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The Tenure Question


It is a status to which academics everywhere aspire. Tenure: the very word connotes safety, security, and a sense that you have made it in academia. But is the system really all it is cracked up to be, or is it lumbering into the world of 21st century academia like a dinosaur that hasn't heard it is supposed to be extinct? The system has always had its detractors, but in recent months, those voices have become louder: there have been calls to abolish tenure outright and universities are considering weakening their tenure-track systems. Some younger researchers are even eschewing tenured positions altogether as they tend to pursue collaborative and interdisciplinary work that the current tenure system doesn't particularly encourage.

Gordon Gee, president of the Ohio State University, recently said that he thinks the tenure system should change to recognize researchers' quality of work, rather than just the quantity of the work they do, and that teaching should count more than it traditionally has. The board of the University of Louisiana is also considering a measure that would make it easier for the school to fire tenured faculty.

Some have complained that the system instills complacency in tenured faculty. Others say the system is financially unsustainable and is responsible — in part — for the climbing costs of secondary education. Yet others say that young professors looking to get tenure often neglect their teaching duties to focus more on the research required to achieve that goal.

But not everyone is convinced the system is broken. For as many calls as there are to fix or demolish the system, there are just as many — if not more — proponents who say the system is integral to academic freedom, that there are already measures in place to prevent abuse of the system, and that tenure is a way to ensure that universities can capitalize on the investment they make when they hire a new professor.

The pros

Apryll Stalcup, a professor of chemistry at the University of Cincinnati, says it is a "terrible" idea to get rid of the tenure system. "I do think that in some ways we may have forgotten what the whole point of tenure is," she says. "At some point in time, society decided it was a good idea to put very bright people into incubators where they could be creative and develop new knowledge, and like an incubator, [tenure is] a fairly safe place to do that." While the balance between teaching and research can be a hard one to strike, it is doable, she says. It may be as simple as dedicating separate days to teaching and research.

It is not just professors who benefit from tenure, Stalcup adds. It costs a lot of money for a university to hire professors and then groom them in a given department. "The university has a huge, huge investment in faculty and while not everyone is cut out for academic life, we don't want to lose effective faculty for stupid reasons," she says.

Different faculty members are at different stages of productivity depending on where they are in their careers, but that might not mean that older faculty members no longer have anything to contribute to their department. "No one is disposable," Stalcup says. "For instance, in a research-intensive institution, senior faculty members can play a very important supporting role in the department by increasing their teaching load, mentoring, and taking up some of the administrative functions that free up the younger generation in the active stages of their research. And the institutional knowledge that they possess is incredibly valuable to the department and the institution."


The cons

Harvard Graduate School of Education's Cathy Trower says that tenure has served a "wonderful historical purpose" to protect academic freedom and provide faculty members with an incentive to stay loyal to their university. But, she adds, the system is seen as "anachronistic" by many and does not fit with the kind of science that younger researchers want to do. "This generation of faculty is ambivalent about tenure," she says. "Some want it, some don't. Others want it for the wrong reason — that it's the only game in town and they've been socialized to it."

Tenure requirements, Trower adds, interfere with interdisciplinary work and do not encourage collaboration in the lab. "Tenure requirements as we know them have been pretty focused on single-discipline, solo authorship, and not a sharing of information," she says, "and I think science breakthroughs happen when we work together and we cross discipline lines. That's probably my biggest beef with tenure in this day and age."

In addition, tenure is not necessary to provide academic freedom, she says. The same goal can be achieved with contracts for an employment period of a predetermined length. At the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm, for example, researchers are offered an initial contract of six years, with several options to extend the employment following a performance review at the end of the initial six-year period.

Tenure was supposed to provide not only academic freedom but economic freedom as well, Trower says — "enough economic security that we could continue to attract men and women of ability to [academia], so if they had tenure, at least they had job security." But now, tenure has become a refuge for some weak faculty members. "You have an entrenched faculty whose salaries you can't lower, you can't ask them to do more work, and you can't fire them," she says. While other tenured faculty members always claim to despise the "deadwood" in their departments, Trower says, more often than not, they tolerate the fallow faculty because it is easier.

While there are post-tenure reviews in place to assess the jobs tenured professors are doing, that system "doesn't have any teeth," Trower says. "The faculty do the minimum they have to do to get through their post-tenure review and nothing ever happens to them."

Many, then, are looking to revamp the tenure system.

The compromise

Leaving the system in place may not be the best option, but most people agree that it does not have to be dismantled altogether. Stalcup says post-tenure reviews need to be strengthened and that departments should start doing more of them.

"If you're really going to have post-tenure review, you have to have teeth in it — you have to let people go, otherwise it's just more work and it's just not achieving its objective," Trower adds. Such a measure, while keeping tenured faculty from becoming complacent, would eliminate one of the basic tenets of tenure — job security.

In addition, Trower says that there are a whole host of changes that can be made to the tenure system to modernize it. To help older researchers retire without losing all their benefits, Trower points to some universities that have instituted "phased retirements" for their faculty — allowing older faculty members to give up their tenure, work part-time at their jobs, and retain their benefits for a period of time.

Most importantly, Trower says, opening a path to tenure through interdisciplinary research is key to the future of science and technology in academia. If universities are not encouraging the kind of research that younger scientists want to do, she says, they could see the system erode and grow weak. "I'm advocating that if we're going to keep tenure, we need to change it," she says. "I would hesitate to abolish it altogether."