A History and Defense of Tenure

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor at Tufts University, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies and biblical literature and is a former provost of Tufts.  In an article that first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Tufts Magazine, and is now available on the web under the title “Tenure: Enjoy It While It Lasts,” Gittleman offers a brief but informative history of tenure in the U.S. and bemoans its recent erosion.

Tracing the history of American higher education from its origins, Gittleman shows how the concept of “tenure was born of trustee, donor and presidential abuse, the destruction of the German and European universities by Hitler, the extraordinary transformation of American higher education after World War II from mediocrity to world-dominating excellence and the enormous demand for talent that took America to the top of the academic mountain in the 30 years of the Golden Age of research, from 1945 to 1975. Tenure was part of that Golden Age.”

But, if tenure emerged as a defense of academic freedom, Gittleman contends, it was a faculty shortage during that era that led to its broad acceptance.  “The only way competing institutions could hope to attract and keep scarce faculty was through the enticement of a lifetime job. No one thought tenure was about academic freedom: by the 1960s, we all thought we had it,” he argues. “Tenure was conceived earlier as necessary for protection against nasty trustees or autocratic presidents, but it became a reality because of faculty supply and demand.”

This is true, but only to some extent.  Clearly postwar prosperity and the dramatic narrowing of economic and social inequalities in that era empowered faculty efforts to win tenure protections, even as economic stagnation and expanding inequality underpin tenure’s erosion today.  However, Gittleman’s argument seems a bit too economic determinist, even for this erstwhile Marxist’s taste.  What he leaves out is the organized efforts of faculty members and, specifically, of the AAUP — which he never even mentions — to both define and promote the tenure system during these years.  Surely, the AAUP’s successful negotiation of the celebrated 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure with the Association of American Colleges, and the subsequent endorsement of that statement by hundreds of scholarly organizations, colleges, and universities played a critical role. As American higher education expanded during these years, the AAUP also experienced years of hitherto unprecedented growth.

Gittleman is perhaps also too pollyannish about the acceptance of academic freedom in the 1950s and 1960s.  Challenges to academic freedom persisted during those years, as documented in scores of AAUP investigations and censure motions.  Although he does acknowledge the ravages of the postwar Red Scare, these are dismissed as “an aberration.”

Lastly, Gittleman perhaps exaggerates the scope of the alleged faculty shortage of the postwar years.  After all, American colleges and universities have grown even larger in number and size since that Golden Age and their expansion has arguably been even more rapid, yet somehow the pressure to hire faculty during this period has been met by increasing reliance on contingent, often part-time appointments as well as increasing class sizes and workloads.  And I think it is not entirely accurate to suggest, as Gittleman does, that an alleged overproduction of Ph.D’s is a major source of the problem.  In fact, I would venture to say that the problem is not with an oversupply of qualified faculty members, but with a failure to invest in their work.

That said, Gittleman’s piece is worth reading and overall a welcome intervention.  As he points out, with the new economic realities of our age “the old need for protection returned, as faculty, now accustomed to opening their mouths on all subjects, received pushback from trustees and alumni who didn’t like some of the faculty opinions all over this thing called the Internet, and once again, firing for unpopular opinions returned.”

“In another 50 years, there will be no more tenure,” the article concludes.

Faculty will have learned where the borders of ‘anything goes’ speech are, and will have conformed to the reality of an age where going over the top in comments on explosive subjects will simply be avoided. Then, in another century perhaps, after some awful abuse by a domineering board of trustees or regents, an opinionated spouse of a founding philanthropist or an autocratic president who does not tolerate criticism, there will be a faculty movement to reestablish the idea of due process. Another John Dewey will arise to plant the seeds of tenure in the minds of faculty.

Such a vision seems unduly pessimistic and Gittleman may think so as well, for he follows these words with this timely conclusion:

Right now, those seeds are slightly shriveled and could use some watering at the other [than Tufts, I guess] 4,000 colleges and universities that hire the overwhelming majority of academic labor.

With or without tenure, this anarchic madhouse called American higher education will never be supplanted by anybody else’s system. What we have is messy and often ungovernable; American faculty really don’t believe they work for anyone. But the intellectual freedom they have attained is the reason no other nation—not China, Germany, India or Brazil—can push us off the top of the mountain. It was tenure that got us here.

To read the complete article go to: http://now.tufts.edu/articles/tenure-enjoy-it-while-it-lasts

3 thoughts on “A History and Defense of Tenure

  1. By virtue of its size, the baby-boom generation includes a very large number of people who persisted to a Ph.D. – even if the percentage of people in the baby-boom generation choosing to pursue a Ph.D. is comparable to the percentage in other generations who have made that choice. That said, do you seriously mean to suggest that the consequent existence of such a large supply of Ph.D.’s is not a major source of the “problem” of contingent and part-time appointments? You describe yourself as an “erstwhile Marxist,” but even Marx was willing to acknowledge the consequences of supply and demand on price.

    (Yes, yes, I understand that Marx – and you – view “value” as something that cannot and should not be viewed on the basis of price alone – good for you, you’re a wonderful and admirable person – but the evidence seems pretty clear that in nature and the world, the major determinant of prices is, was, and always will be supply and demand, with the slippery and amorphous concept of “social value” coming in a distant second.)

    • The alleged “overproduction” of Ph.D’s has been a common shibboleth for most of my adult life, but if any such overproduction has fueled the erosion of tenure it would have to largely come after the progress of baby-boomers through the higher education system. If the baby boom years are considered to be from 1946 to 1964, then even the youngest baby boomers should have finished their doctorates by the mid-’90s and the oldest should now be retiring or, like me (born in 1947) already retired. Yet the greatest growth in contingent hiring has been over the past twenty-odd years, with little sign of reversing any time soon. Moreover, were all contingent jobs converted to full-time tenure-track positions, there would clearly not be enough Ph.D’s available to fill them all in many disciplines. Indeed, even now many schools, especially community colleges but also some four-year institutions, fill teaching positions with people whose highest degree is the M.A. (including some of their own graduate students).

      Numerous investigators have debunked the “overproduction of Ph.D’s” meme. Take, for one, this study by a Canadian scholar (http://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/speculative-diction/phd-overproduction-is-not-new-and-faculty-retirements-wont-solve-it/), who points out that “it’s notable that in 1978 there was already an assumed ‘PhD dilemma’ that was being presented and discussed as a phenomenon of the ’70s, ‘an imbalance between the rising supply of PhD’s and the declining demand for them, particularly in higher education.’ That’s right, 30+ years ago we still had ‘too many’ PhDs.” And, note, this was well before the explosion of contingency.

      Concludes this writer: “The key here is that PhD ‘production’ growth has no practical connection to the demand for tenure-track faculty, and it seems likely that it never did. The one time when this may have been the case was the period of rapid massification in the 1960s and early 1970s, and by the time Canadian doctoral programs caught up, demand had dropped again.”

      Or here’s what another blogger (http://freethoughtblogs.com/physioprof/2012/04/21/overproduction-of-phds-is-demonstrably-false/) writes about the supposed impact of the “law of supply and demand,” to which your comment refers, on the production of doctorates: “‘Overproduction of PhDs’ is a demonstrably false claim: The unemployment rate for PhDs in 2011 was 2.5%, and the median weekly earnings were $1551 (> $80,000 per year). This is much greater than any other level of educational attainment other than professional degrees (law, medicine, etc). There is only ‘overproduction of PhDs’ if you assume that PhDs are only being produced to become faculty members who go on to train additional PhDs.”

      In other words, if we take into account supply and demand, as you suggest, then if anything the unemployment rate among PhDs would suggest an under-supply. Of course, there is underemployment as well and we all agree that too many highly qualified teachers in higher education, with or without doctorates, are employed in low-paying part-time contingent positions instead of in the tenure-track positions that they have not only earned but that would best serve the education of our students. But that is not a function of there being “too many PhDs.” It’s a policy choice made by politicians, businessmen (on college and university boards) and their servants in administration.

      (As for your parenthetical comment, the word “erstwhile” means “former.” And while I continue to admire Marx’s work, I would not call myself a Marxist — or any other “ist”, for that matter. Moreover, there is nothing in my writings on this blog from which you may fairly conclude anything about my ideas about the nature of “price” and “value,” an issue that is also totally irrelevant to the topic of tenure to which my post was devoted.)

  2. Two comments: First, all the boomer Ph.D’s who found academic jobs and gained tenure now (and still) represent a very large cohort of “senior faculty” who have become very expensive to support (thanks to their sheer numbers combined with their pay increases over time as they became more senior), so the rise of contingency faculty is certainly correlated with the size of that expense. Your Canadian friend is right: The overproduction of Ph.D’s bound and determined to make careers in college teaching (no matter what) has been going on for a long time – and the rise of contingent faculty has been a natural (and indeed justifiable,given the (delayed) effects of funding and budget challenges) administrative response to the accumulated cost effects of all those tenured boomers living out their dream of becoming college professors.

    Your inability to see the major connection between the supply and cost of academically focused Ph.D’s boomers who have gained tenure and the pay (i.e. the prices they can command) that contingent and part-time faculty Ph.D’s are willing to accept in order to live out their scholarly dreams is a form of denial that is startling, but not surprising.

    Second, notwithstanding your condescending remark, I do, in fact, understand what the word ” erstwhile” means. And, given the tediously recurring palaver appearing on the Academe Blog about how “neoliberal corporatists” fail to appreciate or understand why college and universities exist and the nature of the value they (and their poor, beleaguered, and abused tenured faculty) provide to our society and culture, your claim that “price & value” are “totally irrelevant” to the topic of tenure is pretty rich. (Good use of adverbs, though … “demonstrably” ‘totally” … they make your arguments so much stronger…)

    (Maybe the topic of tenure and price&value are unrelated in your mind, however, so I will confess I do get you and your fellow frequent flyers on the Academe Blog (Barlow, Wilson, Kich) mixed up – because the songs all of you tend to sing always sound pretty much the same.)

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