This year’s political attacks on tenure in the US have revived a discussion about the pros and cons of this academic tradition. Although the academic freedom and job security it promises are invaluable to professors, some in academia say the system can be abused and that universities should consider alternative forms of tenure.
Adrianne Rosales, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, is up for promotion this year. Soon, she hopes, she’ll be able to call herself an associate professor with tenure.
But as Rosales was putting together her portfolio this spring, politicians in her state were heavily scrutinizing tenure—the promise of an indefinite faculty appointment at a university.
This scrutiny came to a head in March when Texas state senator and Republican Brandon Creighton filed S.B. 18, which proposed replacing tenure with 3-year contracts for newly hired professors. “SB 18 eliminates the costly, unnecessary and antiquated burden of tenure at Texas public colleges and universities,” a press release announcing the bill says.
Tenure also caught the attention of the legislature in North Carolina, where a group of state representatives introduced H.B. 715. Like Texas’s S.B. 18, the bill sought to eliminate the possibility of tenure for new faculty. But the North Carolina bill focused specifically on the University of North Carolina and the state’s community college system.
Meanwhile, in Florida, North Dakota, and a couple of other states, more tenure-related bills were popping up in legislatures. Rather than eliminating tenure, these pieces of legislation aimed to weaken it by changing either how tenured faculty members are reviewed or who is allowed to review them.
To the relief of many academics, by the time summer rolled around, most of the legislation had fizzled out or been heavily revised because of public pressure.
In Texas, for instance, S.B. 18 no longer bans universities from granting tenure. Instead, the new version, signed into law in June, requires the state’s public institutions to regularly conduct posttenure reviews and adopt policies that specify reasons that tenured faculty can be dismissed.
Although the attacks on tenure may have receded, the political back-and-forth has revived a discussion about the pros and cons of this academic tradition, which has existed in the US for 83 years. Many professors cherish tenure and say it has given them the freedom to do research without worrying about getting fired. Others say it can be used to shield incompetence and that alternate systems should be considered.
Share in fall 1987
Share in fall 2021
Source: American Association of University Professors.
In 1971, five state legislatures considered bills that reexamined tenure’s place at public institutions. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the main critique of tenure at the time was that it protected incompetent faculty members and those who didn’t want to teach.
Fast-forward to 2015, and tenure was under attack again. The largest showdown happened in Wisconsin, where then-governor Scott Walker eliminated a rare US state law that codified tenure protections for public institutions.
Walker said the move was meant to give university officials more independence from lawmakers in exchange for one of the largest budget cuts in the University of Wisconsin’s history. But Walker’s budget proposal also weakened tenure by expanding the number of reasons that tenured faculty could be laid off.
The more recent attacks on the academic cornerstone feel different, says John Reisel, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Current legislation “seems to be more strident, more militant in its approach.”
Reisel contends that politicians are targeting tenure for “political points.” The trend also coincides with the Republican Party’s demonization of higher education, says Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, which advocates for faculty.
Share of university provosts in the US who believe tenure is important at their institutions
Share of university provosts in the US who don’t believe tenure is important at their institutions
Source: Inside Higher Ed.
Note: Seventeen percent neither agreed nor disagreed that tenure is important at their institutions.
“They recognize the power of education, and they want to squash it,” Mulvey says.
One Republican tactic seems to be removing tenure’s protection against political interference, says Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University. “They don’t want people to be able to actually tell the general public what we find when what we find is politically unpalatable.”
Case in point: a year before S.B. 18 was proposed, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, a Republican, swore to eliminate tenure after a faculty council at UT Austin passed a resolution affirming the right of professors to teach critical race and gender theory on campus. “Universities across Texas are being taken over by tenured, leftist professors, and it is high time that more oversight is provided,” Patrick said in a statement after the council’s decision.
But regardless of the reason behind S.B. 18 and proposals like it, attacks on tenure, even unsuccessful ones, affect the recruitment and retention of faculty across disciplines, Mulvey says.
And if politicians insist on targeting tenure, it’s possible that they could succeed in eliminating it in the future. If that were to happen, “the long-term effects will be a decline in academic excellence,” Mulvey says.
For nonacademics, Mulvey’s statement may seem like an exaggeration. Few industries offer their employees the long-term job security that tenure grants professors. Why should academia be any different?
Tenure provides more than just job security, Mulvey says. “It protects you from being fired because somebody doesn’t like the work you’re doing.” This safeguard is important for professors in the humanities and social sciences, who often deal with politically charged topics, like gender studies and US history.
Academic freedom can also be important within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), though these fields are rarely part of the conversation about tenure. “Lots of fields can be politicized,” Dessler says. “STEM is not at all immune.”
Dessler uses his own field of study as an example. Forty years ago, atmospheric science was “completely nonpolitical” and focused mainly on weather forecasting, he says. Now, however, he and many of his colleagues are actively researching topics like climate change.
“You don’t know what’s going to be politicized until it does get politicized,” Dessler says.
Atmospheric science may be an obvious example, but it’s far from the only one. Brian Korgel, a professor of chemical engineering at UT Austin, does a lot of work in the energy sector, another politicized topic due to its role in national security and local economics, for example.
Even research that might start off as an innocent set of differential equations can easily transform into “a lightning rod for different political opinions,” Korgel says. “Having a safeguard of tenure so that you’re not fired for political reasons is pretty important.”
Beyond politics, tenure ensures that professors have enough time to develop their research ideas. In an academic environment, “accomplishments don’t happen in 2 months or 6 months,” says Craig Benson, a professor emeritus of engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Virginia. “There’s got to be a longer time window than we might use in industry.”
Tenure also “gives people the flexibility to explore new ideas,” says Reisel, who benefited from tenure early in his career when his original area of research wasn’t drawing interest from funding agencies.
“If somebody had been telling me, ‘You have to be bringing in x number of dollars a year; you have to write this many papers; you have to do this,’ I would be much more concerned about trying to jump into a different research area,” Reisel explains. “It would just be too risky.”
And finally, the security of tenure “gives one the confidence to do some truly innovative things,” says Brent Iverson, a professor of chemistry at UT Austin.
Losing the ability to grant tenure, therefore, could make a university a less attractive place for STEM professors to work, especially compared with science-based industries, which typically boast higher salaries. This retention issue became clear after 2015, when tenure was weakened in Wisconsin.
Since then, “we have lost some faculty to other states and other schools,” Reisel says. It’s also possible that some faculty who were offered jobs at the university declined to take them because of what happened, he says.
The same could occur in states where tenure is under attack today. Rosales remembers getting questions about the Texas situation from her out-of-state colleagues when she traveled to a conference recently. From those conversations, “I definitely could see it having an impact on our ability to recruit, whether that’s other faculty or at the trainee level,” she says.
S.B. 18 “really scared a lot of people,” says Korgel, who mentors new professors. And unless politicians start to favor tenure, the practice could be threatened again the next time state legislatures meet. “I think a lot of junior faculty aren’t going to want to take the risk,” Korgel says.
The loss of talented professionals harms institutions because “the quality of the university begins and ends with the quality of the faculty,” Benson says. That idea applies to not only research but also the classroom. “They go hand in glove: teaching and research,” he says.
Top faculty also attract research funding, create cutting-edge technologies, and develop educational programs. All these activities benefit state economies. In Florida, for example, $4.5 billion is generated for every $1 billion invested into higher education, according to two University of North Florida professors.
“Florida’s public universities could not accomplish this return on investment without the intellectual capital provided by their faculty, who provide high-quality education and graduate high earners,” the professors write in an op-ed published earlier this year in the Florida Times-Union.
Although few in academia would deny that professors need a form of job protection, some argue that tenure needs a face-lift—albeit a less extreme one than certain politicians are envisioning.
Benson, who was the dean of engineering at the University of Virginia from 2015 to 2021 and previously held other academic leadership roles at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says he has observed professors use tenure to keep their jobs “while not meeting expectations for years and years.”
He stresses that, unlike what some of tenure’s opponents claim, only around 10% of faculty “skate along.” But even this small minority can be disruptive, Benson adds: “They get in the way of everybody else being successful because they’re taking up resources and positions.”
Today, says Mulvey, the faculty association president, most universities have a posttenure review process intended to address the problem of underperforming faculty. If a thorough review of a professor—done by their peers—shows they are not meeting expectations, then “it’s up to the administration to make the case that this faculty member’s tenure should be revoked,” Mulvey says. The process usually involves an adjudicative hearing before a faculty-elected body.
But Benson says that in his experience, posttenure reviews rarely make a difference: “It’s just really hard to get somebody either to change their behavior or to get them out.”
Benson is not alone in saying that tenure should be reformed. What a reformed tenure looks like, though, is anyone’s guess.
“Maybe get rid of the idea of tenure and turn it instead into ‘10 year,’ ” Reisel says, using a play on the word. Unlike short-term contracts, like those originally proposed by S.B. 18, “a 10-year contract still gives you a lot of freedom and a lot of flexibility to go and explore other ideas,” Reisel explains.
At the same time, it gets rid of the argument that professors are promised a job for the rest of their careers, he says.
Not every professor is open to the idea of tenure reform. “I certainly understand that you should always be thinking about how to improve it,” Dessler says. But he argues that fixing tenure could backfire and result in “much worse universities.”
And university advocates of tenure reform say the discussion needs to be led by academics—not politicians. “It has to come from within,” Benson says. “It has to be done thoughtfully in the context of what is going to create the best value for academia in the future in terms of educating our students and pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge through research.”
To make tenure less of a political target, most academics agree that they need to do a better job of explaining to the public what it is. “I do feel like communicating the importance of what tenure is is something that gets a little bit overlooked,” Rosales, the assistant professor, says.
Faculty also need to explain what their careers entail to counter the idea of lazy, entitled professors, which seems to be prevalent among certain sectors of the population.
“I can’t tell you how many times even my own family sometimes asks me, ‘Oh, what are you doing this summer?’ ” Rosales says. “I think sometimes there is just less awareness about the role of a faculty member and all the different hats we wear.”
And if tenure does come up again in a legislative session, it’s important that faculty—including STEM professors—advocate for keeping tenure protections in place, Dessler says.
“Every faculty member should be worried that they’re going to wake up one day, and they will be at the center of the next culture war.”