The decline and future of tenure

| Staff Columnist

Since 1975, according to the American Association of University Professors, there has been a continuous decline in the number of tenure and tenure-track positions at college and universities throughout the United States. In 1997-2007, the number of tenure and tenure-track positions declined from one-third to one-fourth of all faculty. At first glance, this appears to be disconcerting. But the decline of tenure-track positions is, in fact, a largely positive force.

By reducing the number of professors who have tenure, a university can ensure higher-quality faculty. Once professors achieve tenure, typically done over a period of about seven years, they are no longer held as accountable for the work they do, nor are they held to the same standards and expectations. Because their jobs are no longer at stake, much of their incentive to work, publish and teach effectively disappears.

This removal of incentives, when coupled with the process that professors go through to get tenured in the first place, has detrimental consequences for overall academic quality. While attempting to attain tenure over their first seven years, professors face an unfortunate emphasis on published work, especially in the number of articles that they produce.

This leads to two unfortunate circumstances. The first has been referred to as “publish or perish,” in which academics are pushed into publishing numerous new works in order to sustain their careers. This raises the likelihood that new work will be of decreasing scholarly value, as the priority of publishing begins to trump the inherent value of the work itself. A closely related problem has been referred to humorously as the “least publishable unit.” This phenomenon involves an academic minimizing the amount of new information in each publication in order to spread his or her work into as many releases as possible and to increase both the volume of his or her published work and reputation—often deemed an academic’s most-cherished possession.

Of course, these are extremes. Most professors genuinely love their disciplines and teaching, and actually resorting to these methods is likely the exception, rather than the rule. But inherent defects remain in the system. In order to gain tenure, academics are often encouraged to publish the highest volume of information, sometimes disregarding the quality of the work; after gaining tenure, their motivation to work is removed because of guaranteed jobs and salaries.

Clearly, American universities need an alternative to the current tenure system. One option would be to offer tenure in seven-year cycles. In such a system, after faculty members earn tenure, they are guaranteed a job for seven years. After that time period is up, they are subject to some sort of review. If they pass the review, they gain tenure for another seven years; if they fail, they are dismissed. This system would ensure that the faculty would continue to work after receiving tenure, while simultaneously having a temporarily assured job.

A seven-year cycle, however, would not solve the “publish or perish” attitude and the problems it presents. In order to resolve these issues, universities must reform the method by which tenure is obtained. Instead of focusing primarily on the volume of published work, universities should focus more heavily on the quality of their professors’ work and, more importantly, the quality of their teaching. By concentrating on these issues, there is more of a guarantee that tenured professors are competent, excellent teachers who provide their fields with meaningful contributions.

Because of the tenure system’s adoption during the Vietnam War era, professors’ livelihoods are no longer ruled by the watchful eyes of their universities’ administrators. But their jobs are now governed by the framework of an unfair system that requires or encourages them to value quantity over quality and provides them with opportunities to shirk responsibilities after receiving tenure. In order for our professors to truly fulfill the promise of academia, it is clear that tenure as we know it needs to change.

  • Your hope of students staying local is utopian, and something that I and many other students could never live with. St Louis is a fine place to spend a few years while pursuing a degree, but beyond that, I think you’ll find a good number of us have no interest in staying. More to the point, I’m confused why a private university that recruits from around the country and in others should encourage such a practice. It does nothing to strengthen the alumni network, to ensure job choice, or really anything other than oversaturate the St Louis job market with WashU grads.

    As for giving back to the community, WashU already gives a great more than it takes in terms of the employment it creates, the student business it drives to local companies, and the money it invests in community improvements (some of which are self-interested but still have communal utility, which is exactly the sort we should aim for if community service is our concern). The idea that above all of that the school or its students have an obligation to give anything “back” to the city strikes me as outrageous.

    Lastly, I was unaware of the weight presently extended to community service in tenure decisions. But I should think if we’re reformulating the system that it is an inconsequential point. I would suggest that if we keep it, only that which immediately benefits the university be counted. So your faculty fellow mention and the like would be perfectly appropriate, whereas organizing a destructive union (as all unions are) is not, nor is working in a soup kitchen ( which professors may do in their free time, but the university should not care about it).

  • Community service already is a criterion for tenure, along with research and teaching. What ought to be considered community service, for promotion and tenure? Serving as an Assistant Dean or General Administrator or Faculty Fellow for a while? Organizing a labor union or independent cooperative that may not be in the best interests of Washington University in St Louis (the business), narrowly conceived? Working as a volunteer in a soup kitchen or teaching English as a second language? All of the above?

    If we adopt the seven year tenure system, how long should it take to earn the first term? How about three years? The University could still employ temporary Lecturers, up to three years, as well as Adjuncts from other schools. Some of us actually enjoy teaching at more than one school, to broaden our experience. Too bad it does not pay. Let’s change this.

    Please support a clear and legally binding distinction between service courses, which may be freely assigned to other faculty, and signature courses, which may not. I am glad the University has, so far, respected my concerns about this, after an initial failure to do so.

  • Is it utopian to suggest that Washington University in St Louis should educate and graduate citizens of St Louis, who will commit themselves to staying here, at least for a time, and giving back something to the community after which our University takes its subtitle?

    I am glad this University is increasingly committed to community service, as an important part of its mission, and, of course, its brand name.

  • I have some issues with Jerome Bauer’s proposals. They are:

    1) Whatever the merits of community service, the function of a university, especially a private one, is not to finance at considerable cost (given the salaries tenured professors make) extended periods of “charitable service.” For that matter, if associated with a generous salary hardly, such acts hardly qualify as charity.

    2) Why should there be professorial choice in cycles? Professors are employees, and are necessarily subordinate to the institutions that pay their salaries. What they do should reflect what the hiring institution needs, not what they dreamed up doing while powering through their PhD research.

    3) I fail to see how hiring lower cost labor is in any way a form of exploitation or something worthy of condemnation. Webster, as with any university, needs to do what serves its overall interests, which requires the sensible allocation of finite resources. In practice, this may sometimes mean hiring lecturers, some of whom are comparable in quality to tenured faculty, but whose lower cost allows for additional hirings or quality of service improvements, thereby generating a greater overall utility.

    4) Excessively lax cross-enrollment standards reduce the value of a given institution to current and potential students. True, much of what renders any giving university especially valuable is the reputation it enjoys and the doors it opens after graduation. This helps to justify in certain cases the inflated tuition of elite schools. But, presumably some of the higher cost is associated with their academic offerings and faculty rosters, which one would hope are greatly superior to their cheaper, less elite peers. By indiscriminately opening their doors to students from neighboring schools then, a university lowers the value of its degree, and removes a major selling point used to generate high yield rates.

    5) The idea of carrying one course between schools depends on context and the terms of contract. It is not, nor should it be, a right. Rather, it should be something negotiated in advance of teaching it initially, during the contract phase. Schools have a strong incentive to keep unique courses for many reasons, ranging from a draw/popularity consideration, to the fact that a given department may have invested substantial energies reworking said course, such that calling it the creation of the instructor is misleading.

  • PS. to my posts above: My ideal career path would be three seven year periods, one each devoted to teaching, community service, and publication of research, in that order. in three fairly distinct phases, potentially culminating in full tenure. Others may choose to complete three phases of teaching, or two of publication and one of teaching, or any combination.

    Why not have the best of both worlds? If anyone can earn tenure three times, for three different types of work, why not give them the Triple Crown of permanent tenure? After twenty-one years, who cares if they slow down a little? Why not keep them around to transmit institutional culture to new generations?

  • “If I write this, they will surely delete my courses from their online catalog and downgrade my rank.” What more can the Powers That Be do to me, that they haven’t already done? Every act of retaliation only serves to strengthen our case for reform.

    Lecturer Dr. Jerome Bauer
    –formerly “Adjunct Assistant Professor” at Webster University, without benefits but with an Independent Study option for my students
    –currently part time adjunct instructor, Webster University, with no courses currently listed but the one I am now teaching, the Freshman Seminar on “Cooperation, Sustainability, and Spirituality”
    –STILL dwelling in the WashU Company Town

  • The “tenure for seven years’ idea has merit, and is worth more discussion. This might work if we had tenure for: 1) teaching (either college or graduate, according to OUR choice of emphasis), 2) community service, or 3) publication of research, in any order of OUR preference. We could teach for seven years, publish for another seven, and do community service for another seven. I would be very happy with that! Why not give faculty who do not earn tenure for one track the option of pursuing another for seven years?

    Let us have a union and/or cooperative for local adjuncts, to provide health care benefits and a better bargaining position. Some institutions, such as Webster, make extensive and exploitative use of cheap contract adjunct lecturer labor. Even so, they pretend to treat us as equals, even going so far as to redwash their oppressive labor policy by hyping their Human Rights major as their flagship program. The director of that program is an Adjunct Professor. Without real job security, can anyone take the risks necessary to ensure the success of the program?

    Let’s have accreditation reform and cross-enrollment too. We should be free to take our show on the road, without fear of harassment by our University’s bureaucrats and private police force.

    Here and everywhere, we must replace a system which punishes hard work and initiative. Let’s hear YOUR proposals for reform, and compare notes.

    Jerome Bauer
    –Lecturer on the WashU payroll for eight years, still working here without pay or benefits and on the payroll of four other local schools (with low pay and no benefits)