Tenure Is Fading–Is that Really So Bad?

The New York Times Room for Debate page hosted a forum last week entitled “What If College Tenure Dies?” As the preamble rightly notes, the question follows from an increasing shift in university personnel away tenure and tenure-track lines and toward adjuncts and lecturers hired on temporary contracts. The numbers are stark:

In 1975, 57 percent of all college professors had tenure or were on a tenure track. In 2007, that number had fallen to 31 percent, and a new federal report, to be released in the fall, is expected to show another decline for 2009 . . .

What will happen when the rate slides into a non-critical mass (less than 20 percent)?, the Times asks.

Five respondents weigh in. First, Cary Nelson pronounces the customary objection. If you take tenure away, academic freedom will follow, and so will educational quality:

As at-will employees, adjunct faculty members can face dismissal or non-renewal when students, parents, community members, administrators, or politicians are offended at what they say. If you can be fired tomorrow, you do not really have academic freedom. Self-censorship often results. Without economic security and due process, academic freedom cannot be protected. Poor faculty working conditions create poor student learning conditions.

Without the protections of tenure, teachers won’t challenge students or administrators or politicians or journalists or anybody else in power. “Popular orthodoxy” will reign.
Adrianna Kezar, education professor at Southern Cal, emphasizes the lack of resources given to non-tenured faculty members, as well as their job insecurity. It makes for poor instruction. “Why have tenure track faculty not organized to stop this trend?” she proceeds to ask. Her answers are worth remembering:

Many did not notice it was happening. I have repeatedly been on campuses where there is almost a collective denial, even when you present the numbers. Often tenure track faculty benefited from the situation, with non-tenure track faculty doing the work they disliked, teaching lower division courses, remedial education and large classes.

Richard Vedder, economist at Ohio University, argues the opposite of Cary Nelson, claiming that tenure doesn’t ensure dissident viewpoints, but squelches them. Tenured professors often feel licensed to express their ideological positions in illiberal ways, he says, and their job security also freezes the institution into grooved patterns.

The fact is that tenured faculty members often use their power to stifle innovation and change. Because of the enormous fixed costs that tenure imposes, colleges cannot quickly reallocate resources to meet new teaching and research needs. Tenure contributes to the inefficient and expensive system of shared governance, where decision-making is by committee, and compromise and deal-making trump sound policy-making, including introducing cost-saving innovations. Is it no wonder that university administrations are gradually eliminating tenure by stealth, simply by hiring non-tenure track people for most new jobs?

Cathy Trower, research associate in Harvard Graduate School of Education, makes a different argument, this one based on the values and interests of Generation X. The tenure system, she says, is a prior generation’s set-up (created by and for “mostly white males”). Younger people have expectations other than those which tenure assumes:

Research shows that Generation X values qualities that are in conflict with this system: collaboration, not competition; transparency, not secrecy; community, not autonomy; flexibility, not uniformity; diversity, not homogeneity; interdisciplinary structures, not disciplinary silos; and family-work life balance, not “publish or perish” careers. The COACHE project at Harvard finds widespread confusion, even exasperation with the tenure system among over 10,000 early-career faculty respondents to a national workplace-satisfaction survey.

Finally, Mark Taylor, religion professor at Columbia, dismisses the whole idea of tenure encouraging free expression and rigorous teaching:

To those who say that the abolition of tenure will make faculty reluctant to be demanding with students or express controversial views, I respond that in almost 40 years of teaching, I have not known a single person who has been more willing to speak out after tenure than before. In fact, nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.

He concludes that the “abolition of tenure will create a more flexible faculty that can be held responsible in ways that have been impossible for far too long.”
Let’s answer each one.
Cary Nelson worries about “self-censorship” in a world without job security. Fair enough, but we have to consider the forms of self-censorship that already exist in a world in which some have lifetime security and some don’t. Tenure is such a fantastic condition that everybody aspires/dreams/fantasizes about it from the first few years of graduate school until that Edenic day in which the department and the dean approve the ascendance. What does this make them do in the meantime? Obviously, it makes them conform, a behavior that includes self-censorship. Also, after several years of graduate school, a year or two as a lecturer, and six years as an assistant professor praying that it all works out, the candidate has become more or less acclimated to the demands. Tenure status doesn’t turn them into forthright speakers. It makes them sigh and press onward.
On that issue, Taylor is entirely correct. Like him, I have never, ever encountered a professor who suddenly changed after receiving tenure. He or she was just as reticent before and after. (The most common change I’ve observed is that the tenured person spent less time around the department.) Indeed, when Taylor states that the “quest for tenure” stifles free expression, he describes the irony of the system. What is supposed to ensure freedom of thought, in fact, does the opposite.
This may explain Kezar’s pertinent comments about the progressive loss of tenure in higher education. Those who have it simply don’t much notice or care about those who don’t. They think as individuals with isolated careers, not as stewards of something bigger than their CV. What is the incentive for tenured professors to get involved? They have tenure and they can’t lose it even though the number of tenured lines in a department shrinks. If the department hires more adjuncts, that doesn’t hurt them. On the contrary, Kezar points out, it allows them to teach more graduate and senior seminars and avoid freshmen.
Deans can’t do anything about those comfortable tenured faculty, and so they have a further incentive to hire ever-fewer of them. That’s Vedder’s point. A dean who sees a major with only 20 students in it, but with six tenured faculty ranging in age from 45 to 65 and retirements happening only every five years or so faces an annual budgetary headache. The only rational thing to do is replace each retiring figure with an adjunct (or nobody at all), and hope that the economy turns around so that they don’t have to stay on till their late-70s.
Finally, Trower’s reply relies too much on simplistic categories and identity outlooks to offer anything salient about the matter. She generalizes about Generation X by citing numbers from a Harvard survey of young professors. But note the terms. Younger people prefer “collaboration, not competition; transparency, not secrecy; community, not autonomy; flexibility, not uniformity; diversity, not homogeneity . . .” It isn’t surprising that young profs in a vulnerable position would answer that way (who would prefer “secrecy”), and anyway, why should the values of people under 40 in a particularly delicate moment in their careers dictate a change in the system? Trower states that “The old tenure model is simply unattractive for too many individuals and institutions.” If that’s true, then why are so many people scrambling and politicking their way into the system?
This is to say that existing forms of tenure are dying and none of these statements will slow the process. The hard sciences can retain tenure because administrators can adjust salaries according to the money researchers bring in. But in fields in which salaries are fixed and employment guaranteed for decades, tenure will decline into negligibility a generation from today, and all the talk about generational values and academic freedom and rigorous instruction won’t preserve it.


  • 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.

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