Tenure’s Broken PromiseHistorians in the News
tags: higher education, tenure, academic labor, colleges and universities
It’s also worth asking how well the institution of tenure is serving professors themselves. Few other professions have an employment status so high stakes, so permanent, and so unevenly distributed. It is also increasingly scarce: In the 1970s, when Hoop was born, nearly 60 percent of academics working in the sector were tenured or on the tenure track; today, only about a third are granted those coveted positions, as higher education relies more on part-time instructors and underpaid adjuncts. That austerity coincides with the end of mandatory retirement in 1986 (which was applied to tenured positions in 1993) under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Since then, older professors have been allowed to stay in positions indefinitely, further locking up the job market for incoming and up-and-coming scholars and teachers.
Prior to the pandemic, for every open position in academe, there were already dozens — sometimes hundreds — of people hoping to get a shot at it, no matter where it was. The net effect is a job market that limits employment options and — more than most other industries and professions — puts a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of employers and their gatekeepers: graduate programs, troubled academic presses, search committees, and department bullies.
That system was founded on scholarly ideals and institutional wealth. It was set up with the goal of protecting scholars who spoke out (and the reputations of the institutions that employed them), and it was boosted by the rapid expansion of higher education following World War II.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, much like today, individual scholars came under attack by trustees and university donors for their support of unpopular ideas. A particularly famous case is that of Edward Ross, an economist and sociologist at Stanford University who supported the socialist Eugene Debs, criticized the railroad industry, and opposed Asian immigration — ideas that perturbed the university’s patron, Jane Stanford, whose wealth was built on Gilded Age capitalism and Chinese labor on the railroads. Ross was forced out of the university, but the move damaged Stanford’s reputation and led other faculty members to leave.
Based on that episode and others, in the early 20th century elite universities — like Harvard and Princeton Universities, and the University of Chicago — supported tenure for academics; by 1940, the American Association of University Professors had set up the framework for its adoption at other institutions, and by the 1950s it was a common arrangement.
In the decades that followed, enrollments continued to surge at existing college campuses, and new institutions opened to hire faculty members and take in students. In A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), John R. Thelin, a leading historian of the sector and a professor at the University of Kentucky, shows that the institution of tenure was cemented in higher ed’s golden era in the United States.
“For a generation of new faculty members who enjoyed being hired under such circumstances, it was not difficult to imagine that such conditions were the norm — and might even improve over time, given the American public’s support for higher education,” Thelin writes. “Economic abundance, however, provided little insight as to the political and legal protections professors would face in the future.”
Higher education’s burgeoning enrollments and prominent public position would see a range of challenges from the late 1960s and on: campus political unrest, stiffer competition for students, uneven state and federal funding, skepticism about the value of a degree, and a growing number of ideological foes. Those elements would contribute to the sector’s financial challenges and chip away at the compact between institutions and scholars.
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