Vol. 12. No. 4
Spring 2003

Tenure: Academia’s reward for seniority? A cushy salary for a lucky few?

Well, no.

Protection for faculty deadwood? A secret society of the learned?

Not really.

So what is tenure? How do you get it? And why?

Though a cornerstone of higher education, tenure is a concept that continually generates controversy, often based on anecdotal evidence, misapplied comparisons, and genuine frustration about its unwieldy process and political overtones.

At its best, tenure is the means by which a scholar and an institution make a career-long commitment to each other after a seven-year courtship. Its end is to preserve a measure of independence and rigor for both scholar and institution.

According to the University’s faculty handbook, “To hold a position with tenure means that the appointment is considered permanent and not subject to termination or substantial reduction in status without adequate cause, provided that in all cases the service of the individual continues to be needed and that funds are available to pay for them.” Only those “in the regular faculty ranks of professor, associate professor, and assistant professor are eligible for tenure.”

In 2001-02, there were 1,380 tenured or tenure-eligible faculty members at the University. Tenured and tenure-eligible faculty make up about 65 percent of all full-time faculty and about 45 percent of all faculty who are teaching in a given term. Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 68 percent of all public university faculty had tenure in 1998-99.

But while its numbers may not be large and its history may date back to the middle ages, tenure has always provoked questions. For some, the question is basic: Why are faculty members granted what is perceived as privileged status? For others, the questions are specific and have to do with adapting tenure to a changing academic environment.

For example, will the continued increase in nontenured full-time and part-time faculty members eventually render tenure obsolete? Will institutions, out of financial necessity, begin to see long-term salary commitments to tenured faculty as an impediment to effective management? (In 1983, a financially struggling Westminster College did away with tenure, but recently, the debate about reinstating tenure there has resurfaced.) Might faculty themselves work to change the procedures, if not the practice, of acquiring tenure?

Most universities, including the U, are constantly evaluating the particulars of the tenure process. But at the core of any discussion about tenure is its philosophical basis: academic freedom.


Sterling McMurrin BA’36 MA’37, former academic vice president at the U and U.S. Commissioner of Education, wrote that academic freedom “refers especially to the question of the professional right of the teacher to be free from external or institutional restraint in the teaching process in the classroom, laboratory, or lecture hall and of the researcher to be free from restraint in his pursuit of knowledge and the development of theory.” The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) also defines academic freedom in terms of a teacher’s independence in research and teaching but adds limits to those freedoms. For example, teachers may be entitled to freedom in the classroom, “but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

Or, as Tony Ekdale, professor of geology and geophysics, says, academic freedom is the “freedom to acquire, share, and apply knowledge as faculty see fit. Professors can’t do whatever they damn well please, but they should teach what they feel is appropriate.” Ekdale believes that the notion of academic freedom is one of the three pillars upon which higher education is founded in the United States, pillars “which predate even the country itself.” The other two are faculty governance—“idealistically, faculty run the university”—and tenure, “which preserves academic freedom and supports faculty governance.”

For Ekdale, who served for three years on the University’s Retention, Promotion, and Tenure Standards and Appeals Committee, academic freedom is not a theoretical concept; it is the guiding principle of their life’s work. “Higher education’s real mission is learning,” says Ekdale. “We do that by generating new knowledge, through research; sharing that knowledge, through teaching; and applying the new knowledge, through service.

“I take that mission solemnly as a matter of trust. The state is entrusting higher learning to its faculty, and that depends on the freedom to learn in an unbridled fashion,” he says.

Katharine Coles PhD’90, the current president of the U’s academic senate and an associate professor in English, agrees. “We want to challenge students to think outside of the box. Students are frequently uncomfortable with this,” she observes. “I think they need to understand the context of their own beliefs; it may make them hold to those beliefs more strongly, or it may make them question those beliefs. But I need the freedom to show them the enormous complex of ideas that exist.”

The idea is not merely an abstraction. In 1915, a group of faculty members at the U was dismissed after the governor wrote then president Kingsbury that they should be “curbed in their utterances or relieved of their positions.” (See sidebar.) Most recently, the University has argued for academic freedom in two high-profile cases. In one, Christina Axson-Flynn, a former student, brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against the University, claiming that she was forced from the Actors Training Program for refusing to use certain language on stage. Throughout the case and its appeal, the University argued that a university has a right to set its own curriculum.

“Language is important to theater in crucial ways, and we take pains to inculcate that,” says David Dynak, chair of the Department of Theatre. “Students can certainly question the curriculum—this is a climate of inquiry, after all—but can’t be exempt from it, or set it.”

In another case, the University, in a “friendly lawsuit” with the state, argued that, while the state allows concealed weapons to be carried anywhere but “secure areas,” the University has the right to ban guns on campus—since part of academic freedom is the responsibility to maintain a safe learning environment. As President Machen has said, “The essence, the very heart, of a college experience is the free exchange of ideas in a nurturing environment. Robust debate, disagreement, and a lively exchange of ideas are essential to a college education. Academic freedom is short circuited and education is stifled if students and faculty feel threatened by the presence of a weapon in the classroom.”

Protecting academic freedom is especially important for those who work in controversial fields. Richard Sperry BA’79 MD’83 MS’94 PhD’95, associate vice president for the health sciences for academic and clinical affairs, points out, “We could have faculty members doing clinical and research activities where a legislature might not want them to be—for instance, reproductive sciences or stem cell research.” In such cases, says Susan Olson, associate vice president for academic affairs for faculty, “Professors need to feel confident that they can get all sides of an issue out without fear of losing their jobs.”

Ideally, then, tenure preserves academic freedom for both the individual faculty member and the institution, a freedom that is always in question. For example, a 2002 national survey on the State of the First Amendment by the Center for Survey Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut noted that more than 40 percent of the thousand people surveyed “would limit the academic freedom of professors and bar criticism of government military policy.” As Coles notes, “Tenure protects the institution from the intellectual fashions of the times.”

To be granted that protection, much is expected of faculty members. After being hired to a tenure-track position, often through a grueling national or international search, an assistant professor has seven years to compile an excellent record of research, generally shown by publications of articles and books; teaching, as indicated, in part, by student evaluations; and service, both to the campus and the community. Essentially, says Coles, tenure-eligible faculty “serve an apprenticeship,” whereby “the person undergoes a testing and mentoring period that is quite rigorous.”

Tenure-track faculty are reviewed once a year, with formal reviews (involving external reviewers) in the third year and again before the seventh year, at which time, says Theresa Martinez, an associate professor of sociology, “you could be let go.” In fact, at the formal review, says Coles, “a department should make it clear to junior faculty what they still need to do.”

In the seventh year (or sometimes in the sixth), when an assistant professor “goes up” for tenure, she or he compiles a file with evidence of successful research, teaching, and service efforts. “Research is clearly the most important part,” says Martinez—the U being a research institution— “and teaching is second,” though both must be exemplary. (Notably, “research” is defined differently according to discipline; scholarly activities in the performing arts, for example, will not be the same as those in the sciences.)

The file then makes its way through a carefully prescribed review process, with a recommendation of “yes” or “no” made at each step: from student advisory committee (SAC); to departmental Retention, Promotion, and Tenure (RPT) committee; to department chair; to college RPT committee; to college dean; to senior vice president for academic affairs or health sciences; and to the president. The president makes the final decision and is the only one who can grant tenure.

Recommendations at each point are also sent to the candidate, who is given a chance to respond several times. If there are any differences of opinion when the file gets sent to the senior vice president—and sometimes there are, though the majority of RPT cases at the U are unanimous— the University Promotion and Tenure Advisory Committee (UPTAC) will review the file and make a recommendation to the senior vice president. In the end, if tenure is denied, an appeals process also exists. But with final denial, says Ekdale, “you’re out.”


With so much riding on the decision to grant tenure—a “no” vote can seriously damage a scholar’s career and a “yes” vote obligates the institution to a long-term employment contract—it’s no wonder that the process and principles are scrutinized. Some questions include:

Are expectations made clear to untenured faculty? “I think a department has a huge responsibility to mentor junior faculty members,” says Coles. “If specific instructions are not forthcoming—for example, a department hires five people knowing it is only going to tenure three—then it’s not a true mentoring process.” Olson agrees. “The University’s processes are structured to give systematic reviews so that faculty know what’s expected.” Because those who have been denied tenure can appeal internally and, if necessary, sue an institution—as has happened at the U—it is especially important that practices and policies be spelled out.

Is too much discretion given to individual departments? As Martinez notes, “President Machen has made it clear that he values the department’s decision.” While members of a department are probably best suited to judge the merits of a scholar’s work within that discipline, such judgment depends on members staying both objective and current. “Cultural norms develop in each department,” says Olson. “There are variations in process and personalities.” If a lack of collegiality exists, as Martinez perceived in her department before and during her tenure process (but no longer), untenured faculty may feel judged according to departmental factionalism, rather than scholarship. “Sometimes the collegiality of a department can be crucial to a tenure decision,” says Martinez. In addition, tenured faculty in a department—who may be involved in traditional forms of research—must be able to recognize new fields of study, new teaching technologies, and new forms of interdisciplinary work, to name just a few, while maintaining the department’s standards of excellence for scholarship.

Does tenure constrain an institution’s ability to manage?
Both Sperry and Olson— who administer faculty practices for upper and lower campuses, respectively—feel that tenure does impose restrictions on institutions faced with annual changes in enrollments and funding. “In terms of budget,” points out Olson, “we can RIF [Reduction In Force] staff and not renew auxiliary faculty, so we have more flexibility there. It’s very difficult for any reason to terminate tenure-track faculty.” Adds Sperry, “My impression is that most people in administration would like to do away with tenure. It’s cumbersome and it makes it difficult to fine tune your organization.” Both Sperry and Olson are tenured faculty, however, and support the principle of tenure. And Olson believes that “most in administration adhere to the values that tenure protects.”

Just last year, Fred Montague, a nontenured “professor lecturer” in the biology department, was laid off because of budget cutbacks. Montague, who also coordinates academic advising in the department, was eventually reinstated, but, for students especially, the experience highlighted the dividing line between tenure-track—and often research-oriented—positions and nontenure track—and teaching-oriented—positions. “How could the department view a man who advises about 700 undergraduates and generated more than $69,000 in enrollment funds last semester as dispensable?” posed an editorial in The Daily Utah Chronicle.

In the School of Medicine, which receives very little state funding, managing tenure is especially challenging. “Across the country, almost everywhere, tenure is a salary guarantee,” says Sperry. “But for almost all faculty in clinical departments, there is no state money in the salary. So where is the tenure guarantee?” Faculty members who rely on their own clinical revenues and research grants for their salary funding may not have the time to address traditional tenure demands, so Sperry says the RPT criteria were recently revised to “make it possible to achieve tenure in two ways”: one, as a “scientist-scholar,” for those who do traditional research, and two, as a “clinician-scholar,” for those who primarily see patients.

Is there sufficient review of, and incentive for, tenured faculty? As the Chronicle of Higher Education noted this fall, public universities in 37 states—including the U— “require some sort of performance review of tenured professors.” Dismissal under such policies is still rare (though a tenured professor has recently been dismissed for violation of the faculty code at the U). As Coles puts it, “Unless the professor undresses, stands on a table, and teaches in the nude, probably nothing will happen.”

However, cases of true incompetence or negligence appear to be rare. “A faculty member’s productivity before she or he is tenured is the best indicator of her or his post-tenure productivity,” says Sperry. “Most health sciences faculty members, for example, want to do research and want to see patients, so it’s not a huge problem.” Tenured faculty at the U are reviewed every five years, and all faculty are reviewed for merit for possible salary raises once a year. (“There are no automatic cost-of-living increases for faculty,” Ekdale points out.)

At the same time, the tenure system does not offer built-in incentives for faculty who perform exceptionally. A department might try to find funds to use as promotion bonuses, for example, but that can be difficult when budgets have been slashed. “Our dean [Robert Newman] has talked about a pre-emptive retention policy, which I’m very glad to hear,” says Coles. “If faculty members have received offers and seriously considered them, they’re already halfway out the door.”

Isn’t there already enough protection? After all, say some observers, public school teachers aren’t tenured (though longevity alone can sometimes serve as de facto tenure). But many faculty members believe that higher education is unique in that its very mission is to question assumptions and explore new ideas. Academic freedom is not necessarily part of the K-12 mission, says Ekdale, since the state sets the curriculum and there is no requirement to generate new knowledge in the form of research.

Forging that new ground requires extra protection, an assurance that pushing the envelope will not be punished. “The great thinkers are also the ones who come up with lots of ideas, many of which fail,” says Coles. “They have earned the right to fail, to have a multitude of ideas.”

“There are such big stakes,” says Olson, “which is why we have this system of checks and balances. We owe it to the state to have the very best faculty we can.”

—Theresa Desmond is editor of Continuum.

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