The Problem with Tenure Isn’t Tenure Itself—Or a Lengthening List of Other Things Being Attributed to Tenure

We Are All Badgers Now [L]

On June 6, Tamar Lewis wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Colleges Re-Evaluate the Concept of Tenure.” I came across the article, however, in the Seattle Times, where it had been republished.

The premise of the article is expressed succinctly in the teaser: “In an era of rapid change, long life spans, economic strains and a dwindling college-age population, there is a high cost to awarding professors lifetime job guarantees.” But the impetus for the article was very clearly the radical attack on tenure by Scott Walker and Far Right legislators in Wisconsin.

Although Lewis is very right to consider whether Walker’s action may be replicated elsewhere, she distorts the discussion by accepting as a baseline the arguments against tenure offered  by such ideologues who wish to eliminate academic freedom and by administrators who wish to reduce and even eliminate shared governance.

Less than 30% of the professoriate is now tenured or on a tenure line. So, the attacks on tenure parallel the attacks on unions in that both would have made much more sense 35 to 50 years ago, when about 30% of American workers were members of unions and about 70% of faculty were tenured or tenure-track. When only about 6% of the private-sector workforce is unionized, the idea that an individual’s “right to work” is impeded by unions is ludicrous. Likewise, when less than 30% of the faculty are tenured, the idea that tenure is an impediment to anything but the absolutely complete corporatization of higher education is ludicrous.

Indeed, so few faculty are now tenured or tenure-track that the financial “flexibility” to be accrued from eliminating tenure are very minimal within the context of the total university budget. At my university, the, total compensation and benefits of tenured and tenure-track faculty account for about 13% of the $420 million annual budget. And my university is not atypical. So, that’s clearly not where the budgetary “fat” is.

Moreover, the tenure lines within the disciplines that have the lowest enrollments have already been pruned. Ask new Ph.D.s in a long list of disciplines, not just in the humanities and social sciences but also in education and even the sciences, how easy it has been to find a tenure-track position. Or ask the members of the few search committees for tenure-track positions in such disciplines how many applications they have received for those positions. At the annual meeting, an acquaintance who teaches at a small, private college told me that for a philosophy position advertised this past year, they had received more than 500 applications.

The imperative that institutions must have the “flexibility” to deal with “rapid change” would be more convincing if those who are advancing that argument most pointedly were not also willing to defend or to ignore the now deeply entrenched administrative bureaucracies in our institutions.  Very few administrators ever get fired. Even when they are being pushed out for being incompatible or incompetent (and the standard for the former seems to be much higher than for the latter), they are usually “re-positioned” to allow them an opportunity to focus on acquiring a new position. For instance, at my university, several unsuccessful provosts have been given new positions as executive vice presidents to permit them to job hunt without pointed disadvantage, and both eventually found positions as university presidents elsewhere.

In several other posts, I have written about why the “rapid change” mantra of corporate America—in particular of the technology sector—is a grossly inappropriate model for higher education. But, if it is going to be imposed on higher education, it seems to me that it would make much more sense to impose it very aggressively on the administrative side, rather than on the instructional side.

When total compensation and benefits for all faculty—tenure-eligible and not, full- and part-time—account for less than a quarter or even a fifth of most institutional budgets, the “economic strains” on colleges are clearly coming from someplace else. Although administrative bloat is clearly a significant factor, the primary factor in the rise in tuition and student debt has been the decline is state support for higher education.

So, ironically and shamelessly, the same radical political ideologues who are demanding solutions to the problem are the very people who have largely created the problem. They have prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy and the expansion of “corporate welfare” over public services and public institutions and especially over public education. Not coincidentally, the affluent class is also profiting directly and enormously from the privatization of public services and public education. On the other hand, most of us have not benefitted very much if at all from these “anti-tax” policies simply because privatized services still need to be paid for by someone.

Pointing to declining pools of traditional students as a cause of the “economic strain” on our institutions would be more convincing if the ideologues and administrators making that case were not in other arguments proposing technological “solutions” to the “problems” facing higher education and emphasizing the expanding demand for continuing, if not lifelong, education.

Likewise, the argument that faculty in tenured positions are simply living to an inconveniently advanced age and hanging on too long would be more convincing if the ideologues and administrators making it were not also cutting faculty pensions and eliminating the tenure lines that provide the best compensation and benefits.

In short, if you listen to people who shamelessly speak out of both sides of their mouths and don’t hear the self-serving inconsistencies and outright contradictions in the totality of their arguments, then no cochlear implant or  brain transplant is probably going to make much difference.

But that’s not a problem attributable to tenure either.

Tamar Lewis’ complete article is available at:



10 thoughts on “The Problem with Tenure Isn’t Tenure Itself—Or a Lengthening List of Other Things Being Attributed to Tenure

  1. “Shared Governance”… excuse me while I access the barf bag.

    Shared governance for who… or whom? Shared governance for those who have it. Of all the oxymorons I’ve encountered in life, “Shared governance” certainly makes the top ten list.

    Shared governance for the tenured faculty. Not the academic staff. Not the students. Not the classified staff. Not the adjuncts. Not the non-tenure track faculty. Not the parents of students who are pouring gazillions into your coffers. And yes, I know the retorts are coming that shall allege these groups “have a voice at the table”. In two words, horse hockey.

    I have spent the lion’s share of my career in academia. It’s an exclusionary world… especially at the level of governance. To assert you have some model of democratic utopia is delusional at best. Socrates & Plato rightfully critiqued the shortcomings of democracy, but not even on these grounds.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am actually in total support of a democratic utopia. The problem is, you think you have it, and you are not even close. While I do not subscribe to the doctrine of Governor Walker and his minions, I also believe people in glass houses ought not throw stones.

    Were you to augment your ‘Shared governance” model to provide all other groups on campus a true equal footing, you might have some credibility. But in my considered opinion, you do not.

    • I cannot speak for the faculty at every institution in the country, but at my own university, our chapter has tried to broaden shared governance beyond tenured faculty.

      Our non-tenure-eligible instructors and lecturers can participate in the chapter and university governance as fully as tenured and tenure-track faculty. Indeed, service to the chapter is defined contractually as service to the university. For non-tenure-eligible faculty with more than six years experience, we have negotiated open-ended continuing contracts that can be abrogated only for reasons and with due process very close to those for removal of tenure.

      Part-time public employees in Ohio cannot unionize, but we have created affiliate memberships at the local level, with very minimal dues, so that adjunct faculty, graduate students, and academic professionals can advance their interests and bring attention to their needs and concerns without individually exposing themselves to any possible retaliation–while having full member rights at the state and national levels. (Just to be clear, state law governing collective bargaining prevents them from having voting rights at the local level because non-CB members cannot vote on matters affecting CB members.) Although we have thus far attracted only small numbers of new members from those groups, we have made an significant effort to involve them and will continue to make an effort to be as inclusive as possible.

      Indeed, if a significant percentage of the full-time academic professionals wished to join our chapter as a bargaining unit, we would welcome them and assist them in every way possible with a card campaign.

      More broadly, we have been exploring ways to turn more part-time faculty positions into full-time instructorships and lectureships and in providing mechanisms for non-tenure-eligible faculty with sufficient evidence of scholarly production or potential to migrate into tenure-track positions, if they should wish to do so.

      Our chapter also contributes thousands of dollars each year to the Ohio Student Association, have financially supported internships with that group from among students at our university, and have worked with our local OSA chapter on voter registration, on Get Out the Vote, and on student debt and social justice efforts. And we are continually looking for ways to work more closely with students and with other allied, progressive groups in the community. We invite all of them to our chapter-sponsored public events such as talks, panel discussions, etc.

      So, have tenure-eligible faculty across the U.S. uniformly embraced a more inclusive view of shared governance? No, obviously not. But have tenure-eligible faculty uniformly rejected a more inclusive view of shared governance? No, just as obviously not. I have served in the leadership of my chapter for about a decade, I have served in the Ohio Conference leadership for almost that long, and I have served in the national leadership of the CBC since the reorganization, and in all of these roles, I have not only personally advocated strongly and consistently for more inclusion but I have found many allies in that cause. I have seen much evidence that what is occurring in our chapter is occurring in other chapters in Ohio, as well as at the state conference level.

      I recognize that I cannot expiate even my own professional “sins,” never mind those of the profession, and that even collectively we cannot undo history. But every day I work with many AAUP leaders and members who are trying to change things on whatever level we can. Although that may fall short of what others may expect us to accomplish, it is what we are able to do, and I have seen it make a difference in many small ways and on occasion in some very remarkable ways. I saw it just this past spring when faculty and many campus and community allies mobilized so that “Yeshiva” language that had been inserted suddenly and clandestinely into our state’s biennial budget bill was removed from that bill before it left committee.

      So, at least in my state of Ohio, we know that we cannot do very much on our own, either for ourselves or for anyone else. And the campus groups with which we have become allied seem to have recognized the value in our role in institutional governance, even if they cannot now participate as fully as we would wish.

    • The alternatives are not “democratic utopia” or Walker world, David Sabaj Stahl. I’d vote against both. I hope we don’t see universities give undergraduates a vote on promotion and tenure cases or on whether or not a pre-1800 history requirement is necessary. I hope we don’t see human resources staff hired for their expertise in insurance voting on academic matters.

      I’d like to see tenure returned to the majority of full-time teaching and teaching-research faculty. This way they can share governance with administrators. Without tenure, faculty are administrators’ managed employees.

      Excellent article, Martin.

      • I did not suggest undergraduates have the authority to determine the curriculum. If you want specifics, then I shall provide them. University administrations are overwhelmingly top-down in their approaches. So, for example, when a student or classified staff person lodges a complaint against someone higher up the food chain, the result is almost always the same: shoot the messenger, not the message.

        There are so many documented instances of this I won’t bother providing any- you should be able to find them on your own. I once had a university administrator explain to me, with a straight face, that within universities, by definition, the person of higher rank is right, and the person of lower rank is wrong, period.

        I’ve seen that scenario play out time and again. It leaves a trail of blood shed that vastly undermines the mission of these schools. People are intimidated, threatened, harassed, dispirited and unmotivated.

        As for your comment that anyone other than a learned professor is qualified to make university government decisions, well, that’s preposterous. The more people you bring into the fold, the more perspectives you have, and the greater the *diversity* of your ranks making these decisions, the better off you are.

        Diversity is so so much more than skin color and sexual orientation, Diversity is life experience, period. I personally could care less about a person’s race or sexual preference. What I want are a diversity of experiences. This has worked for me very very well. And you know what- the very best of ideas I’ve come across in my own scientific research came from undergraduates, land managers, technicians, ranchers and so on. Notice how none of them were tenured faculty… .

  2. “Although administrative bloat is clearly a significant factor, the primary factor in the rise in tuition and student debt has been the decline is state support for higher education.

    So, ironically and shamelessly, the same radical political ideologues who are demanding solutions to the problem are the very people who have largely created the problem. They have prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy and the expansion of “corporate welfare” over public services and public institutions and especially over public education. ”

    The decline in state support for public universities has been going on under both Democratic and Republican state governments for more than 35 years, so it is politically disingenuous and ridiculous to claim “radical political ideologues” are the culprits.

    AAUP leaders could better serve their members – and might make some progress actuallyccomplishing the AAUP mission- if they would forswear some of the political demagoguery and try harder to understand the real reasons why state support for public universities has declined.

    Professor Kich’s essay offers a hint: Something is indeed wrong (for everybody) in the U.S. higher education system when philosophy positions at small, private colleges are receiving more than 500 applications.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with anyone aspiring to land that kind of job, of course. It’s just that maybe it’s unreasonable to think that taxpayers would (or should) have just kept on subsidizing a system that made that kind of phenomenon possible in the style to which that system had become accustomed.

    • At public universities, the decline in state support is almost exactly the inverse of the rise in tuition and student debt. So, at public institutions, administrative bloat is greatly exacerbating the problem but is not the primary cause of the problem. At private colleges and universities, the fiscal issues are obviously different.

      I have been a fairly unrelenting critic of Arne Duncan and other Democratic “corporatizers,” going back to Bill Clinton and including Rahm Emanuel and Andrew Cuomo, all of whom have embraced the demonization of public education. But that demonization has been part of the Far Right’s long-term demonization of government, of public institutions, and of public education–and its assertion that privatization is always preferable, even when there is very little accumulated evidence that privatization has ever actually produced the results claimed for it.

      If you look at the funding of public education, including public colleges and universities, since 2000 and especially since the 2008 recession, the states with Far Right governors and legislators have clearly cut that funding most dramatically and relentlessly. This year, Jindal in Louisiana, Rauner in Illinois, and Walker in Wisconsin have proposed cuts of $300+ million to higher education–largely to sustain previous tax cuts that benefit the most affluent or to support further cuts of that sort. Likewise, significant cuts in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Kansas have been somewhat less attention-grabbing but are nevertheless very problematic.

      In my own state, where the reductions in support for higher education have not been as deep or as sustained as elsewhere, state support is still not close to being back to what it was in 2007, and most likely, it never will be. And yet each biennial budget has provided further tax reductions that clearly benefit the most affluent much more than they benefit any other bracket. Indeed, it is partly because of the sustained efforts of the Ohio Conference of AAUP and the Ohio Student Association that public attention to student debt has made it politically difficult for the governor and the legislature to not provide some marginal increases in state support.

      Up until Senate Bill 5, the AAUP chapters in the Ohio conference had always been very strictly non-partisan. We were very consistently and even determinedly apolitical. But twice in the last four years, we have had to devote tremendous time, effort, and resources to counter attempts to eliminate our CB rights and to impose “Yeshiva” language on us. And there has been a myriad of other smaller issues with which we have had to deal–very few of which have originated with political figures or political groups in the Center or on the Left. So, we will maintain our “non-partisan” stance toward any political candidate who supports higher education and collective bargaining. But there is little point in pretending that the attacks are not the result of a particular ideological antipathy toward the principles that we exist to defend. Indeed, it would be a disservice to our members to take such a position in spite of all of the accumulated evidence to the contrary.

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