The proportion of Americas college students taught by tenured professors has steadily shrunk over the years. As indicated in this space previously, tenured faculty are relatively expensive so college administrators facing financial pressure are increasing the proportion of teaching done by lower priced substitutes- non-tenure-track adjunct faculty, part-time instructors, even retired professors filling in on a temporary basis.
That said, tenure still is an important institution, and on most campuses the tenured faculty drive curricular decisions and the research agendas that define the institutional mission. Tenure emboldens faculty members to be feisty, argumentative, and protective of their perceived property rights in certain courses, office space, and even parking. Sometimes powerful tenured faculty members thwart administrative moves to introduce new programs, eliminate old ones, or use new teaching approaches. When this writer testifies before legislative bodies on higher education issues, he is inevitably asked Wouldnt we greatly improve higher education by eliminating tenure?
As indicated, tenures influence is declining. Tenures beginning is usually attributed to the formation of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, and it grew in absolute and relative importance from that date through the Golden Age of higher education growth, from about 1945 to the early 1970s. Enrollment growth exceeded the growth in Ph.D. production, so new faculty members were in hot demand, and offering tenure track jobs was a necessity in acquiring needed high quality instructors and researchers.
Late in the last century, however, the demand for professors started rising at a far less frenetic pace, while the production of doctorates grew as universities promoted their status as graduate institutions. By 2000, in most academic disciplines there was a healthy supply of potential new professors, and the provision of lifetime job security as a fringe benefit was beginning to become unnecessary in order to have a qualified faculty.
Tenure has both costs and benefits. Taking the latter first, tenure was created to protect faculty members from losing their jobs because of unpopular positions taken. The classic recent story is Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar, who tastelessly and gratuitously criticized the much loved late Barbara Bush, causing an uproar, leading her to loudly proclaim her tenure protection (Fresno since has appropriately affirmed it is taking no action against Jarrar; the First Amendment applies even to grotesquely unpopular viewpoints). This writer, often a contrarian, was fiercely and publicly attacked in the 1980s by top politicians in Ohio (including the Governor and a powerful House Speaker), however attempts to uproot him failed because of tenure. At a time when tolerance of free speech seems somewhat fragile, tenure is a useful protection, encouraging a vibrant and free-ranging discourse on the issues of the day.
It is unclear how costly tenure is financially. Professors are not particularly entrepreneurial for the most part, and are willing to make financial sacrifices in order to have job security. In the absence of tenure, higher pay probably would be needed to induce faculty of todays quality to work. So tenure actually saves some money short term, but at a significant longer term cost. When a school grants a faculty member tenure, it is in effect incurring a financial liability that probably has a present value well into the seven digits. That is a huge problem if, as is increasingly the case, enrollment decline, changing student interests or debilitating faculty performance make dismissal of the faculty member advisable. A bad tenure award is often literally a million dollar mistake.
A number of former professors who were also successful figures from the political world (former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and House Majority Leader Dick Armey are two excellent examples) have commented that academic politics are far more bloody and contentious than the politics of the real world. Why? Tenure is part of the answer. The consequences of engaging unsuccessfully in political battles are dramatically less if tenure protects the antagonist.
Decision-making in universities thus often becomes costly, time-consuming, and is filled with dubious compromises to minimize brutal academic wars. Shared governance is expensive and often leads to non-optimal decisions. So tenure, while useful in protecting academic freedom, comes with a cost. But is it at the top of the list of higher educations problems? I think probably not. And as the disdain for free expression grows on campus, I become even more lukewarm when people propose eliminating tenure.