Academic Tenure: In Desperate Need of Reform or of Defenders?

tags: tenure, academic labor, colleges and universities, adjunct instructors

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Tenure is once again in the headlines, and not in a good way.

Perhaps you read articles about Harvard’s denial of tenure to Lorgia García Peña and Cornel West. You’ve certainly heard that MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones was initially denied tenure at the University of North Carolina.

Yet even as denials of tenure raise hackles about opaque or misguided campus standards and trustee and donor interference in tenure decisions, critiques of the tenure system mount.

No longer do these criticisms come exclusively from free marketeers who consider tenure an anachronistic sinecure for “elitists who study esoteric subjects and brainwash students with left-wing politics.”

Complaints about tenure are now as likely to come from the left as the right.

Alongside the traditional complaints -- that tenure rewards unproductive faculty; stifles institutional change; discourages innovation and risk taking, especially among junior scholars; renders it virtually impossible to fire poor or mediocre performers; and makes institutions less adaptable to shifts in budgets or student interests -- other concerns are now voiced:

  • That the criteria for tenure are too narrow.
  • That the tenure system impedes diversity.
  • That tenure’s protections are confined to a narrow and shrinking proportion of the professoriate.
  • That the tenure system helps to institutionalize academic hierarchy and special privilege.
  • That the tenure system discourages interdisciplinarity.
  • That the tenure system creates barriers to holding tenured faculty accountable for inappropriate behavior, gross misconduct and actions that demonstrate a lack of professional fitness.

The Boston Globe recently issued an editorial that asserted that the tenure has created a “caste system,” which rewards the lucky few while giving others “little protection” and “meager paychecks.” The Globe’s editorial board claimed that tenure encourages subpar teaching, discourages intellectual diversity, represents an obstacle to diversifying the faculty, prompts junior faculty to self-censor and is awarded in an opaque, arbitrary and biased manner.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed