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