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Tracking Tenure in the ’90s
In this era of fiscal austerity, colleges and universities are taking the budgetary knife to virtually everything from library hours and dining hall access to athletic programs and health benefits. But one component of academic life has remained all but immune to cost-cutting: the institution of tenure, or the granting of lifetime employment to senior faculty members.
Based on the belief that qualified academics should be free from political reprisals and the vagaries of intellectual fashion, tenure has been an article of faith at American universities for more than a century. But now that economic pressures and downsizing throughout institutional America have eliminated any semblance of job security for most of the work force, even tenure is coming under scrutiny. The Chronicle of Higher Education regularly publishes pieces examining the merits and demerits of the system (a recent Chronicle cartoon showed a car whose rear bumper was embellished with a sticker reading, “Just say 'no' to tenure”), and in October the Wall Street Journal ran a special section on higher education that included an article whose headline nicely summed up the matter: “Tenure: Many Will Decry It, Few Deny It.”
At Yale, the number of people publicly decrying the practice remains remarkably low, and the University seems nowhere near ready to join the small number of institutions that deny it. However, senior faculty members say that informal discussions of the issue are increasingly common, and that the national debate has focused attention not only on the practice in general, but on Yale’s own version of it.
At the heart of the discussions over tenure lies the question whether it is fair for any segment of the population to enjoy a guaranteed job for life while everyone else lives with the pressure of regular evaluations and the fear of layoffs. A related question is whether, when the cost of higher education is steadily rising, educational institutions can long afford to offer the privileges that almost always accompany tenure, such as substantial salaries (an average of $80,000 at Yale), sabbaticals (every seven years), and minimal accountability. A new federal law prohibiting mandatory retirement on the basis of age has only strengthened the argument for a fundamental reexamination of the practice. As one senior Yale professor who was forced to retire at ’0, just before the ban went into effect, put it, “Now I’ll have to watch my idiot colleagues go on forever!”
“I loathe and despise tenure,” says Osborne Elliott, former dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers. “It institutionalizes mediocrity, brutalizes the junior faculty, and ties the hands of the administration.” Elliott, who retired from the Columbia administration in 1986 as a full professor with tenure, is also critical of the process by which tenure is granted, which he calls “unpredictable, arbitrary, and extremely political.” Tenure, he says flatly, “is a terrible institution that ought to be abolished.”
Another prominent individual who is concerned about the negative aspects of tenure is Connecticut’s commissioner of higher education, Andrew De Rocco. “When you consider that human capital is always the largest single cost a university faces, and that every tenure decision is a multi-million-dollar investment that can last 25 years or more, it’s legitimate to ask whether tenure still makes sense,” he says. “I personally am disinclined to say it ought to be preserved at all costs.”
The dialogue reached a new level last June, when Bennington College announced that in the face of rising costs and a shrinking student body, it was firing almost a third of its faculty, eliminating its version of tenure, and would cut tuition by 10 percent over the next five years. Although Bennington is a small school and has a reputation for going against the educational grain, its dramatic restructuring earned it a cover story in the New York Times Sunday magazine entitled “Reality Bites.” Bennington’s director of communications, Andrea Diehl, says the pressures her institution is facing are hardly atypical. “I don’t care if it’s Bennington or someplace else,” she says. “With what’s going on today, a situation where people are guaranteed a job for life is just not justifiable anymore.”
There is “a strong anti-tenure wind blowing through the halls of academe these days,” concedes Walter Metzger, a retired Columbia history professor and tenure expert who is a strong supporter of the existing system. “And if Bennington can get away with what they did, then you’re going to see this wind blowing much more strongly at other institutions.”
Tenure foes argue that the system encourages sloth, arrogance, and aloofness on the part of senior faculty, saddles schools with “dead wood” scholars who are no longer productive, and clogs departments trying to rejuvenate their faculties with energetic young scholars who are potential leaders in their fields. “In a place where growth and change is encouraged, does it make sense to have people who are there forever?” asks Frances Halsbrand, former dean of the Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture. “You have to question whether tenure offers an opportunity to develop creatively, or simply lifetime health insurance.”
Advocates of the tenure system counter such arguments with examples of research that might not have been undertaken were it not for a policy that guarantees continued employment over time. At Yale, retired psychology professor Irvin Child’s decade-long search for evidence of extra-sensory perception is often cited. “He didn’t find much, but I’m glad he looked, and I question whether he would have kept his job if he hadn’t had tenure,” says Peter Salovey, a tenured associate professor in the psychology department. Other frequently mentioned examples include John Boswell’s research into the history of homosexuality, which he began at a time when hostility toward homosexuality was widespread, and biology professor Alvin Novick’s community work with AIDS patients, which could have been challenged on the grounds that it was only marginally related to biology. Still others are psychology professor William McGuire’s unusual study of left- and right-handedness, and political science professor Edward Tufte’s research on the artful display of data on a computer screen, work that surely stretches the definition of political science.
“Tenure gives people the freedom to range over the full intellectual spectrum,” says John Goldin, director of Yale’s Office of Institutional Research. “Academic freedom is more than just a cliché,” adds Salovey. “Already, there are enormous constraints on what someone can choose as a research topic: What’s fundable? What’s publishable? Tenure says: Pursue your passions, and you’ll be safe, even if your work is unpopular, out of the mainstream, or fails to produce results over a short span of time.”
Yale College dean Richard Brodhead, who also serves as the Bird White Housom Professor of English, says that questioning the viability of tenure “is like asking whether parenthood has outlived its usefulness.” It is essential, he says, to “protect scholars from a balance-sheet type of thinking,” as well as “transitory swings in popularity.” He cites as an example the current curricular trend known as multiculturalism. “Without tenure, teachers of the Western canon could be laid off,” he argues. Similarly, he says, “If you take the Western tradition as an article of faith, might those who teach an alternative lose their jobs?”
Tenure’s promise of job security also serves the important function of enticing people to forego far more lucrative professions in the private sector in favor of a scholar’s life. “It is the backbone of higher education,” says John Hoy, director of the New England Board of Higher Education. “It is that anchor to windward which permits men and women to ply an academic career, even though they realize what the salary ceiling will be.”
Finally, defenders of tenure argue that the current sentiments against the system represent a short-sighted, anti-intellectual stance that ignores the subtleties of how a university operates. “Tenure is one of the best systems ever devised for quality control,” says Walter Metzger. What critics fail to understand, he argues, is that in an academic environment, the fear of job loss is superfluous. “Salary raises, the corner office, invitations to review work in scholarly journals, funding for sabbaticals-there are lots of different carrots and sticks besides the fear of losing your job,” he says. “And as a tenured professor, the penalties for non-effort can be enormous.” Moreover, the honor of receiving tenure serves as a safeguard against lethargy for many professors. “It’s a privilege to be given tenure,” says Salovey, “and implicit in that is a moral obligation to be as creative as possible.”
Much of the debate over tenure goes forward in ignorance of its sources, which date back to medieval Europe. At that time, according to Metzger, universities were run by consortiums of scholars, much as a group of partners governs a law firm today. When a new scholar was accepted into the group, the appointment was made for life. Tenure first surfaced in the United States at Harvard, in the late 19th century. It came about when administrators sought to upgrade their faculty beyond the covey of inexperienced tutors who were using the university as a way station between divinity school and the pulpit. In an effort to entice a distinguished mathematics professor and a divinity scholar to relocate from Europe to Massachusetts, Harvard offered both men positions for life, rather than for the customary term of three years.
From those simple beginnings, tenure has become a sacrosanct yet somewhat inscrutable privilege of academic life. Different universities administer it in different ways, and the exact methods by which tenure operates remain somewhat mysterious. In 1965, Yale’s provost, Charles H. Taylor Jr., attempted to explain the practice. “There are not official university documents defining the privileges of tenure,” he wrote. “Fundamentally, tenure guarantees a professor the intellectual freedom to pursue his own vision of the truth. Having tenure, a faculty member need not fear for his security if his views are not pleasing to his colleagues or the administration.”
President Kingman Brewster elaborated in 1972: “The policy of granting tenure must be made as though it were virtually a guarantee of appointment until retirement, not as though it were a privilege easily subject to qualification or revocation. Even in extreme circumstances, there is a deep reluctance to compromise the expectations of tenure. For both human and institutional reasons, it is the practice to ride it out even in cases where performance has fallen way below reasonable expectations.”
Most colleges and universities have what is known as a “tenure track,” which means that a junior professor who is on the track can assume that if he or she performs well for five years or so, tenure will automatically be granted. At Yale, where a “slot” system is used, no such assumptions apply. When a tenured position opens up, the widest possible net is cast to seek out the best candidate. That means junior faculty members who are interested in the job must compete not just with each other, but with every eligible scholar from anywhere in the world who also wants the position. Although the intent of this approach-to ensure that the best person is hired for every opening-is laudable, slotting only adds to the overall controversy surrounding tenure.
“There’s a real perception that no one from the junior faculty ever gets tenure at Yale, which can serve as a disincentive to get involved in the life of a community that most likely will reject you down the road,” says Richard Gerrig, a former junior professor in the Yale psychology department who is now a tenured professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Gerrig acknowledges that turnover among junior faculty allows the teaching staff to renew itself with young, motivated scholars, but he says that many junior faculty see Yale merely as a transitory experience.
As an example, Gerrig recalls an incident that he feels illustrates the revolving-door nature of junior faculty life at Yale. When he was a Yale undergraduate, he developed a close working relationship with a junior faculty member. Several years later, when he was offered a junior faculty post at Yale himself, he received a telephone call from his former teacher, who had moved on to another university. “Congratulations,” she said. “You just got my old job!”
Despite the commonly held belief that “nobody gets tenure at Yale,” Goldin says that, among the 340 tenured members of the faculty of arts and sciences in the 1993-94 academic year, 62 percent got there via internal promotions, and 22 percent of assistant professors appointed in 1981, 1982, and 1983 received tenured appointments. “There’s a real gap between perception and reality,” he says. “In the past it may have been true that it was nearly impossible to get promoted from within, but it’s gotten much better.”
Brodhead also refutes the claim that junior faculty are reluctant to invest in the life of the University, and says that although they may not be able to count on tenure, they enjoy many other advantages including “excellent students, generous leave policies, stimulating colleagues, and a good track record for landing jobs elsewhere.” Still, Yale’s practice of deferring tenure decisions for up to ten years (rather than five, as most other institutions do) continues to draw the ire of many junior faculty. “It’s somewhat exploitive,” says Charles Brown, another former junior faculty member, who is now an associate biology professor at the University of Tulsa. “I don’t know if that’s a conscious strategy, but it ends up that way because of the pressures to achieve tenure. There’s a real tendency to hang on, figuring, 'Maybe if I just produce a few more publications, it might make the difference.' ”
The specifics of granting tenure to any particular candidate are always confidential, but the overall process is fairly consistent. To be awarded the privilege at Yale, a candidate must first survive two rounds of letters submitted by distinguished scholars in his or her field. Several more hurdles, including a vote by the tenured faculty, the Tenured Appointments Committee, and the Yale Corporation, must then be cleared before tenure is granted. Although some say it is a political process that can hinge more on whom you know than what you know, others stress that Yale has incorporated checks and balances to make the system as apolitical as possible.
Emily Nelson '95, a former editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News, says there is a feeling among undergraduates that the process puts too much emphasis on research and not enough on teaching. (A recent News editorial lamenting the loss of two popular professors was entitled,”Yale Must Rework Tenure Selection.”) “Teaching is what we’re most affected by,” Nelson says. “If a professor publishes a book, that’s great, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a good lecturer.” However, she says that the other commonly held criticism of tenure-that it begets inaccessible superstars who rarely teach and are forever on leave-is not a significant problem at Yale. This, says Brodhead, is because teaching loads are monitored by the department heads. “The amount of teaching varies from department to department,” he says, “but in general, it’s not much different from the teaching load of the junior faculty. There used to be a significant difference, but it’s been equalized.”
Although the rumblings of discontent over tenure appear to be growing louder beyond Yale’s precincts than within them, even detractors of the system agree that the basic tenet on which it was founded-the preservation of academic freedom-should not be sacrificed. Therefore, suggestions for what to “do” about tenure tend to be cautious and freighted with safeguards. One of the more popular recommendations calls for replacing tenure with long-term contracts providing for periodic reviews after five or ten years. But President Brewster addressed that issue two decades ago when he wrote, “I have not been able to devise, nor have I heard of, any regime of periodic review with the sanction of dismissal which would not have disastrous effect. It would both dampen the willingness to take long-term intellectual risk and inhibit, if not corrupt, the free and spirited exchanges upon which the vitality of a community of scholars depends.”
At Yale, another frequently mentioned proposal is the implementation of more of a “farm system,” so that a larger number of junior faculty members can look forward to being promoted from within.
Across the country, colleges and universities have recently had to contend with two new factors in the tenure equation. The first is how to deal with the new ban on mandatory retirement, which theoretically allows tenured professors to teach indefinitely, despite what may be declining skills and energy, and regardless of the blockage they may create for younger-and less expensive-scholars. (The rule of thumb at Yale is that a tenured position costs the University twice what a junior faculty slot does.) The second is the increasing tendency of candidates for tenured positions at some institutions to claim discrimination and sue should the privilege be denied.
Some universities are responding to those concerns by circumventing the tenure question altogether. Through such means as extending the probationary period for junior faculty and increasing the use of visiting lecturers, part-time instructors, and clinical professors (techniques that John Goldin says Yale has not made significant use of), they are simply awarding tenure to fewer professors. But while these measures may help hold down the high costs associated with tenure, critics say they threaten to undermine one of the fundamental features of academic life. Rather than risk the outcry a formal reevaluation of tenure would surely generate, these institutions are opting for steps that may serve gradually to erode the practice. The way things are headed, it may well be that tenure in the future will still be regarded as an essential element of higher education, but will become an even more coveted—and elusive—prize than it already is.
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