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All About the Tenure

Tenure is often attacked by critics who say it is holding US higher education back as deadweight faculty members bide their time until retirement, but at the Washington Post, Sol Gittleman, a former provost at Tufts University, argues that tenure is what made US universities strong.

He takes a historical view of universities in the US and of tenure. In Puritan America, he notes that professors at universities like Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Princeton had to toe the line of certain theological doctrines; then at the end of the 1800s as wealthy benefactors like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Mellon, Stanford, Hopkins and Cornel bankrolled universities, professors had to bend to these families' control; and in the 1950, a number of professors lost their jobs to he McCarthyism and the search for communists.

But, Gittleman says the McCarthy-era purge was an anomaly in tenure, which had been gaining ground since World War II. After the war, higher education in the US boomed, he notes, and tenure was one way to attract and keep faculty members. At the time, he says no one was thinking much about academic freedom, though that emerged as important — some professors are again facing pushback for their opinions, now often voiced online.

"What we have is messy and often ungovernable; American faculty really don't believe they work for anyone," Gittleman says. "But the intellectual freedom they have attained is the reason no other nation — not China, Germany, India or Brazil — can push us off the top of the mountain."