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.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe