader’s reports on the manuscript. They get tenure because a few senior professors near to their field approved of the work.
It’s a recipe for nonstop mindfulness. If you dissent from academic dogma, you risk the subtle and not-so-subtle censure of your colleagues.
The question is, would the elimination of tenure change the situation? Shifting to, say, five-year contracts with specified requirements such as research productivity and teaching effectiveness would, I believe, scale down the intimidation factor—but perhaps not by much since those requirements would be measured by professors themselves. It would, however, protect dissident professors from outside enemies.
In either case, when we discuss tenure and its protections, let’s not leave out a primary force now and then hostile to open and free inquiry and discussion, the professors themselves.


  • 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.

3 thoughts on “The End of Tenure and the Fate of Dissent

  1. Mark Baurlein’s thoughtful discussion of tenure, in this and an earlier Minding the Campus post, points to the parallels with blue state political life. In both cases the counter-balancing mechanisms that allow for a degree of openess and accountability have been eroded by a self-serving monoculture. In the deep blue states like New York, California, Illinois, and until recently New Jersey, the power of the public sector unions, like campus tenure, insulates from outside pressure while stifling dissent internally.
    In both cases liberalism devoured its own. But in New Jersey the fiscal realities and the declining standing of state government forced a correction. My guess is that as the academic bubble deflates under the pressures of declining returns to both tuition and status, there’s a slim possibility of a similar sort of correction for some academic institutions.
    Fred Siegel, visitng scholar St Francis College, Brooklyn

  2. This article is exactly right. The threat to academic freedom today comes mostly from other faculty, who are not afraid to abuse their power because they, themselves, are tenured.

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