It is heresy inside the academy to say such a thing, but absent some serious reforms, tenure deserves to go the way of the spinning wheel and the dodo. Properly reformed and restructured, however, it could have an important rebirth.
Functioning properly, tenure protections provide the foundations for academic freedom, robust discussion, and intellectual diversity on campus. Tenure should allow faculty to speak their minds about issues ranging from culture to politics to university governance without fear of losing their teaching positions. There would be even fewer distinguished conservatives and classical liberals on college faculties if they lacked tenure protections.
But overall, the current system is sorely underachieving. Honest citizens of the academy have acknowledged tenure’s flaws. The first is that contrary to the rhetoric of its defenders, it does not protect academic freedom as it should. The second is that it sometimes provides lifetime contracts to underperforming faculty.
The political imbalance of college faculty should be a fire bell in the night that tenure and promotion practices filter out candidates who do not align with prevailing campus orthodoxies. A 2020 National Association of Scholars survey gathered donor information from 12,372 professors and found that “American professors donate to Democrats instead of Republicans by a 95-1 ratio.” The most pernicious recent development , of course, is the notorious use of DEI statements in screening applicants for faculty positions.
Overall, rather than encouraging academic freedom, the six-year probationary period for tenure-track professors is a time when those aspiring to tenure are most unlikely to exercise their academic freedom.
Sadly, the problem of protecting underperforming faculty is one that goes back to tenure’s infancy. The American Political Science Association published a study in which 62% of the department chairs agreed that tenure “has shielded incompetent faculty from dismissal” at their institutions.
Perhaps it is time to move away from the current “up or out” practice of either terminating a professor or awarding a lifetime contract that is essentially an obligation of $3 to $4 million over the future of that professor’s career. Perhaps a system in which there are long-term, 10-year renewable contracts or 15-year contracts would give the institution financial and programmatic flexibility to respond to the needs of the workforce and student interest while still safeguarding the essential freedom of faculty in their teaching and research.
Tenure should be a special status, and post-tenure review should be rigorous. After a predetermined amount of time (preferably no more than five years), tenured professors should be subject to a process similar to the one they went through to get tenure in the first place. That means thorough reviews by committees of their department, outside evaluators, and the institution’s administration.
And arguably most important, trustees need to be involved. They need to examine carefully tenure and promotion policies and practices. Instead of rubber-stamping tenure recommendations, whether positive or negative, they need to have the time to review and inquire.
When faculty committees, provosts, and presidents know that their recommendations face a disinterested and objective final review, there is reason to believe that tenure and promotion decisions will be driven by data and less subject to the force of campus orthodoxy that is nowadays the greatest threat to academic freedom.
This piece appeared on The Washington Examiner on September 28, 2023.