Putting the Tenure Debate in Historical Perspective

tags: higher education, academic freedom, tenure, academic labor


Adam Sitze is a professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst College. In the spring of 2022, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, in Vienna.

Academic tenure is again the object of public criticism — but this time feels different.

Conservatives have long claimed that tenure allows professors to become lazy, politically intolerant elitists who are unaccountable to the public. Recently they’ve prosecuted this case with renewed vigor: In the last several years, governors, state legislatures, and university boards across the Midwest and South have debated or successfully passed new restrictions on tenure.

These developments, already cause for concern, are more worrisome still because of the growing momentum of a set of specifically progressive objections. These newer critics argue that tenure inhibits racial diversity and gender equity, authorizes an ugly sense of privilege and hierarchy, and wrongly protects professors accused of misconduct — all while also failing to protect the job security of the great majority of those who today are actually responsible for teaching and research in the academy.

Tenure may or may not survive this moment intact. But we shouldn’t abandon or diminish tenure without first considering all of the reasons for retaining and even expanding it. Opponents and proponents of tenure alike have left understudied one of its earliest and strangest justifications, which emerges when it’s understood by analogy with the lifetime tenure of federal judges.

This “judicial analogy, as I’ll call it, has many surprising twists and turns, not all of them pleasant for those who care about academic freedom. But it also provides some of the strongest arguments in support of tenure, especially during a period of political polarization and democratic decline. It deserves a hearing.

Readers of The Chronicle will be familiar with the idea that academic tenure is necessary as a means to two ends: 1. It establishes independence in teaching, research, and extramural activities; 2. it provides enough economic security to make the academic profession attractive to talented individuals. Beginning in at least 1940, when these claims were codified in the American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure, academic tenure has been justified with reference to this double purpose: academic freedom on the one hand, economic security on the other.

The problem with this justification, as stated, is that it obscures its own nonacademic origin, and thus dilutes its account of tenure’s relation to politics, morality, and history.

Consider the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, which is widely considered the founding document of academic freedom in America. In what is perhaps its central paragraph, the Declaration explains academic freedom by likening it to judicial independence:

So far as the university teacher’s independence of thought and utterance is concerned — though not in other regards — the relationship of professor to trustees may be compared to that between judges of the federal courts and the executive who appoints them. University teachers should be understood to be, with respect to the conclusions reached and expressed by them, no more subject to the control of the trustees, than are judges subject to the control of the president, with respect to their decisions; while of course, for the same reason, trustees are no more to be held responsible for, or to be presumed to agree with, the opinions or utterances of professors, than the president can be assumed to approve of all the legal reasonings of the courts.


That lifetime tenure is implied in this argument should be plain. Writing in Federalist #51, James Madison argued that permanent tenure of office would allow judges to free themselves from the control of the authority who appoints them.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

comments powered by Disqus