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The Great Tenure Debate

Tenure describes an indefinite appointment that colleges can only terminate under very specific circumstances, such as when discontinuing an entire academic program.  

But a large number of colleges have developed their own (often less advantageous to faculty) definitions of “tenure,” which can make coverage of this issue challenging, since reporters have to clarify what a particular college’s tenure consists of.

Common arguments against the most sweeping tenure job protections are often political in nature. Anti-tenure bills have been popping up for years in Republican-dominated state legislatures. While none of these proposals (which would only affect public institutions) had become law as of mid-2021, they’ve nevertheless had a chilling effect on some campuses. Politicians sometimes say they fear that professors, who are overwhelmingly liberal in terms of their own politics, use their positions to indoctrinate students. Multiple studies have shown that fear is overblown, but not unfounded. Other objections to tenure are based on cost and institutional flexibility, as conferring tenure upon someone is a long-term commitment, financial and otherwise.

Certainly, these latter arguments have grown louder since March 2020, when many institutions announced they were adopting hiring freezes or even laying off professors and staff in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many colleges have chipped away at the most salient benefit of tenure — the near ironclad job security. Many institutions, for example, now require tenured professors to be reviewed every few years or even annually, in what’s called a post-tenure review. Proponents argue that post-tenure review actually benefits tenure, as it’s a formal accountability mechanism for tenured professors. Critics of post-tenure review say it’s not necessary, and that professors are already subject to a number of informal accountability mechanisms, including accountability to their colleagues. The AAUP maintains that at its most “draconian,” post-tenure review aims to reopen the question of tenure, and that it should be faculty-driven and focused on professional development where it exists. Despite the tenured deadwood stereotypes, emerging research shows that professors’ research productivity doesn’t drop off with tenure or seniority, either. That’s a good thing, as there hasn’t been a mandatory retirement age for professors since 1994. 

Job security does increase greatly with tenure, however, as disciplinary norms and institutional policies make it much harder to lay off tenured professors than untenured ones for things like budget issues. Academic freedom strengthens with tenure as well, meaning that it’s harder for colleges and universities to target associate and full professors for their political beliefs or controversial research agendas. 

Tenure originated to assure professors of their academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors is dedicated to protecting both tenure and academic freedom, sometimes censuring institutions alleged to have violated these values. The nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education advocates for academic freedom as well, particularly where it intersects with free speech. 

Academic freedom has been shown to have its limits, however: Just as tenured professors are not guaranteed a job for life, academic freedom doesn’t mean professors may say whatever they want. Tenured professors have been fired for racist and sexist comments, for instance, and remarks or actions that call into question their disciplinary expertise or ability to teach. In general, because the First Amendment applies to public institutions, professors at public institutions have slightly more leeway with regard to controversial speech. 

Updated June 2021.