Magazine Feature

Under Review

How tenuous is tenure?

By Marilyn Cooper

Summer 2023

In 2022, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, attempted to ban the teaching of critical race theory in publicly funded state colleges and universities. Soon after, the University of Texas Faculty Council approved a resolution upholding faculty members’ freedom to decide for themselves how to teach about race. Patrick responded by saying, “It’s time that [tenure] comes to an end in Texas.”

Ever since the modern concept of tenure was jointly formulated and endorsed by the American Association of University Professors and the American Association of Colleges and Universities in their 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, battles have been waged over whether tenure should exist. Defenders of tenure emphasize that it safeguards academic freedom, while detractors often object that it guarantees lifelong employment regardless of professional performance or conduct.

In recent years, a new front in the ongoing war over tenure has opened as legislatures in at least half a dozen states have attempted to limit it or ban it outright. Budget considerations play a role, but these opponents to tenure often present their work to dismantle it as an effort to rein in academics who hold liberal views.

Liberal Education asked seven faculty members and academic leaders from states across the country to share their personal perspectives and opinions about tenure. Viewpoints ranged from celebrating the current system to citing concerns about the lack of diversity among tenured faculty or asserting that tenure stifles risk taking. Despite these differences, all participants decried political attacks on academic freedom and called for some form of job stability and security for faculty members.

Andrea Gore

Vice president of the American Association of University Professors, University of Texas at Austin chapter, and professor of pharmacology, University of Texas at Austin

If tenure didn’t exist: In spring 2023, the Texas Senate Higher Education Committee passed a bill that would have ended faculty tenure at public universities; the House, however, voted to uphold tenure with new limitations. I believe that ending tenure would lead to the death of the American college and university system. Tenure provides job stability. In technology, engineering, and science fields, this helps offset the issue of lower salaries in academia than those offered by corporations and private industry. I have colleagues in high tech who could earn three to ten times more if they left academia, but they like the security and intellectual freedom they’ve found at colleges and universities. Also, eliminating tenure would damage academic research and harm the economy—collectively, Texas public universities bring billions of dollars to the state every year. And because research takes time, big projects need the stability tenure provides to succeed.

Faculty recruitment and retention: One major argument against the Senate bill was that it would cause a brain drain, that anyone who thought they could get tenure elsewhere would leave the state. Furthermore, Texas would be unable to recruit individuals who are at the top of their field, because they would go to states with tenure. Without tenure, academia would no longer attract the top people, which would ultimately penalize students and harm the future of this country.

Academic freedom: As a neuroscientist, tenure has helped me feel comfortable with taking chances with my research and with expressing my opinions. My biomedical research field has controversies. My work focuses on how environmental chemicals affect brain development. Because I study how chemicals used in personal care products and in food enter the environment, the chemical industry doesn’t like my research. I’ve never had to worry about their pushback because of my job’s stability, the backing of my university, and the academic freedom tenure affords me.

Students: There is a generational transfer of knowledge in academia—your teacher mentors you, and then you teach the next generation. If the top people in different fields are no longer teaching in colleges and universities, students will not gain their knowledge and expertise. I’ve taught hundreds of undergraduates and dozens of graduate students. They are the future of science in Texas and in the United States.

Mark Somerville

Provost, dean of faculty, and professor of electrical engineering and physics, Olin College of Engineering

Without tenure: Olin College does not have tenure. From its founding, the college has focused on how to quickly respond to rapid changes in technology. Olin’s founding documents reflect an assumption that tenure creates an insufficient incentive for faculty to remain current, particularly in the domain of technology and engineering.

Tenure often places a great emphasis on scholarship and an insufficient emphasis on teaching. In the long term, this negatively impacts the value of teaching at colleges and universities. How tenure gets implemented can also have the unintended consequences of stunting young scholars’ growth and shifting the culture of an institution away from student development.

Instead of tenure: We typically use six-year contracts. When a contract ends, faculty can apply for reappointment. Our evaluation criteria differ from the buckets of teaching, research, and service standardly used in the tenure review process. We use a Venn diagram that reflects that faculty engage in overlapping activities with multiple purposes. We examine student development; external achievements such as inventions, patents, and public-facing scholarship; and activities that build and sustain the college.

Academic freedom: At many institutions, tenure is the tool of choice for protecting academic freedom—and in the current political climate, it’s imperative we defend it. Without tenure, things would get very ugly for faculty members whose views don’t align with dominant political views in certain parts of the country. That said, such issues with academic freedom are more present in a liberal arts environment than in a technical one like ours. I cannot think of an instance in the past twenty years when an academic freedom issue has arisen at Olin College, so we don’t need tenure for this purpose.

Faculty development: Many institutions that have tenure are struggling with faculty development. The kind of incentives tenure creates for junior faculty members is a serious problem with the current system. Rather than junior faculty asking, “What’s the most important work for me to do right now?” or “How can I grow as a teacher and as a scholar?” instead they want to know “What boxes do I need to check to get tenure?” While there are some departments that do a great job mentoring junior faculty, others simply tell them that they are coming up for tenure, and they need to get their materials together.

Louis Mendoza

Professor of Latina/o literary and cultural studies in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University

The current situation: Although it’s under attack and the subject of intense scrutiny, tenure remains relatively strong in the United States and continues to benefit higher ed institutions, students, local communities, and society at large. However, increased reliance on non-tenure-track faculty has eroded tenure’s overall well-being. Its stability is further threatened when state legislatures yoke their distrust of higher ed to decisions about university budgets and funding personnel. That’s made it harder for colleges and universities to retain existing tenure-track positions, let alone create new ones.

Without tenure: Researchers would likely find it more beneficial to work for corporations rather than for the public good, and there would be a greater divide between research and teaching faculty. Community service and engagement would be almost nonexistent. Faculty-to-student mentoring would suffer tremendously, and fewer top researchers would teach in the classroom.

Changes: Universities should do more to clarify the circumstances under which they would remove tenure from an individual faculty member and devise a fair and impartial process for this. Similarly, post-tenure reviews must do more to effectively address the rare instances of faculty who no longer want to contribute to the teaching, research, and community.

Underrepresentation of faculty of color: To prepare students for an increasingly diverse and globalized world, we must work to ensure that tenured faculty more accurately reflect our country’s demographics. Hiring a more diverse faculty begins with a deliberate investment of time and resources to build a pipeline from communities of color to higher education and to graduate school. We need to establish accountability measures that are enforced for leaders at every level. The question is: Do we truly believe in the value of diversity in higher ed? And, if so, are we willing to do what’s necessary to achieve it?

Opposition to diversity, equity, and inclusion: Recent efforts by lawmakers to pass anti-tenure legislation are often effectively educational gag orders that attempt to restrict education about the history of minoritized populations, critical race theory, and diverse content of all kinds. These are the topics that honestly convey who we are as a country and how we arrived at this moment in our collective history. Teaching them is critical to realizing our full potential as a nation. There is enormous risk in politicians legislating educational content. Most legislators lack the expertise to provide positive guidance across the disciplines—mainly they talk about what they don’t want.

Marc Stein

Professor of history, director of the website OutHistory, co-editor of the digital history project Queer Pasts, and author of five books, including Queer Public History, San Francisco State University

Diversity: Declines in tenure density over the past several decades correlate to increased diversity among college and university faculty. A similar thing has happened in other sectors. As women or people of color enter a given field, pay, benefits, and conditions of labor are reduced. In addition, common misperceptions about faculty composition often drive the desire to weaken or eliminate tenure. People often mistakenly believe that left-wing Marxists, radical feminists, anti-racists, and queer theorists dominate the tenured faculties of most colleges and universities. The reality is that tenured faculty are still majority male, disproportionately White, and, although it’s harder to measure, probably disproportionately straight. Similarly, critical public discourse tends to focus on disciplines in the humanities and social sciences where liberal and left-wing perspectives are well represented. Much less attention is paid to fields dominated by conservative perspectives and positions such as economics, business, and applied sciences like engineering.

LGBTQ+ faculty and research: The protection of tenure has never been more important than now for LGBTQ+ faculty and those whose scholarship focuses on LGBTQ+ topics. In states across the country, faculty who research and teach LGBTQ+ issues are highly vulnerable and under attack. The threat extends beyond the immediate moment. My work shows that it was virtually impossible to do LGBTQ+ research in higher education before the 1970s. LGBTQ+ academic activists had to fight for representation in colleges and universities—the results of that fight were uneven across institutions and disciplines. There are still serious problems in many places and disciplines, but fewer than in the 1970s and 1980s. Without the protection of tenure, LGBTQ+ faculty would seriously worry about anti-LGBTQ+ students, colleagues, and administrators and members of the taxpaying public who would do whatever they could to erase and eliminate us from higher education.

Anxiety about the humanities: Criticisms of tenure often center on the humanities and social sciences. There’s also a convergence between efforts to remove humanities and social science education about gender, sexuality, and race from higher education and attempts to eliminate tenure. Although there’s a certain amount of support for reducing discrimination in society, the “mainstream middle” experiences anxiety when their privileges are threatened or seem vulnerable. That’s what these fields and the faculty who teach in them have in common. They threaten the status quo.

David Helfand

Professor of astronomy and astrophysics, past president of the American Astronomical Society, and chair of the American Institute of Physics, Columbia University

Academic freedom: In graduate school, I came to see that tenure does more to deny academic freedom to those who don’t have it than it does to protect academic freedom for those who do have it. Assistant professors walk on eggshells and are scared to take risks—I think this is even worse in the humanities than the sciences. Five years into my position at Columbia University, I was told I was up for tenure. I said, “Thanks, but no.” Lack of tenure has not impeded my academic freedom. I’ve been outspoken with no negative consequences.

We’ve unnecessarily conflated academic freedom and tenure for the past century. Tenure is an employment system. Academic freedom is at the heart of what universities do. The two should be separate. As a result of this conflation, when right-wingers are upset about academic freedom and want to score political points, they go after tenure. To counter interventions by certain state legislatures, we need to separate the two.

Instead of tenure: I negotiated a system of five-year contracts in place of tenure. I’ve used that for most of my career. When it’s time to renew my contract, I write a summary of my accomplishments from the past five years and a prospectus for the upcoming years. I submit that with my curriculum vitae to my department for review and approval and eventually to the provost. Five years is long enough to demonstrate my value to the institution and to the profession.

The high cost of tenure has led to a two-tier system of tenured professors and adjuncts. This is a disaster for both students and faculty. Rather than one- or two-year contracts, adjuncts should get five- or six-year renewable contracts. Institutions should treat them as equals to tenured faculty and give them the freedom to create curricula and the office space to meet with students. The resulting continuity would strengthen education and student mentoring.

Criteria: We need to broaden the criteria for tenure and long-term contract renewal. I’ve published hundreds of refereed articles in scholarly journals, but these days I mainly write books for the public. If I’d done that forty years ago, Columbia would not have offered me tenure. We need to place more value on activities like public lectures, museum exhibits, programs that help minoritized students, institutional service, and—most of all—teaching.

Chavella Pittman

Professor of sociology and founder of Effective & Efficient Faculty, a faculty development company that provides consultation, courses, and workshops to support faculty success, Dominican University

Faculty of color: Protecting tenure and academic freedom for faculty of color is the litmus test for whether people truly care about tenure. We are the canaries in the coal mines. If faculty of color are frequently or always under threat, that means that tenure is always shaky. I’ve worked with faculty of color for over two decades. They are aware of constant surveillance and are hyper-alert to the ways their scholarship and teaching could impact their ability to get tenure. Universities frequently recruit faculty of color with the goal of expanding existing intellectual lenses but, as I have seen, then reject those viewpoints when an individual comes up for review or tenure. For example, I know of instances when professors have been penalized for teaching US history from the viewpoint of the colonized rather than the colonizer.

Academic freedom: The tenure system needs to do more to protect the academic freedom of all faculty members. The work of faculty of color frequently shakes up and threatens the status quo. Tenure is supposed to protect that kind of risk taking. External forces have always attempted to limit the content and dissemination of scholarship. During McCarthyism, the focus was on communism—now it’s on gender, sexuality, and race. The content is different, but the perception that ideas are threatening is the same.

Professional protection: In my experience, tenure simply does not provide the same protections or sense of security for faculty of color as it does for other faculty members. We see tenure as a glass shield with cracks—we’re waiting for it to break completely. We’re aware of intense scrutiny from our peers. We know that we must do more to get promoted and that our work is vulnerable and under threat.

Changes: Faculty of color are underrepresented in institutions of higher education. There’s no one fix for this. The pipeline has issues at every point. We must do more to get students of color into graduate school and into tenure-track jobs. We also need to revisit tenure and promotion criteria to acknowledge the publications, journals, and presses where diverse faculty are more likely to publish and to place greater weight on the benefits teaching and all forms of institutional service provide. But despite all the problems with the current system, eliminating tenure would negatively impact the already limited professional protections for faculty of color.

Larry Isaak

Chancellor emeritus of the North Dakota University system and former president of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact

Political interference: A political ideology is sweeping the nation that regards tenure as bad. For example, in January 2023, North Dakota’s House majority leader filed legislation that would have allowed the presidents of Bismarck State College and Dickinson State University to review tenured faculty at any time and fire them without faculty having the right to appeal within the institution. This threatened academic freedom and the right of faculty to freely express and teach diverse viewpoints. I testified against the bill, which failed to pass by one vote. I raised concerns about how undermining tenure could jeopardize these institutions’ accreditation due to rules that require governing boards and institutions to be independent from political influence. Without accreditation, students are ineligible for federal financial aid and are unable to sit for various professional exams. I also argued that the bill was unconstitutional because North Dakota established an independent State Board of Higher Education in response to gubernatorial interference with public colleges in 1938. The bill would also have harmed the state’s ability to compete for faculty.

Benefits: Tenure sets the standard of quality for faculty in terms of their knowledge and their ability to express that knowledge to students and other scholars. To achieve tenure, you must do in-depth research and writing about a specific topic. It’s a high bar. That expertise then benefits both students and the college or university. This system has been in place for decades with very positive results for research, faculty composition, and students.

Myths: Unfortunately, many governors, legislatures, and much of the general public do not understand tenure. There’s a common misperception that you cannot fire tenured faculty. They’ve got a job for life, and they can do—or not do—whatever they want after gaining tenure. That’s not true. Under all tenure policies, institutions can fire faculty for a variety of reasons. People also often incorrectly believe that most faculty have tenure, even though it’s only about 24 percent nationwide. Governing boards and institutional leaders need to do more to educate both policymakers and the general public about tenure and how it benefits students and institutions of higher education. The political push to diminish or eliminate tenure is not going away. We need to be more proactive about helping our policymakers understand the importance of tenure.

Lead illustration by Paul Spella

All other illustrations by Clarissa Martinez


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is associate editor of Liberal Education.