“Tenure Matters: A Historian’s Perspective

This is a guest post by Richard F. Teichgraeber III, a contributor to the newest issue of the Journal of Academic FreedomTeichgraeber is professor of history at Tulane University. His most recent book is Building Culture: Studies in the Intellectual History of Industrializing America, 1867-1910. He is completing work on the introduction and annotation of a new edition of Thorstein Veblen’s The Higher Learning in America (1918), which will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2015.

These days “tenure” in American higher education seems a site more of questions than of answers. The concept is so multi-sided and uncertain that I wonder if there is any point in thinking about it as an organized, intelligible whole. Is tenure meant to protect scholars with controversial views, or to screen out scholars with mediocre skills? How do we know the difference between the two? Who ultimately has the authority to decide, and on what grounds? If tenure is so integral to the academic profession, why are tenure-track faculty appointments in increasingly scarce supply? And if tenure-track appointments are in relative decline, why is the success rate at almost all American colleges and universities so remarkably high when it comes to awarding permanent faculty appointments?

In my essay, “Tenure Matter: An Historian’s Perspective,” I have tried to sort out some of  the current confusion by drawing attention to the fact that over time the word tenure has been employed and remade to serve a number of distinctive purposes, some of which are continuous, and some of which are not. More precisely, I have juxtaposed (i) the widely noticed findings of the 2006 Modern Language Association Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion with (ii) the sometimes comic, sometimes disconcerting story that Alvin Kernan tells — in his professorial memoir In Plato’s Cave (1999) — about his pursuit of tenure at Yale in the 1950s and early 1960s to advance the view that “tenure” is best understood not as a single concept, but as a complex institutional practice defined by a set of protocols that have been created and elaborated over time. Seeing that tenure has a history requires sorting out a complex set of aims, actions, and expectations that have defined institutional relationships. These include roles of authority, professional standards, constraints, rewards, and sanctions, all of which have changed over time. When Alvin Kernan began his career at Yale sixty years ago, authority for tenure decisions at almost all American colleges and universities lay entirely in the hands of boards of trustees, presidents, senior academic administrators, and department chairmen. Only in the last decades of the twentieth century did it become standard practice to ground tenure decisions in the assumption that the most competent judges of the qualities of candidates for tenure were already tenured faculty working in a similar field. The practical aims of “tenure” understood simply as a continuous faculty appointment also have changed over time. Safeguarding academic freedom long has been among them. But there are have been several others: attracting people to poorly paid jobs; reinforcing the desire of talented people to stay at institutions that hire them; upgrading the faculty by carefully screening junior faculty to eliminate all but the most talented; and most recently – as the 2006 MLA Task Force Report made clear – identifying faculty talent chiefly as a matter of specialized research and published scholarship that is perceived as outstanding by their disciplinary peers. The means have changed too.  Fifty years ago, except at a small handful of elite institutions like Yale, there was nothing resembling today’s elaborate and time-consuming tenure review process, let alone a consensus regarding specific criteria or protocols for acquiring, denying, or terminating continuous faculty appointments. As a result, most American colleges and universities routinely awarded and denied continuous faculty appointments with little regard for due process.  Almost all tenure-decisions were essentially in-house affairs, decisions in which ability certainly mattered, but local interests and traditions mattered even more.

In using Kernan’s tenure tale to draw attention to the largely neglected history of tenure, my aim is not to build a new argument for tenure, nor to propose alternatives. Rather, I want to call attention to and account for ways of thinking about tenure that go well beyond its familiar but ultimately one-dimensional identification as a necessary safeguard of academic freedom.  My aim is to identify and explore the origins of central pieces of the elaborate procedural framework that defines the current American practice of awarding continuous faculty appointments.

Note: A fuller discussion of this topic may be found in the 2014 issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom in Tenure Matters: An Historian’s Perspective,” an essay by Richard F. Teichgraeber III.

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