From the August 2003 issue

The controversy over tenure

The practice of tenure in academia has both pros and cons.
By | Published: August 5, 2003 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
David Helfand
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that “tenuous” comes just before “tenure” in the dictionary — in recent years, the practice of granting faculty members what usually amounts to lifetime job security has come under fire. Initially intended to ensure scholars would have the freedom to pursue research or espouse ideas that may be unpopular or heretical, tenure has been criticized for doing the opposite. In the October issue of Astronomy, profile subject David Helfand, chairman (sans tenure) of the astronomy department at Columbia University, says the practice “takes away the impetus for inspired teaching [and] chooses and protects risk-averse people.” Others charge that tenure ties administrators’ hands, making it difficult to reorganize resources when certain departments experience a dramatic loss or rise in students.

And while tenure has many vocal supporters, statistics show the practice may indeed be growing more tenuous. According to the website of the American Association of University Professors, non-tenure-track faculty (visiting and adjunct professors) made up just three percent of all faculty in 1969. Today, tenured and tenure-track faculty are the minority, making up just 40 percent of the total.

These numbers reflect policy changes at many universities and colleges. Two-thirds of post-secondary institutions had tenure systems in 1998. But according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 63 percent of those had taken at least one tenure-related action in the previous five years, whether it was offering early retirement to tenured faculty, making tenure more difficult to attain, or eliminating tenured positions on the basis of funding.

Outside the Ivory Tower, most people appear to support tenure’s goals while disliking the practice itself. A recent telephone poll conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that just over half of the respondents thought that tenure protected academic freedom, while two-thirds felt that professors should not be given “jobs for life.” Interestingly, those with higher incomes opposed tenure the most.

Collected here are a few resources to peruse to learn more about the embattled tenure system, including an article by Helfand describing why he disagrees with the practice.

The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s colloquy on tenure, with links to readers’ responses
American Association of University Professors’ tenure page with links
The National Education Association’s tenure page
National Center for Education Statistics’ tenure paper
The American Association for Higher Education’s New Pathways project to assess tenure and related issues
An American Association for Higher Education article about institutions without tenure