A Truly Awful Idea About Tenure


In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post a few days ago, Jeffrey Selingo, a former editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers a number of suggestions for how colleges and universities might cut costs.  Instead of “always looking at the revenue side of the ledger by figuring out how to attract more students with marketing gimmicks and constant discounting,” Selingo contends, “colleges should start studying the expense side as well for ways to lower their costs.”  He then proceeds to offer some suggestions about how this might be accomplished, most of which — increased use of online teaching, fewer sections, simpler dorm rooms, fewer amenities — are either trivial or demonstrably problematic.  (Of course, Selingo clearly has only the minority of institutions that are private and competitive in mind, since the overwhelming majority of public four-year and two-year institutions have been implementing these and other proposed “reforms” designed to cut costs for years, albeit with minimal success.)

But Selingo saves his most audacious proposal for last.  He writes:

Finally, colleges need to rethink one of the biggest drivers of costs — personnel, particularly the need to have more flexible work forces. Right now, their faculty ranks are largely immovable because of tenure. An idea that higher education needs to adopt is one floated by, among others, Larry Bacow, a former president of Tufts University, that would put a clock on tenure. Instead of a lifetime guarantee, tenure would be for a specific time commitment — perhaps 20, 25, or 30 years — followed by one-year contracts.

It’s difficult to exaggerate how simultaneously awful and ignorant this paragraph is.  First of all, the assumption that “faculty ranks are largely immovable because of tenure” bears no relation to reality.  As the AAUP’s “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession” notes, in 2015 just 21.4% of all higher ed faculty were in tenured positions, with just 8.2% on the tenure-track.  By contrast, 40% were in part-time positions, 16.7% were in full-time non-tenure-track positions, and 13.7% were graduate student employees.  In other words just a bit over a fifth of all faculty were, in Selingo’s insulting (and inaccurate) term, “immovable.”

Moreover, as the Delta Cost Project (which Selingo cites) has demonstrated, “Faculty salaries were not the leading cause of rising college tuitions during the past decade. Increased benefits costs, nonfaculty positions added elsewhere on campus, declines in state and institutional subsidies, and other factors all played a role.”  Hence any effort to address the alleged “immovability” of the faculty is hardly likely to reverse the rise of costs, since faculty salaries are a minimal driver of that increase.

Which brings me to Selingo’s idea — which he attributes to Bacow — that tenure should be limited to a period of 20+ years, “to be followed by a series of one-year contracts.”  To be blunt, this is an incredibly bad idea, as it would undermine the very purpose of tenure and reduce most senior faculty members to the condition now suffered by far too many younger instructors — a total lack of employment security.

Back in 1915 the founders of the AAUP did acknowledge that one purpose of tenure was “to render the profession more attractive to men of high ability and strong personality by insuring the dignity, the independence, and the reasonable security of tenure.”  But neither economic security nor the financial stability of institutions were then or are now the primary ends to be accomplished by the tenure system, the first function of which, the AAUP’s founders declared, was “to safeguard freedom of inquiry and of teaching. . .”

Selingo’s proposal would certainly more than undermine that goal, since it is often precisely in the latter years of academic careers that protection may be most needed, as senior scholars branch out into new areas of scholarship and may become emboldened by experience, wisdom — and, yes, the protection of tenure — to explore new, even iconoclastic ideas.

Selingo has apparently bought the unfounded myth that older faculty — heck, older people — are less productive, with many amounting to little more than the proverbial “dead wood.”   Although appropriate anecdotes can always be mustered to support this myth, in reality it is little more than a prejudice.  Assuming that teaching careers begin when people are in their late 20s and tenure is awarded in the early to mid-30s, this proposal would make all scholars over the age of 50 or 55 subject to one-year contingent appointments.  But aren’t they the most experienced teachers, the professors most knowledgeable about their subject matter and most capable of providing wise counsel and savvy leadership to their institutions?  And knowing full well that their late careers will be shadowed by the fear of non-reappointment, under Selingo’s system even “tenured” junior scholars will tend to tow the line, for fear of alienating an administration that might dismiss them just as the expenses of late adulthood (sending a child to college, for instance) kick in.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of Lower Ed, commented on Twitter, “Can you imagine a world where all scientists and teachers were first year post-docs?  My god.”  But that is pretty much what Selingo advocates for senior scholars.

Earlier in his op-ed Selingo writes, “Spending on instruction varies widely among schools, from around $6,600 per student at regional public colleges to $21,400 at private research universities, according to the Delta Cost Project. However, spending more on classroom instruction doesn’t necessarily buy better outcomes for students.”  That may be true, but does anyone really believe that students at institutions spending as much as four times more on instruction don’t gain some real advantages?  And, guess what?  At institutions spending more on instruction a greater, not a lesser, proportion of the faculty generally have tenure.  Let’s face it, economies are always possible, but in higher ed as in other areas more often than not “you get what you pay for.”

In short, the real problem in higher education today is not an “immovable” faculty, but one that is increasingly all too “movable”  — employed on contingent part-time contracts, insecure, and too often, as a consequence, intimidated and frightened.  Corporate managers may desire a “more flexible work force,” but students need the benefits of learning from long-term, dedicated, secure, and academically free instructors.  The solution, therefore, is not to limit tenure, but to extend the rights of tenure to all those who qualify.  That’s been the AAUP’s position for over a century, and we’re sticking to it.

19 thoughts on “A Truly Awful Idea About Tenure

  1. One key point about tenure is that it saves money. If professors don’t get job security and academic freedom, then they tend to demand other forms of compensation–higher salaries. Getting rid of tenure only saves money (in the short term) if you plan to get rid of those tenure lines and replace them with adjuncts. Another reason why eliminating tenure won’t save money is that faculty without tenure are much more likely to organize and form unions to create tenure-like protections and demand higher compensation.

    • Is there any data that proves the need for protection created by tenure? What risk has any tenured faculty had to face due to any unpopular stand they have taken? How many have used tenured security to advance any cause?

      • I think you would also have to ask what risk has any non-tenured faculty NOT taken because because they do not have the protection of tenure? There I think you would find that academic freedom has been massively self-suppressed because the risk of harm is too great.

        • Can anyone list the kinds of issues that are too risky? I have no evidence of any issues that go unstudied either by tenured or non tenured faculty Simple claims to the contrary are not useful for deciding. Quantitative data to support its need is what is lacking.

          • I have seen non-tenured faculty get ousted for speaking out against administration at public universities. Witnessing this makes non-tenured faculty afraid to do the same. Demanding administration expel student athletes who commit sexual assault is a stance I’ve seen faculty lose jobs over.

          • Is this not an expensive solution to “demanding an administration expel student athletes who commit sexual assault” and to prevent “I’ve seen faculty lose jobs over”? Would it not be better to communicate through established channels such as the faculty/university senate? If we are to provide “tenure” for contesting policy issues, what is the need for constitution, representative governments and due processes under the law? It seems to me, the example you have cited clearly subverts the intent and purposes of human rights and the due process of a democratic society and furthers the need to eliminate tenure as presently misused.

  2. Here is another truly awful idea about tenure–replace the older adjunct faculty with new younger tenure-lines in a “bold effort” to support tenure. Do not assert guidelines protecting those older and tenure-deserving faculty in the conversion process. If it has been AAUP’s position to “extend the rights of tenure to all faculty who qualify,” but then we don’t aggressively assert those rights on behalf of those who are being moved aside, our “solution” means nothing, and we aren’t “sticking to it.” I urge us on with “a little less talk and a little more action.”

    • I agree. In 2010 the AAUP’s Committee on Contingency and the Profession published a report, “Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Appointments.” It said (among much else):

      “Several noteworthy forms of conversion to tenure have been implemented or proposed at different kinds of institutions. The most successful forms are those that retain experienced, qualified, and effective faculty, as opposed to those that convert positions while leaving behind the faculty currently in them. As the AAUP emphasized in its 2003 policy document Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession, stabilization of positions can and should be accomplished without negative consequences for current faculty and their students.”

      • These are EXACTLY the AAUP guidelines that I tried to assert when six older women adjuncts were demoted at my institution in order to fund the hiring of two new tenure-lines. I couldn’t get “AAUP” out of my mouth before being shut down by an administrator as “not our policies.” My thought is that advocacy from AAUP needs to be stronger, exerting pressure through censure or at least strongly written letters in cases such as this. This is a good policy statement and it is important, but it is not enough.

        • Again, agreed. Admins often dismiss AAUP principles as “not ours,” but we all need to push back harder and point out that these are recognized professional standards. If they’re not “yours,” then why not?

        • I should add that if we censured all violations of our policies without fail, the censure list would be far too long. But we can and do write letters or try in less drastic ways to expose abuses. I urge everyone: if you believe AAUP standards are being violated on your campus, threatening academic freedom, shared governance, or other faculty rights, don’t hesitate to contact AAUP.

          • I will contact AAUP again, Hank. And thanks for this reminder about our guidelines. If we do not have an active AAUP chapter, can you tell our readers how to connect to AAUP for assistance? (Is there a specific staff person?) At my institution, our chapter was put down in a union effort, and there may be others out there who are similarly without support.

          • Contact info for AAUP staff is here: https://www.aaup.org/about/staff

            Info on starting a chapter is here: https://www.aaup.org/get-involved/start-chapter

            While the AAUP is committed to defending our principles and profession, even when those involved are not members, the organization depends on membership dues to survive. Faculty who are not members of AAUP collective bargaining units can join here: https://www.aaup.org/membership/join

            Please note that dues are scaled by income to encourage lower-paid faculty members, especially “adjuncts,” to join.

          • I would like the readers of this thread to know that I contacted AAUP on the sage advice of Prof. Reichman regarding the “moving aside” of long-term contingent faculty to make room for new tenure lines. AAUP responded right away saying that AAUP policies were followed and there was nothing they could do. So what is wrong with the policies if so many faculty continue to struggle?? As a long term member of AAUP, I have to say this is very disappointing. AAUP appears to be one more institution that doesn’t care about the large majority of faculty who are contingent and continue to have terrible working lives.

          • I’m sorry that we were unable to help in this instance. The challenge posed to our profession and the AAUP by the erosion of tenure and the emergence of a two tier faculty is daunting. There are no simple solutions. That said, to argue that the AAUP doesn’t care about contingent faculty is to ignore the overwhelming evidence that we do. Take for just two examples the cases of Nate Bork and Robin Meade. In two weeks the annual meeting will vote on whether to censure Community College of Aurora (CO) for its summary dismissal of Bork, a part-time contingent instructor. See our full investigation report here: https://www.aaup.org/report/cca-colorado. Bork has also received financial support from the AAUP Foundation as did Meade, who successfully fought her dismissal from Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois (https://academeblog.org/2017/03/14/another-victory-for-adjunct-rights/). There is much more, of course, but readers interested in AAUP resources for contingent faculty could start here: https://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency. For more go here: https://www.aaup.org/issues/contingent-faculty-positions/resources-contingent-appointments. This blog also regularly runs commentary supportive of contingent faculty rights, including pieces by AAUP Second Vice-President Caprice Lawless, a contingent instructor in Colorado (https://academeblog.org/author/coloradocaprice/).

  3. The cost per student $6600/- for regional public colleges from the delta cost project clearly proves the point that the adjunct, (who are compensated at one-tenth the rates of the full-time faculty without any benefits or protection of any kind sought here for full-time faculty) are subsidizing both the full-time tenured and nontenured faculty in the class room instructions. It is time both the highered and the lowered, recognize these inequalities and grant adjuncts all the privileges enjoyed by the full time faculties. Without such restoration of equality neither the AAUP nor anyone else such as the oped writer Jeffery Selingo could convince any administration on the merits of their arguments to change the status quo.

    • Thank you for the listing of these positive examples of AAUP support. I have been following all of them myself so they are not new to me, but it is good to have them all in one place for other concerned contingent faculty. The point I would like to make is that these are the exceptions which prove the rule, the rule being that AAUP policies support tenure-line faculty, and work against those who cannot escape contingency. Since there are so many of us in the latter category, and it is not our fault or our lack of merit that has trapped us in these terrible jobs, it seems to me that AAUP needs to assert leadership to improve the positions that we do have, rather than only encouraging our institutions to hire us into tenure lines which they can’t and won’t do. Perhaps the censure list should be FAR LONGER because there is still abuse of contingent faculty everywhere! The fact that AAUP would not stand up for outstanding faculty who are being “phased out” in order to hire new tenure lines because AAUP policies were followed in this disgraceful situation, says that the policies are weak. Yes, it is a daunting task! But, AAUP, I call on you to rise to it. Otherwise, we should discourage every young academic that we mentor from ever going into higher ed. The risk for abuse is too great in our noble profession.

  4. Pingback: The Invasion Has Already Begun | ACADEME BLOG

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