Scholars and Adminstrators Clash over Tenure,
80 Years After its Birth

By Susan Sturgeon

MSCA Perspective, March 2001

In 1915 the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was founded and issued its first policy report on academic freedom and tenure, seemingly in response to alleged violations of academic freedom at five American universities. This seems to be the basis for modern tenure in the United States (Pollitt and Kurland, 1998). In 1940, after a series of joint conferences of the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (AAC), a restatement of principles originally set forth in the 1925 Conference Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure was published as the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. This statement with 1970 interpretive comments is available on the AAUP web page.

One of the earliest substantive descriptions of tenure is the 1959 publication of Tenure in American Higher Education: Plans, Practices, and the Law by Clark Byse and Louis Joughin. The literature between this book and the next major work, The Tenure Debate edited by Bardwell L. Smith, is sparse, despite Smith's claim that the contemporary debate over tenure had begun a few years before. Included in Smith's 1973 book is a chapter by John Silber, destined to become the Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education, in which he argues that tenure does not protect academic freedom and may foster uniformity. This foreshadows by many years the conservative outcry against what was later termed "political correctness" that has had an impact on attitudes about tenure today.

Smith's book was part of a flurry of writing on tenure in the early 1970s. Also published in 1973 was Faculty Tenure: A Report and Recommendations by the Commission on Academic Tenure in Higher Education, chaired by William R. Keast and John W. Macy, Jr. The Commission was established in 1971 by the AAC and the AAUP. The report was commissioned in part to counter allegations that tenure was one of the possible causes of campus unrest in the 1960s. In the report the Commission asserts that tenure is the best means of assuring faculty quality and educational excellence, as well as academic freedom. In his chapter Walter P. Metzger claims that tenure is "probably not older than the Great Depression, certainly not older than Civil Service laws. No doubt, the former did teach professors to hedge against the hazards of the labor market, and the latter did spread the gospel of job security far and wide." However, he goes on to demonstrate that higher education teachers have been protected for centuries.

Richard P. Chait, now a Professor in Harvard's Graduate School of Education and a prominent anti-tenure consultant, appears to have begun writing negative articles and papers about tenure in 1973 and published his first book on the subject with Andrew T. Ford, Beyond Traditional Tenure: A Guide to Sound Policies and Practices in 1982. Chait's articles, twenty-six that I was able to identify, have appeared in such publications as the Chronicle of Higher Education (1973, 1993, 1997, 2000), Change (1981, 1982, 1987, 1998), Educational Leadership (1998), Trusteeship (1994), Educational Record (1990), Harvard Magazine (1997), New Directions for Higher Education (1990), Academe (1988), and AGB Reports (1976, 1977, 1982, 1988). One of his recent proposals is to offer faculty higher salaries or more frequent sabbaticals in return for relinquishing their tenure. Ironically, in a chapter of a 1979 publication co-authored by Chait, James O'Toole, and William W. Van Alstyne, Chait suggests that tenure will be difficult to eliminate, but he has been trying to do so ever since.

In my search of the periodical literature it seemed to me that the current "hot" debate began in earnest around 1995. Two books published since then make the positive case for tenure. Matthew W. Finkin in The Case for Tenure (1996) believes that "academic tenure is good for America: that it is essential for the protection of academic freedom, that it is necessary to attract the intellectually gifted to the academic life and to create conditions that allow first-rate scholarship to flourish. This is not to deny its drawbacks, both for the individual and for the institution, but it is to maintain that the system is far better for society than any substitute suggested thus far."

In the 1997 publication Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues by Richard R. DeGeorge, the author argues the recent attack on tenure derived in part from downsizing in the corporate world, leading some governing bodies to ask why institutions of higher education should not also be made leaner and meaner. His hope is that his book "will lead to actions necessary to justify the continuation and strengthening of both tenure and academic freedom."

Worthy of mention, but only partially focussed on issues of tenure, are Faculty Work and Public Trust: Restoring the Value of Teaching and Public Service in American Academic Life by James Steven Fairweather (1996), The Future of Academic Freedom, edited by Louis Menard (1996), and Free Speech in the College Community by Robert M. O'Neil (1997).

A major offensive player in the modern "frontal assault on tenure" is the New Pathways Project of the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE). Its major spokesperson is economist David W. Breneman. The AAHE Working Paper 14 on "Alternatives to Tenure for the Next Generation of Academics" is attributed to him (1997).

Matthew W. Finkin, an important voice on the pro-tenure side of the argument, published an answer to Breneman's proposals in "Tenure and the Entrepreneurial Academy: A Reply" (1998). He also wrote "The Assault on Faculty Independence" (1997) and "The Campaign Against Tenure" (2000). In the latter article he declares the AAHE's assault on tenure via their New Pathways Project to be a failure. "No research university, no selective private liberal arts college, nor any number of less luminous but no less significant institutions of higher education, public or private, have abandoned tenure or moved toward its abandonment." Finkin gives two major reasons for this: first, "the strength of the tenure system," and second, "the fatuousness of the New Pathways Project." For example, "the AAHE [alluded] to the flexible career tracks of doctors employed in HMO's as a model alternative to tenure. But then the press revealed that the doctor-models we were supposed to emulate labored under 'gag clauses' that forbade them, on pain of discharge lacking tenure to tell patients what was going on."

Both sides of the debate are summarized in "Should Colleges and Universities Abolish Academic Tenure?" by Ralph Reiland and Mary Burgan (1996), who assert that between 1993 and 1996, tenure was eliminated at six schools. In their summary the defender of tenure argues that it is required to ensure academic freedom and "provides a rigorous method for identifying and then retaining bright candidates for the professorate." The opponent claims that tenure creates a community of like minded individuals insulated from change and uses Stanford University to illustrate the point since 80% of its professors are Democrats!

In a review article "Can Academic Freedom Be Protected without Tenure?" (1997), Ann H. Franke, the AAUP counsel, critiqued a seventeen page paper of the same title written for the AAHE by Professor Peter Byrne of the Georgetown School of Law. Byrne seeks an alternative to tenure as a guarantor of academic freedom, especially in private higher education where a constitutional right to academic freedom surely does not extend. Byrne had to conclude that faculty peers are essential to review academic freedom disputes, that their judgements need to be independent, and that true independence of thought requires freedom from arbitrary dismissal. So, as Franke emphasizes, Byrne concludes that faculty require "something that begins to resemble, mirabile dictu, tenure." She also notes that Byrne's working definition of academic freedom is based in large part on the AAUP's 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

In the Winter 1997/98 issue of Academic Questions, Joseph M. Horn indicates that much of today's anti-tenure sentiment derives from the publication of three books of the late 1980s and early 1990s: The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (1987), Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education by Charles Sykes (1988), and Impostors in the Temple by Martin Anderson (1992), as well as from a backlash to the "political correctness" philosophy. Finkin, in The Case for Tenure, mentioned earlier, adds his own candidates to this conservative hall of fame: Up the University: Recreating Higher Education in America by Robert C. and Jon Solomon (1993) and Tenured Radicals: How Politics has Corrupted Higher Education by Roger Kimball (1990).

In their article "Tenure Issues in Higher Education," Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro (1999) add an economic perspective to the conservatives' simple political claim that tenure rewards a liberal leaning (and, by implication, unpatriotic) professoriate. They believe that the recent tenure controversy has been sharpened by the end of mandatory retirement and the high costs, both to students and taxpayers, of higher education.

Helen Constance's article "Tenure Turmoil Sparks Reform" (1997) is of interest largely because it talks about the widely reported controversy at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, which came within a few votes of unionizing because of a set of proposals put forward by the Board of Regents that was seen by the faculty as a threat to tenure and academic freedom. The proposals were ultimately withdrawn and amended. Constance also includes information on Evergreen State College, which experimented with abandoning tenure, then reverted to a de facto tenure system whereby routine evaluations "are strictly developmental [and] cannot lead to dismissal."

An article by Daphne Greenwood, "Problems in the University? Eliminate Tenure, They Say" (1998), is a hypothetical look at a higher education institution without tenure. Picture a place where loyalty to the institution is supplanted by pervasive self-preservation. It is not pretty! Another pro-tenure article is Linda W. Carroll's "Tenure & Academic Life" (2000). Her retelling of Galileo's tribulations with politicians and popes, and his fight for higher salaries highlights history's most famous academic freedom case. Carroll may have coined the term "managerial university," which she applies to institutions that strive to weaken tenure and erode faculty autonomy. She asserts that a managerial university is obsessed with short term financial considerations and actually suppresses "those features of the American university system that have produced the excellence for which it is known throughout the world."

A largely pragmatic economic argument against tenure is stated by David W. Leslie in "Redefining Tenure" (1998). Leslie says that "the rapid rise in appointments of non-tenure track and part-time faculty who, collectively, now comprise more than half of all those teaching assignments" indicates that tenure is passˇ and that any alternative cannot ignore the educational institution's need for economic efficiency. In "Tenure, Permanence and Change" (1996) Adam Yarmolinsky argues for a change in tenure policy based on economics and a perceived need for "institutional flexibility." Another anti-tenure article is "Tenure, Thanks but No Thanks" by David Helfand which details why he has refused to participate in one of the fixtures of his profession.

No discussion of the tenure debate would be complete without a mention of our old nemesis James F. Carlin, whose first volley was reported by Patrick Healy in the Chronicle of Higher Education article "Mass. Higher Education Leaders to Seek Abolition of Tenure" (1997). This was followed by Carlin's own article "Restoring Sanity to an Academic World Gone Mad," also in the Chronicle (1999).

The fight over tenure has taken on great intensity since 1995, and the defenders of tenure are almost as frequently found in the periodicals as the attackers. Pro-tenure articles in this period include "Tenure and Community in Academe" by William G. Tierney (1997); "Tenure in Practice: A Call to Action" by John D. Lyons (1997); "Why Tenure Works" by William R. Cotter (1996); "Tenure Remains Vital to Academic Freedom" by James E. Perley (1997); and "Why Tenure is Indispensable" by Myles Brand (1999), president of Indiana University.

Of interest because it notes that the AAUP still censures institutions that violate academic freedom and tenure rights (52 such institutions are listed as of 1998) is Courtney Leatherman's "Faculty Group Censures 3 Universities over Academic Freedom and Tenure Issues" (1998).

In Charles F. Holm and Herbert Shore's "The Academy under Siege: Informing the Public about the Merits of Academic Tenure" (1998) the authors argue that academics must educate the general public as to why it is in the best interests of society for tenure to be retained. In "A Measure of the Impact of Tenure" (1999) Richard W. Meyer reports on a study that investigated the influence of tenure on the quality of academic institutions, and concluded that faculty status, including tenure for librarians, positively affects the success of institutions that focus on teaching.

Proposing alternatives to tenure also emerged as a theme in the period after 1995. In addition to the AAHE's "Alternatives to Tenure for the Next Generation of Academics," previously mentioned, are examples such as Milton Greenberg's "Considering Tenure: It's Not Holy Writ: Can We Talk?" (1995) and Stephen Trachtenberg's "What Strategy Should We Now Adopt to Protect Academic Freedom?" (1996).

Since tenure as we know it has been so hard to destroy, but has been such a consistent target, both sides have begun to discuss various methods of post-tenure review. As long ago as 1982 a conference sponsored jointly by the American Council on Education and the AAUP came up with a consensus statement concerning systems of post-tenure review evaluation. This is reported on pp. 188-189 of Finkin's The Case for Tenure. McPherson's "Tenure Issues in Higher Education" (1999) gives a brief history of impositions of post-tenure review in Texas, South Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland and Wisconsin, among others. The central argument is whether post-tenure evaluations can ultimately lead to dismissal, a penalty many states have not sanctioned.

Other discussions of post-tenure review can be found in the following: C. Peter Magrath, "Eliminating Tenure without Destroying Academic Freedom" (1997); Jeffrey W. Alstete, Post-tenure Faculty Development: Building a System for Faculty Improvement and Appreciation (2000); Michael Berube, "Public Perceptions of Universities and Faculty," (1996); William G. Tierney, "Academic Community and Post-tenure Review" (1997); and Richard Edwards, "Can Post-tenure Review Help Us Save the Tenure System?" (1997).

The AAUP position is that no procedure should be used to undermine the principles of tenure. The full June 1999 AAUP statement on post-tenure review appears on the AAUP web page. A central paragraph in this document reads as follows: "The principles guiding this document are these: post-tenure review ought to be aimed not at accountability, but at faculty development. Post-tenure review must be developed and carried out by faculty [and librarians]. Post-tenure review must not be a reevaluation of tenure, nor may it be used to shift the burden of proof from an institution's administration (to show cause for dismissal) to the individual faculty member (to show cause why he or she should be retained). Post-tenure review must be conducted according to standards that protect academic freedom and the quality of education."

Susan Sturgeon is the Serials Librarian at Salem State College.