Why Tenure Is Important for Colleges and Universities--My Rationale


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


Tenure is often defended as an essential condition for academic freedom and central to the possibility that faculty members can perform their jobs.  I believe these are sound reasons (see the appendix below).  But does tenure play a greater role than to limit professorial termination to just cause, and to preserve academic freedom?  I believe that tenure is actually something far more than this!  Andrew Oldenquist points out that in addition to “job protection,” one of tenure’s major functions is “...the maintenance of a shared sense of community.”[1]  In his essay he clarifies some of the “communitarian” aspects of tenure pointing out that tenure and “communities” (the overall institutional community as well as the smaller college and departmental ones) should reinforce one another.  Where there is a shared sense of community, of course, there are a good number of clearly understood (and shared) values and evaluations.  Where there is no such shared sense of community, there is mystery and confusion. 


In my statements on the nature of a liberal education, the relation of academic administration to collegial governance, and on academic freedom, I emphasize the importance of conceiving of a university as an academic community.  When faculty simply conceive of their university as “their employer,” or when a university administration or board thinks of the faculty simply as “their employees,” the bonds of community are seriously broken, and we are in danger of losing one of the central constitutive elements of university life.  The granting of tenure is a central part of how a university constitutes itself as an academic community (and I use the term ‘constitutes’ here in a continuing sense, since communities are not mere momentary associations, but endure over time).  Those who are granted tenure become continuing members of the community for an extended period of time, and they play a special role (both in the breadth of their participation in the varied activities that a university engages in, and in the length of the time they so participate—unlike students, staff, administrators, trustees, and alumni). 


FIU’s Tenure and Promotion Manual begins with a preamble which emphasizes some of what I contend above--as one might suspect given the role I played in on the committee which developed large portions of the document.  From my point of view, attacks on tenure are attacks on the very “constitution” of the academic community. 


One can, of course, have a research corporation without tenure, and one can have a degree granting institution without it.  But neither “Lucent Technologies” nor “the University of Phoenix” is an academic community—though they “do research” or “grant degrees.” 


To contend that the faculty constitute a university is not to say that they are the institution.  The other constituencies (students, administrators, staff, and board members) do not remain at the college or university for the same length of time as do the faculty, and they do not generally devote their lives to it.  Moreover, they do not participate in as broad a spectrum of the activities or purposes of a college or university as do the faculty.  Both the extent of their participation, and the span of time they spend at the institution, conspire to ensure that it will be the faculty who will ultimately define the college or university’s identity and character.  They not only provide the instruction, they determine the curriculum.  Because of this they are the ones who specify the conditions which much be met for graduation.  They also have an important role in determining what the most reasonable admissions standards are (if their views are ignored, it will be happenstance whether those who matriculate will graduate).  They lead the research activities, provide the mentorship, and provide stewardship for the institution.  It is their providence to take the “long-term view,” and because they are involved with entering students and with students defending their doctoral theses (and because some of these are the same individuals at very different stages of their intellectual development), faculty members of necessity take this long-term view most seriously.  Tenure is central to their ability to do this, and it is the tenured faculty who are best suited to review the credentials of those who would take on this constitutive responsibility as new members of the academic community.  In short, tenure is what makes the institution an academic community, without it we would not have colleges and universities. 


While academic administers play an essential role in all of this, they must, I contend, themselves be faculty members, and what I have said of faculty is true of them—because of their enhanced role in the constitution of the academic community, tenure is necessary for them also. 



An Appendix: Four Additional Important Reasons For Tenure


In his The University: An Owner’s Manual, Henry Rosovsky (who served as Dean of Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences for eleven years) offers an excellent discussion of the “meaning of tenure.” [2]  Building on and adding to what he says, I offer the following four important reasons for tenure (with some implicit responses to counter-arguments woven into the discussion):


1. Tenure plays a central role as a guarantor of academic freedom


it helps protect the instructional, research, and service roles of the university’s faculty members.  Of course, tenure doesn’t directly “protect” the tenure-earning and non-tenure-track faculty members, nor does it directly “protect” the non-tenured researchers at an institution.  Having a significant portion of the faculty tenured, however, ensures that there will be a body of individuals who can, and will, speak out when academic freedom is challenged.  Thus tenure for a significant portion of the faculty effectively ensures that there will be a corrective force in the academic community to respond to challenges from both within and outside the university as a particular line of instruction or research is pursued.  History has established that there will be such challenges, and in the past such efforts to restrict instruction and inquiry have often threatened what turned out to be most important lines of inquiry and instruction. 


2. Tenure contributes to institutional stability


As Colby College President William Cotter noted in 1995:


…the continuing heart of a college is its faculty.  Students, trustees, presidents and staff turn over with some regularity, but tenured faculty make a lifetime commitment to a college and are deeply invested in its quality and its future.  Faculty are the custodians of the values of a college and the guarantors of its continuing excellence.  It behooves the administration and the trustees to provide the resources and the environment to liberate the creativity of the faculty and to sustain their dedicated work over a lifetime of effort.  The tenure system plays a fundamental role in that process….[3] 


Tenure also provides a stability that offers researchers and instructors a luxury to pursue lines of inquiry and analysis that may appear to lack promise.  Sometimes, of course, these ideas do turn out to have important merit.  Nonetheless, such stability and freedom are important in our culture.  We now recognize how much we actually learn through inquiry into mistaken notions (scientific advances in particular are most frequently made through a painfully slow process of discovery of errors in theories).  The stability provided by allowing instructors and researchers a free line of inquiry encourages them to “take the chances” which lead to great pay-offs. 


In 1999 Myles Brand, then President of Indiana University, noted two additional “stability factors” which I believe are under-recognized:


tenure’s critics ignore other ways that the system benefits universities and students.  In those fields in which competition between universities and corporations for highly skilled employees is keen—such as business and information technology—universities tend to pay lower salaries than corporations do.  A tenured faculty member will accept lower compensation in exchange for job security—knowing that his or her position is unlikely to be eliminated during downsizing or restructuring.  If tenure were eliminated…faculty compensation would have to increase.  Higher pay would mean increases in tuition or the student/faculty ratio.  The first would curtail access to higher education; the second would decrease quality. 

  Abolishing tenure would also bring more competition among institutions for top professors.  As compensation became increasingly important in the absence of job security, richer colleges and universities would be able to attract even more of the best faculty members than they already do.[4] 


3. Tenure enforces internal discipline on a university


As Rosovsky notes:


granting tenure is costly for institutions, departments, and colleagues.  Once awarded, a university obliges itself to pay a relatively high salary for at least twenty-five years.  Academic departments grant membership for the same length of time, and they have to be concerned about the costliness of mistakes….[5] 

  But why go down this road in the first place?  Because without long-term obligations, our sense of internal discipline would be much weaker.  The temptation to extend an individual’s employment many times for “one more year”…could become irresistible….Both law firms and universities avoid periodic and perpetual reviews of partners, or tenured professors.  These would be time-consuming, divisive, and destructive of the collegial ideal.  Once is enough; at the time when partners are chosen or when tenure is offered.  But that “once’ has to be subject to extraordinarily rigorous standards.[6] 


Brand makes a similar point noting that


any fair evaluation of tenure must include a look at the defects of proposed alternatives.  Some critics suggest a system of renewable, multiyear contracts; the idea is that such a system would allow universities to monitor the performance of faculty members more closely and give professors more incentive to maintain high standards of research and teaching.  But would this truly be the outcome? 

  Several universities that now offer such contracts have found that they routinely renew them.  Completely evaluating a colleague’s work as a teacher and researcher takes a lot of time.  How thorough could that process be if every faculty member on a campus had to go through it every three to five years?[7] 


Brant continues the argument with a crucial response:


all right, the critic might respond, but if we must retain tenure, how can we motivate faculty members to perform? 

  That question misses the point.  Those who argue that tenure leads to declining productivity do not understand the motivation of faculty members.  Professors are far more interested in gaining knowledge and communicating it to others than they are in high salaries.  It does not mater if the knowledge is a scientific break-through, a new interpretation of a text, or a noteworthy performance of a classical score.  It is the activity itself and sharing one’s results with students and colleagues that faculty members find rewarding.  Being a faculty member is not a job, it’s a life.[8] 


4. Brand’s comment leads to what Rosovsky says is the “essence of tenure” which, he says, lies in the fact that it serves as a social contract in universities where both the university and the tenured faculty member gain significantly:


…the absence of tenure would, in the long run, lower the quality of a faculty.  And faculty quality is the keystone of university life.  The best faculty will attract the ablest students, produce the finest alumni, generate the most research support, and so on.  Unlike most other sectors of the economy, the possibilities of technological (and organizational) progress are more limited in higher education.  Substituting capital for labor does not appear especially promising, and nearly everything hinges on the quality of people.[9] 


Choosing higher education [as a career]…involves a trade-off.  The cost is economic, and that burden is shared by the family.  Benefits are not in the narrow sense material, and one of the most essential is tenure.  In my view, tenure carries the implication of joining an extended family; that is the social contract.  Each side can seek a divorce: the university only in the most extraordinary circumstances and the professor as easily as a male under Islamic law.  It is not an uneven bargain because the university needs its share of talented people, and professors trade life-long security and familial relations for lesser economic rewards.[10] 


Rosovsky notes that


it is true that a large tenured faculty presents peculiar problems of management, especially if threats, fear, or direct orders are a preferred managerial tool.  Instead, the emphasis [in a university] has to be on consensus and persuasion—on a democratic and participatory style.[11] 


I concur with what Rosovsky and Brand contend here, and I elaborate upon several of these points in my “Business Models are Inappropriate for University Communities.”  


Notes: (click on the note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Andrew Oldenquist, “Tenure: Academe’s Peculiar Institution,” in S.M. Cahn (ed.) Morality, Responsibility, and the University (Philadelphia: Temple U.P., 1990), pp. 56-75, p. 62. 

[2] Cf., Henry Rosovsky, The University: An Owner’s Manual (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), pp. 177-187. 

[3] William Cotter, “Why Tenure Works,” Colby College Magazine, April 1995, pp. 9-12, p. 9. 

[4] Myles Brand, “Why Tenure is Indispensable,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2, 1999, p. A 64. 

[5] Henry Rosovsky, The University: An Owner’s Manual, op. cit.., p. 181. 

[6] Ibid., p. 182. 

[7]Myles Brand, “Why Tenure is Indispensable,” op. cit. 

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Henry Rosovsky, The University: An Owner’s Manual, op. cit.., p.. 183. 

[10] Ibid., p. 184. 

[11] Ibid., p. 187. 

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File revised on 04/30/2014