Academic tenure is a contractual right that grants a professor permanent employment or a legal protection against summary dismissal without just cause. Principally, the status of a tenured professor is analogous to a Supreme Court Justice—a lifetime of employment guarantee. Less than one-third of all college and university faculty members are tenured in the US.

Tenure may be revoked if there is evidence of incompetence, unprofessionally behavior, or when an academic department/school is in serious financial difficulty. Nationally, about 2 percent of tenured faculty are dismissed in a typical year.

Why Tenure?

The notion of academic tenure dates back to the early part of the 20th century when tenure system was erected to protect professors from the abusive power of University Presidents and Trustees who were free to fire professors for their socio-political views. According to NEA, academic freedom via tenure is valuable because professors can then assert their independence. Scholars can challenge conventional wisdom, discuss and debate controversial ideas without having to worry how such exchange may affect their jobs.

Curtail Tenure

  • Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, Iowa

Faculty at State College of Florida hired after July 2016 no longer qualify for tenure-like protections. In Missouri, North Dakota and Iowa, Republican lawmakers are introducing bills to eliminate tenure. In North Dakota, the state board of higher education is considering reducing to 90 days from 12 months the amount of time administrators need to give tenured faculty before they can lay them off. The state’s 11-school college and university system is bracing for steep layoffs this year after cutting about 500 full-time positions last year. A Missouri bill would prohibit any public institution of higher education from awarding tenure after Jan. 1, 2018.

  • Wisconsin

While not eliminating the status of tenure, Wisconsin’s state legislators voted in 2015 to weaken state tenure law. Consequently, state universities in Wisconsin had to grapple with sharp reduction in budget (around $250 million) and deal with lower tenure protections. In response to the State law, Wisconsin’s University Board instituted “independent and substantive reviews” of tenured faculty once every five years. Tenured professors who are deemed as lacking in productivity have three to four semesters to improve else their tenure is revoked. The Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, recently declared plans to cut tuition by 5% across all University of Wisconsin System schools while instituting “faculty accountability policy” which aims to monitor the time professors spend in classrooms.

Steep jumps in tuition, students have to accumulate large amount of debt to get quality education, and higher wage inequality may have magnified the scrutiny on the business practices of universities including questioning the concept of permanent employment of professors.

 Defense of Tenure

According to NEA, there has been a temporal decline in the proportion of tenured professors. For instance, in 1975, 45% of faculty at public and private schools was tenured or tenure-track, however, by 2014, that number had dramatically declined to 29%.

Defenders of tenure claim that state that disallow granting of tenure will be unable to attract high quality talent. Such states also risk losing valuable grants which is often linked to the human capital and innovative abilities of tenured professors. Another prediction is that salaries are expected to increase dramatically as professors would demand a higher wage rate in the absence of tenure.

Prospect Theory

Tenure at most prestigious and nationally visible universities is granted after an exhaustive and critical review. The longer the tenure clock, the more stringent is the granting of tenure. Given these parameters, most, if not all, tenured professors are eminent and productive scholars with a shared passion for teaching. 

Market theory suggests that, because tenure has endured for more than a century, the benefits must outweigh the costs from having a tenure system. While the experiment of not having a tenure-system is counter-factual in the US, one can draw on the experiences from other countries without a tenure track system. The consensus is that higher education has lagged behind in quality, scientific research and intellectual advancement in countries without a tenure system. More so, countries that have moved to a tenure track system (e.g., schools in mainland China, Hong Kong, Australia, and Europe) have seen a rise in the quality of their advanced level education.

While distinguishing the benefits of tenure, one cannot help underscore that there are some apparent costs including a classic moral hazard problem leading to potential misallocation of resources because of inadequate monitoring.  

Future of Academic Justices

Will the US tenure system survive the current predicament? Will tenure endure a refurbishment? Some states have made their decisions. Other states can only resist or follow suit. 

Chatham, February 24, 2017

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