Tenure’s False Promise

Although tenure has been hotly debated over the years, it is still widely misunderstood as guaranteeing a professor a lifetime position. What happened in May to Joshua Katz, a classics professor at Princeton, calls into question this assumption and, by extension, raises a question about the rights of an individual in our legal system.

Katz’s sin was to criticize a number of “anti-racist” proposals by faculty, students, and staff in his Quillette article. At first, Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, said that what Katz had done was protected speech. But that was not to be. Instead, the school dredged up a long-past offense concerning a consensual relationship between Katz and a 21-year-old student, for which the classicist had already been suspended for a year without pay. Resurrecting this charge would be considered double jeopardy anyplace else but academe. As a result, however, Katz was dismissed.

During this outrage, the silence of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was deafening. Tenure is supposed to protect academic freedom, and, in writing for Quillette, Katz merely exercised that right. Whatever the university now says, it was Katz’s refusal to commit to “anti-racism” in all its possible forms that sealed his fate. Tenure, once set against more important university priorities, could no longer offer sufficient protection.

Tenure, once set against more important university priorities, could no longer offer protection.Long after the Katz affair has faded from memory, tenure itself will continue to be controversial. This is because tenure is an anachronism in today’s labor market and is under pressure from both outside and within the academy. Outsiders can’t understand why they don’t have it in their own jobs, and insiders say that it’s unfair, or unjustly handled. The secretive process that governs many tenure decisions merely exacerbates the issue.

How the tenure game shortchanges students specifically is given insufficient attention. In 1988, Charles Sykes exposed this scandal in ProfScam. Prospective students are often drawn to colleges because of their esteemed faculty. Once there, however, they find that these scholars want nothing to do with them, a rational response to the fact that research is often given priority over teaching in tenure-and-promotion decisions. Instead, undergraduates are taught by graduate students and adjunct instructors. In 2004, only 17 percent of college teachers were “contingent.” Today, according to the AAUP, “non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for over 60 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education.”

To the extent that tenured faculty do teach, much depends on the type and size of the institution. Research universities, for example, have different teaching demands than do liberal arts colleges. Faculty working at, say, Harvard may have what is known as a 2-2 load, which requires a professor to teach two courses in the fall and two in the spring. Faculty at small private universities often teach a 4-4 load because the primary criterion for tenure is teaching excellence. To be clear, almost all faculty are on nine-month contracts, so their teaching loads refer to the fall and spring semesters only. Where summer classes are concerned, one’s chances of sitting under a tenured prof are even lower than they are during traditional terms.

Part-time instructors are a favorite of administrators because they save money, and of tenured professors because they spare them from teaching labor-intensive courses. It’s not unheard of for part-timers to teach the same course as a tenured professor for one-sixth of the pay. In California, such teachers are called “freeway fliers” because they flit from one college to another during the course of a day. Such instructors are not readily available for office hours in most cases because they have to hurry to their next teaching gig miles away.

As the Katz affair has demonstrated, even tenured professors are vulnerable for being out of step.Tenure is supposed to allow the free exchange of ideas in academe. That’s why the AAUP drafted its first tenure statement in 1915 and refined it in 1940. In reality, however, it does nothing of the sort. Contingent faculty are hired on a semester-by-semester basis and are frequently terminated (or “non-renewed”) on a department chairperson’s whim. New tenure-track faculty are afraid to voice anything that does not toe the prevailing line or that risks undermining their chances for job security. Finally, as the Katz affair has demonstrated, even tenured professors are vulnerable for being out of step. Tenure simply isn’t working for the American professoriate as it is currently constructed.

With tuition and other costs continuing to soar, it’s time to ask about the role that tenure plays in higher education. A usual culprit among would-be reformers is the proliferation of highly-paid administrators, whose numbers have grown at almost twice the rate of tenured or tenure-track professors. There’s no question about that. But what about the number of professors who are deadwood? Aren’t they also partly responsible? If a newly-tenured professor works at a university for 30 years with an average salary and benefits of, say, $100,000, then granting tenure is a $3 million commitment. Multiplying that amount by even a handful of non-productive professors quickly mounts up.

Students today incur huge debt to earn four-year degrees in the belief that such credentials will pay off in the job marketplace. What they often find, however, is that the time spent on campus is not what they imagined it would be. Tenure is based on research, and research acumen is no assurance of effective instruction. Lecturing, for example, persists despite its tendency to reduce students to passive stenographers. As Sykes wrote in 1988, “Tenure corrupts, enervates, and dulls high education.” Better to replace it with fixed-year renewable contracts, with greater emphasis on student evaluations. Like it or not, students are paying customers and deserve input.

Tenure is based on research, and research acumen is no assurance of effective instruction.Although the tenure process is often shrouded in mystery, one thing is clear: It is largely based on a school’s needs. Each institution or system sets its rules and controls its processes. Despite pressure to give more weight to teaching in awarding tenure, few instances of substantial change along that line have surfaced. It is therefore impossible to know if a documented record of sterling teaching will really matter to a given applicant. So much depends on the institution, and faculty are rational beings who will direct their efforts according to perceived incentives.

Perhaps consequently, some colleges are now breaking with the past in addressing tenure. In October 2021, for example, the Georgia Board of Regents approved a new policy that allows administrators in its public universities to remove a tenured professor with little or no faculty input. Whether demonstrably bad teaching might lead to such an outcome remains to be seen, but there is reason to hope.

In any case, tradition dies hard in academe. It’s far too soon to assume that other states will follow in Georgia’s footsteps. That’s a pity because so much is on the line. The best hope is that public colleges will follow suit, with private ones eventually falling in line when they see the benefits to all stakeholders. Colleges, of course, will survive the metamorphosis, but they may be unrecognizable to traditionalists. That’s a good thing.

Walt Gardner is a former lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. This article is the second in a two-part series on Princeton’s termination of tenured professor Joshua Katz. The first, by Richard K. Vedder, can be read here.