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Walking the tenure tightrope

Attacks on the historical protections for academics have professors thinking about the value of the institution

by Andrea Widener
September 19, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 37

When Brandon Ruotolo started looking for academic jobs, he knew one thing for certain: He wanted a tenure-track position. Ruotolo spent five years as a postdoc in England, which does not offer tenure. So he knew he wanted the job protections and academic freedom that tenure offers.

But he also knew about the downside. The chemist had heard the tenure horror stories of seemingly competent colleagues who got turned down after long, behind-closed-door deliberations.

Ruotolo got tenure at the University of Michigan in 2015, and “it was at once both extremely cathartic and gratifying but also anticlimactic,” he remembers. Getting tenure signals “you’ve achieved this level of excellence in your field. That means a lot.” But it also takes years of hard work—and lots of paperwork—to get tenure.

Illustration of academic professors walking the tightrope.
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock

In brief

For many professors, the job security and academic freedom provided by the tenure system are the very essence of what it means to work in academia. Here, we assess the tenure system and find that, despite challenges, chemists who work under such systems are generally satisfied (see page 29). Then we explore life after tenure denial (see page 32). Finally, we look at a handful of young universities that don’t use a tenure system at all (see page 34).

Like Ruotolo, many people consider tenure a cornerstone of academia, but it has been under stress from many sides in recent years. Political attacks have weakened tenure in some states. Difficult economic times have resulted in many schools hiring more non-tenure-track faculty in what many see as a direct assault on tenure.

The attacks have “made people anxious that there is imposition of political considerations into processes that we think should mostly be based on academic and professional matters,” says Judith Burstyn, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Wisconsin has experienced some of the most direct attacks on tenure in the U.S., and Burstyn has worked directly to help minimize the damage.

Despite the attacks, the chemistry professors C&EN talked to for this story still value tenure and think it is an important part of maintaining high standards in academia. And the academic marketplace seems to agree. Only a handful of relatively young institutions do not offer tenure (see page 34). And even people who were denied tenure believe it is an important institution (see page 32).

Understanding tenure

When most people think about tenure, their first thought is about the job security it offers university professors across the U. S.

Credit: Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography
Brandon Ruotolo got tenure at the University of Michigan in 2015.
Photo of Brandon Ruotolo in front of a bookshelf.
Credit: Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography
Brandon Ruotolo got tenure at the University of Michigan in 2015.

But tenure doesn’t mean that academics automatically have a job for life no matter what they do, explains Hans-Joerg Tiede at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which advocates for faculty. “What tenure provides is that the burden of proof has to be on the administration to demonstrate why” someone should be fired.

Besides helping the individual, this long-term commitment also assures a university has a stable cadre of professors who develop a department’s curriculum and train its students, observers say.

“If faculty turned over at a moment’s notice, you’d never be able to develop research programs of any durability. How would you deal with graduate students?” asks David Petering, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

The other branch of tenure, academic freedom, is sometimes an afterthought for scientists, who may not be working on politically sensitive problems. But the protections go beyond politics.

Tenure “is why people go into academia, so that you have freedom to pursue those research areas that excite you,” Burstyn explains.

Some scientists have found that freedom essential for exploring a new research direction. Neuroscientist Diane O’Dowd at the University of California, Irvine, is nationally known for her education research.

Without tenure, O’Dowd says, she likely wouldn’t have made the move beyond neuroscience. Some of her colleagues disagreed when she said that her education work—complete with extensive data collection and analysis—was actually research. “Not everybody felt that should count,” she remembers.

Academic freedom also allows faculty members to speak their minds, both among their research colleagues and within the university. Rebecca Roesner, chair of the chemistry department at Illinois Wesleyan University, says she feels free to stand in opposition to her university’s administration on behalf of colleagues or students. “You can do what’s right without being afraid,” she says.

That is especially important given that most universities are run on the concept of shared governance, where faculty are responsible for upholding the academic integrity of the university. That means such controversial decisions as hiring and firing colleagues, deciding what curriculum is best, and determining how students should be trained fall to the faculty.

“What makes a university special is that all of the judgments are made by experts in the field,” explains Alan Mabe of the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU).

The most valuable aspect of tenure for universities might be that it would be almost impossible to hire top scientists without it. That’s especially true in chemistry, where top recruits could also choose a career in industry. “It is a competitive expectation in the marketplace of very high value faculty,” Burstyn says. Absent tenure, “universities like my own would not be able to compete for the best people.”

To get these benefits, though, young professors have to go through an often-intimidating vetting process.

Getting tenure

The tenure process varies from university to university, depending on that particular school’s culture and requirements. But in general, new professors seeking tenure are given five to seven years to demonstrate excellence in three areas: research, teaching, and service.

Credit: Flynn Nyman
May Nyman got tenure at Oregon State University in 2016.
Photo of May Nyman in front of trees.
Credit: Flynn Nyman
May Nyman got tenure at Oregon State University in 2016.

Many universities are trying to make the process of getting tenure less opaque by, for example, providing clear guidelines and more mentoring so the final go or no-go tenure decision is not a surprise.

Such openness drew Ruotolo to the University of Michigan, where he asked a lot of questions about the school’s tenure process before taking the job. “What struck me in those conversations was just how transparent the Michigan version of that process was,” he remembers. “They didn’t want to set me afloat.”

When Gojko Lalic joined the chemistry department at the University of Washington in 2008, he knew up front that his research was going to be the most important determinant of whether he got tenure. But no specific criteria were laid out, such as where he needed to publish or how many grants he had to have.

“My feeling is that everybody likes the flexibility of it,” he says. “They just look at you as a whole, and you just have to make sure that whole is good.”

Research was also the clear priority in tenure for May Nyman, who joined Oregon State University in 2012 after 14 years at Sandia National Laboratories. “I always want to publish quality papers, get funding, and do exciting work no matter where I am. I wasn’t really considering the tenure process,” she says.

Beyond research, Lalic and Nyman both say teaching wasn’t a huge part of their tenure package. That wasn’t true for Ruotolo: Teaching is 40% of the tenure criteria at Michigan. Right after he arrived, someone in his department was denied tenure at least in part because of bad teaching. “I think that was a wake-up call for a lot of people in my position,” he says.

Ruotolo became nervous because he hadn’t done much teaching before. “I wanted some help, and fortunately there was a lot of help,” he says, including a two-week boot camp for incoming faculty. “I walked into the classroom with tools.”

O’Dowd says she has seen a shift in the past five to 10 years to look beyond just student evaluations to examine someone’s teaching. UC Irvine now requires more evidence of good teaching, such as a teaching statement, syllabus, or evaluation by a fellow faculty member.

“Before, if your research bucket was full, it didn’t matter so much what you were doing in the other areas,” O’Dowd says. Now, “the scholarship still has to be great, but the teaching and service are important too.”

The smallest piece of tenure—service—can be satisfied by working on department or university-wide committees, as well as volunteering time for a disciplinary society. There aren’t tasks you need to complete, but “it does count in a soft way because how your colleagues think about you is influenced by everything that you do, including service,” Lalic says.

Along the way, the recently tenured faculty members interviewed by C&EN felt that their university wanted them to successfully navigate the tenure process. Nyman, who received tenure in 2016, says colleges don’t have money to waste on hiring someone who they suspect won’t be successful, especially at state schools like hers that are facing financial troubles. “It is a big deal to just let somebody go so you have to start over.”

Nyman says tenure engenders loyalty between professors and the university. But she also understands why there is some skepticism about tenure. “Why should this small group of people have this security and nobody else does when it doesn’t necessarily improve output?”

Political attacks

That skepticism has turned into political attacks on tenure in some states. The University of Wisconsin System is the most glaring example.

Tenure is why people go into academia, so that you have freedom to pursue those research areas that excite you.
Judith Burstyn, professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In spring 2015, Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the state legislature removed tenure protections and other university governance rules written into state statutes. They replaced it with language that gave more power to the system’s leaders to hire and fire faculty without some of tenure’s protections.

Although the university’s regents did adopt some of the same tenure supports, they can now be changed more easily by the university’s board of regents, most of whom are appointed by the governor.

In response, some professors have left the university system, others have threatened to leave, and most of the rest are nervous, says Burstyn, who has worked to enact more permanent reforms. “There is a perception that the tenure security is less real than it may have been in the past.”

Many of the problems are driven by public misperceptions about what tenure means, Mabe of APLU says. Many people think that once professors have tenure they don’t have to work, but studies show that tenured professors work an average of 50 to 60 hours a week. And having tenure doesn’t guarantee yearly raises, another common misperception.

UW Milwaukee’s Petering says the attacks on tenure are part of a larger devaluing of higher education in Wisconsin. The university system has faced budget cuts, but it also has not been allowed to raise tuition. “There really has been no way to react and adjust to the situation,” he says.

In the midst of the debate, the vice chair of Wisconsin’s board of regents wrote an editorial saying universities need to run more like other businesses and professors should get no more protections than other workers do.

Petering published a response arguing that the tenure system has served Wisconsin and the country remarkably well. Higher education is not about preparing people for specific jobs, he says.

“The notion that we will somehow do better in terms of our job preparation if we can change the nature of our faculty on a moment-to-moment basis misses what universities contribute,” he says. “You have to ask yourself if throwing the whole system out and putting up for grabs all of your really productive people [is worth it] to take care of the one or two who don’t measure up.”

And the fact that Petering was willing to publicly confront a regent, who is essentially his boss? That’s something he might not have felt comfortable doing if he didn’t have tenure, he says.

“It opens up free dialogue,” Petering says. “You shouldn’t underestimate how important that is and how it gets stifled in the situation where somebody has the ability to hire and fire you.”

Outside tenure, looking in

Nontenure takeover?
Graph of tenured or tenure-track faculty.
The percentage of tenured or tenure-track faculty has fallen in the past 40 years, while schools have increased their reliance on part-time or non-tenure-track faculty.
Note: Numbers do not add to 100 because graduate students are not listed
Source: AAUP’s “Higher Education at the Crossroads: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015–2016”

The ability to hire and fire staff at will is exactly the situation facing non-tenure-track faculty members, who are becoming an increasing percentage of teachers at universities, according to an AAUP report.

These professors can work full-time for a university, often in teaching roles, or as part-time teachers as needed. Some of the drive to hire fewer tenured faculty is economic: In difficult budget times, universities don’t want to commit to hiring more permanent staff. But at the same time, enrollments are growing.


At the University of Washington, non-tenure-track faculty now outnumber tenured and tenure-track faculty, Lalic says, though that isn’t yet true in the chemistry department.

“I worry about who is going to be the last tenure-track faculty to turn off the lights,” he jokes. He is concerned that universities won’t be able to compete with industry for the top people if the trend continues. “If you end up treating a university like a business, all businesses are the same: Whoever pays the most wins.”

Burstyn agrees that tenure instills institutional loyalty that part-time or untenured staff might not have. Fewer tenured faculty also put all of the burden for shared governance on a smaller number of people.

John Pollard, associate professor of practice in the University of Arizona’s chemistry department, is a full-time, non-tenure track staff member who focuses on innovative teaching methods. There are more and more teaching-focused faculty like him in chemistry departments, but few of them have tenure. “What is happening now is that people realize that you need to have a more diverse bench to run a huge department,” he says.

There is constant tension between tenured and nontenured faculty, Pollard explains. “Even faculty who do believe that there should be people like us around, a lot of those faculty don’t believe we should have tenure.”

Making them regular faculty members could also give them the academic freedom they need to be creative in their jobs. “More faculty are in a precarious state where their reappointment depends on certain views being in favor of the administration,” says Tiede of AAUP. “Faculty who do not have these sorts of safeguards are much less secure.”

Security is what Ruotolo at Michigan values most now that he has tenure. He doesn’t expect to change his research direction now that he has tenure. But he does appreciate the peace of mind that comes from job security.

“It takes some pressure off so I can think. And thinking is absolutely the most critical thing I have to do for my job.”  

Correction: On Sept. 19, 2016, this story was updated to reflect that data related to non-tenure-track faculty members came from an American Association of University Professors (AAUP) report.


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