The Role of Tenure in Higher
John E. Savage
Tenure was introduced to American colleges and universities early in this century in response to decades of public discussion of the arbitrary dismissal of faculty members for holding unpopular views. One of the most celebrated cases leading to tenure involved President Andrews of Brown University. Late in the 19th century, he advocated the free coinage of silver as a means to stop deflation in the American economy. This angered members of the Brown Corporation many of whom were creditors benefiting from deflation by being repaid with increasingly valuable money. They told President Andrews that he must cease his public support for this issue. This led to a national debate through letters to the editor. In one of these letters Francis Wayland, Brown Corporation member and Dean of the Yale Law School, said that President Andrews' position threatened donations to Brown and that money was the life blood of universities. In a widely discussed response, Prof. Josiah Royce of Harvard's distinguished Philosophy Department said that freedom, not money, is the life blood of the university. As this story illustrates, a passionate national debate raged over academic freedom before tenure took hold in American higher education. But the censorship of unpopular economic ideas did not stop with the case of Benjamin Andrews. in the late 1940's, the University of Illinois at Urbana fired a group of untenured economists, all of whom subsequently had distinguished careers, for teaching the "heresy" of Keynesian economics.
Far from being a problem for the American system of higher education, I believe that tenure is the principal reason for its success. Tenure makes faculty members into stakeholders in their institutions; it gives them an incentive to maintain high standards, particularly in faculty appointments, promotions, and the granting of tenure. They stand to benefit as professionals from the maintenance of standards and suffer from their decline. Without tenure faculty members would be hired on term contracts. I believe this would lower the barrier to continued employment of faculty who are found to be poorly qualified: the reason is that an error in judgment at the first major reappointment hurdle will be regarded as less expensive to correct under a term contract system than it would be with tenure, with the result that more errors will be made.
The importance of tenure is emphasized by considering the nature of academic units in colleges and universities. Such units are not businesses and that they cannot be run as such. The variety of course and research topics pursued by faculty members in a typical academic department is so large that it is impossible for one human being to master, let alone direct. The better model of an academic department is a community of responsible members.
Successful communities grant their members certain rights. Just as the U. S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights provide for freedom of expression and the right of assembly, the guarantee of tenure serves this role for academic departments: it grants individuals the protection they need to participate fully in the life of their departments without the risk of dismissal for holding unpopular views.
Tenure is also important in the educational process. We learn by juxtaposing and questioning ideas. If faculty members are at risk for discussing unpopular ideas in the classroom, such as evolution when a governing board is populated by individuals who do not believe in it, they cannot provide a quality education.
In my opinion, tenure is receiving a lot of attention today because it is generally believed that the high cost of a university education is due to an expensive professoriate. I did a study at Brown a few years ago that shows that less than 16% of Brown's non-residential budget is currently spent on faculty compensation for instruction. Regardless of what salaries are paid to faculty, they are not the cause of high tuitions. A second important reason for the attention given to tenure is that universities have not experienced the wrenching changes undergone by American businesses to make themselves more competitive. While it may be that parts of universities need restructuring, it is dangerous to radically alter the relationship between faculty members and students. Assigning too many students to each faculty member risks greatly diminishing the quality of education that is provided. For good reason the student-faculty ratio at Brown has remained about constant (at about 12-14) over the last forty years.
Tenure has received negative attention for two other reasons. First, in 1993 Congress eliminated the mandatory retirement age for police, firefighters, and professors, restoring it for the first two groups in 1996, but not for professors. As a result, there is a widespread concern that older professors who might lack intellectual vitality will continue to teach and supervise students. This problem has been recognized and the US Congress is currently considering legislation to allow colleges and universities to offer age-based early retirement plans to their tenured faculty. Second, it is often stated that tenure is a refuge for the incompetent. Although rarely invoked, it is clearly stated in the Handbook of the American Association of University Professors that tenure can be terminated for "adequate cause," that is, "incompetence." If termination of incompetent faculty is not sought when it should be, this is, in my opinion, not a justification for the elimination of tenure.
While tenure is imperfect, the only other form of employment contract that comes to mind that might protect faculty members from arbitrary dismissal for their views is the union. To my mind this is an inferior form a contract because it treats all faculty members in basically the same way, and obstructs the ability of the university to reward superior achievement.
While tenure is very important to the proper functioning of higher education, it is under assault in academe itself, as part of a downgrading of educational quality. It is reported that more than half of all the people teaching in colleges and universities today are non-tenured adjuncts or lecturers. While this keeps costs low, it also eliminates the enfranchisement of faculty with all that this implies for the maintenance of standards and the quality of the education provided by institutions. Put another way, most parents would want their sons and daughters to be educated by an engaged and largely full-time faculty, rather than harried, underpaid, and itinerant teachers.
Tenure not only guarantees freedom of expression inside and outside academe, it enfranchises the tenured faculty members to share in the collective responsibility for the academic institution, which in turn increases the quality of the education these institutions provide as well as the research and scholarship that they produce.
*Thanks are due to George Borts and Herman Eschenbacher for their help on