Chronicle of Higher Education, Want to Kill Tenure? Be Careful What You Wish For:
The trustee hadn’t said a word for an hour as the board of the small Midwestern liberal-arts college debated ways to turn around its flagging fortunes. But during a lull in the conversation, he finally spoke up. As David Strauss recalls, "He looked at everybody as if we’d all been fools, and said, ‘Well, the solution is easy. Get rid of tenure.’"
Strauss, a principal of the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm that works with colleges, had heard the argument before. Almost anyone who works in higher education has. Many outside academe — and some within — see tenure as an entitlement that encourages "deadwood" professors to coast and shields firebrands who spout off, an anachronism that hinders colleges from innovating and drives up costs.
Strauss says that the trustee’s suggestion was politely ignored and talk soon turned back to more pressing issues, such as enrollment and academic programs. Though tenure is increasingly scarce, its status as an ideal in higher education is so sacred that sentiments like the trustee’s are rarely expressed openly. Indeed, several academic leaders, lawmakers, and advocates for adjuncts and academic freedom didn’t respond to requests for interviews for this article. But the trustee’s argument against tenure isn’t going away, and may be gaining momentum.
Wisconsin, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee have all made policy moves in recent years that have sought to to weaken tenure, or that faculty members have interpreted as threats to it. Leaders of some private colleges who want to adapt more quickly to marketplace demands have invoked dire institutional finances as a reason to propose — if not always follow through on — cutting tenured faculty.
For both political reasons and because of institutional policy choices, tenure arguably faces more peril now than it has in nearly 70 years.
In some respects, tenure is already dying. The percentage of faculty members who are tenured or on the tenure track has been declining for decades, as colleges shed tenure lines and bring in more adjuncts. The share of tenured and tenure-track faculty members has declined from 45 percent in 1975 to less than 30 percent in 2015, according to data compiledby the American Association of University Professors. Meanwhile, the percentage of part-time faculty teaching courses has nearly doubled, from 24 percent to 40 percent, over the same period.
The quiet erosion of the tenure beachhead has been very effective, says Richard P. Chait, an emeritus professor of education at Harvard University and an expert on the subject: "If a little sand disappears every semester, or every academic year, it’s not quite as observable."
But the long-term implications of the shift could be substantial, says Thomas L. Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, because tenure protects academic integrity. "What we’re really talking about," he says, "is the soul of higher education."
What does the potential end of tenure portend for the future of higher education? What are the benefits and costs of tenure — and of getting rid of it? And are those costs purely economic and straightforward, or is there something deeper at stake, with consequences that are hard to predict?