From the August 2003 issue

Tenure: Thanks but no thanks

An astronomer offers his views on tenure.
By | Published: August 5, 2003 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
David Helfand
What do Queen Elizabeth, Fidel Castro, Clarence Thomas, and Pope John Paul have in common? Lifetime jobs, regardless of their current contributions or future plans, with no provision for performance reviews or mandatory retirement.

Just like tenured university professors.

If the Queen has an “annus horribilis,” as she described 1994, with its scandals in her royal family, she feels no need to step down. If the Cuban economy collapses along with the Berlin Wall, no objective analysis of his leadership will induce a contrite resignation from President Castro. If Justice Thomas sits on the Supreme Court for 40 years and never writes more than one opinion per term, he cannot be impeached for laziness. And we all know that the Pope is infallible — just like tenured university professors.

Tenure. A job for life. Ever-escalating salaries. Freedom to express one’s opinions inside and outside the classroom. Sound ideal? Not to me.

My father worked in the same factory for 47 years, so the concept of lifetime employment with one institution was not foreign to me when I went off to college. I assumed, however, that his longevity with the company had something to do with the fact that he had missed only 12 days in his nearly half-century of employment, and that he worked hard at the job every day. I lasted about six weeks in that place one hot summer trying to keep up with him.

That same summer, I learned a very different lesson about job security. Along with several dozen other college students home on vacation, I landed a 10-week position working for the Massachusetts State Highway Department, painting the posts on roadside guardrails. Trucks loaded with 18 students, orange cones, and buckets of paint left the garage every morning, each under the supervision of two state employees.

There followed a numbing sequence of rest breaks, coffee breaks, and lunch breaks, all of which led to an average productivity of three newly painted posts per person per day. One sunny morning, one of my colleagues and I decided to see how many posts we could paint if we really worked at it. The answer was 48 per person per hour. We were nearly fired.

I spent the following summer doing astronomical research. This closer contact with faculty members, and my subsequent enrollment in graduate school, gradually acquainted me with the culture of the academy and, in particular, the notion of academic tenure. My first astronomy teacher at Amherst College didn’t have tenure (I realized later), and was subsequently fired for being a mediocre teacher (although he was responsible for at least one professional astronomer’s choice of careers). Such judgments were consistent with how I thought the world worked — a continuing review of performance led to decisions about reappointment.

In graduate school, I discovered otherwise. I found two classes of faculty members: one that enjoyed immunity from sanctions for virtually any level of performance or behavior, and a second for which “academic freedom” meant anything but freedom. This second, untenured group had to sacrifice teaching to research productivity, and had to follow paths of inquiry and behavior carefully designed not to offend or irritate those with absolute power over their fate. It did not take me long to decide that I did not wish to become a part of such a system.

Within five years of my arrival at Columbia University, I was forced to confront my feelings directly. I was informed one day by a senior faculty member that the physics department had voted to nominate me for a tenured position. I replied that I was honored by their appraisal of my work, but that — while I was perfectly happy to remain at Columbia for some years — I could not accept a tenured post, as I found the institution of tenure both philosophically unacceptable and practically inimical to the aims of a university. My bemused senior colleague gave me the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head, and assured me that the wheels of the process would continue grinding toward my appointment.

There followed a curious, 18-month period in which I struggled, with an uncomprehending and irritable administration, to refuse tenure. The provost at the time, an eminent historian, explained to me that tenure conferred obligations only on the university, not on the individual. (One wonders if he had ever been an assistant professor.)

“You cannot,” he argued by analogy, “renounce your rights as a citizen under the Constitution.”

I replied: “But I can renounce my citizenship.”

The reaction of colleagues to my stand ranged from support to disdain, from agreement that the system demanded change to nearly hysterical attempts to defend it. The most common refrain was that if I wanted to change the system, the best way to do it was to join the ranks of the anointed and then attack from within. This seemed to me neither a principled nor a practical approach. How many young academics would join a campaign to change the system led by someone who basked in its protection?

The situation was resolved in 1983 through the thoughtfulness of two new members of the Columbia administration. The new provost, Bob Goldberger, had been away from academe for some years, working at the National Institutes of Health, and saw much merit in my stand. Professor Donald Hood, the new vice-president of arts and sciences, disagreed with my position but respected it. Together, we drafted a contract that reconciled our mutual desire that I remain at Columbia with my commitment to a system of fixed-term contracts, with merit reviews required for reappointment.

This document, signed by the provost, acknowledged my desire not to exercise the rights of an appointment “without term.” It appointed me an associate professor of physics for five years and stipulated that in the third year, the provost would appoint a faculty committee to review my contributions to teaching, scholarship, and community service and recommend whether or not my contract should be renewed for another five years. This agreement has structured my career ever since; my third such review will take place this January.

The arrangement hardly seems radical. Few people in our society are guaranteed a job for five years, and professors should count themselves lucky to enjoy such a luxury. A serious review of their productivity in all areas is precisely what we advertise that our assistant professors will receive before they are promoted to associate professor. Why, if it is useful for a 35-year-old, untenured professor to summarize his or her accomplishments and future plans and submit them to review by peers, is it anathema for a faculty member past the magic eighth year of service to do the same? Why is it never appropriate to end the tenure of someone over the age of 40?

The current system of academic tenure does little to protect the academic freedom of those who have it, beyond the protection already available in the First Amendment to the Constitution and in our shared ethos as a community of scholars. And it does much to suppress that freedom for those who don’t have it. The process helps select from the most-able young people in our society those with a desire for the security of lifetime employment, rather than those less averse to risks, who might be better suited to pioneering work on the frontier of knowledge and to inspirational teaching of the young. A tenured faculty can restrict the flow of ideas and intellectual debate, leaving departments frozen in time, which serves neither knowledge nor society well.

The end of mandatory retirement has exacerbated the problems that tenure creates. I always have been strongly in favor of ending the arbitrary termination of careers at 65 or 70 or any other age; an individual’s contributions, not number of birthdays, should determine whether he or she remains at a university.

The National Research Council’s 1991 report “Ending Mandatory Retirement for Tenured Faculty” states that some administrators and faculty members “expressed considerable fear that faculty working into their eighth decade could suffer declines in performance that would lower the quality of some colleges and universities and the overall quality of higher education.” This may be a valid concern, but the aging process is not so finely tuned that it turns all people from energetic and productive faculty members to vegetables after they turn 70.

Another comment in the council’s report was equally revealing: “Some faculty and administrators have raised the question of whether colleges and universities can accurately measure the performance of tenured faculty members.” One can draw only two logical conclusions from this statement. The first is that faculty members, upon receiving tenure, are immediately enshrouded in a cloak that prevents even the most penetrating evaluation by their peers from revealing anything about their performance. The second is that accurate review of faculty members is impossible at any level, and thus the tenure-review process is a sham.

While the latter hypothesis may hold true in some cases, it is apparent to me that neither conclusion is valid generally. Performance is, indeed, subject to rational evaluation, despite the shallow, relativist thinking prevalent in some quarters, which regards any judgment of quality or worth as an unwarranted expression of control by the powerful.

What has my anomalous status meant for my life as an academic? The effects have, for the most part, been salutary. Although I have served on a number of ad hoc tenure-review committees at Columbia (which I am willing to do because I believe that review and evaluation are possible and essential to institutions’ health), I have been spared many similar assignments, because some department heads recoil in horror at the thought of their candidates’ being reviewed by an opponent of tenure. Likewise, various nominations for administrative positions at other institutions have foundered on the shoals of my unorthodox views, saving me from the purgatory of being an administrator longing for the classroom and laboratory — although I have headed the department of astronomy at Columbia since 1986.

Further, my status as a contract employee has allowed me to negotiate research leaves independent of the rules of the sabbatical system — permitting, for example, an extremely productive and enjoyable 18-month stay at Cambridge University during my current five-year contract.

Perhaps most important, I have been able to demonstrate that academic freedom does not vanish without the cloak of tenure, that performance reviews are not inimical to one’s professional health, and that a university can survive and flourish despite continuing to employ an untenured faculty member with 18 years of service.

I close with a modest proposal. Let’s extend my experiment. Let’s provide two options for a young faculty member in his or her seventh year of teaching. If the institution desires to retain the person’s services, let it offer a choice between a 25- or 30-year contract “for life” and a five-year contract, renewable if performance warrants it.

In the first case, the university’s contributions to the professor’s pension would be pegged to allow retirement at virtually 100 per cent of salary at the end of the contract, but raises would be based strictly on the cost-of-living index — no raises for merit or for moving to another step or rank would be allowed, because there would be no performance reviews to assess merit or decide on promotions. This option would include four sabbatical leaves.

In the second case, the terms of the five-year contract, including salary and leaves, would be negotiated after each performance review. Such a system would clarify the true value of tenure, both to individual faculty members and to universities: Professors could choose between the chance of higher salaries or the certainty of long-term employment, and institutions could distribute their resources to enhance both quality and flexibility.

I am willing to take bets, at favorable odds, as to which system would win in the end.

Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on December 15, 1995. Reprinted with permission.