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Under the tenure systems adopted as internal policy by many universities and colleges in the United States and Canada, some faculty positions are with tenure and some are not. Typical systems (such as the widely-adopted "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure" of the American Association of University Professors,) allow only a limited period to establish a record of (depending on the institution and discipline) published research, ability to attract grant funding, academic visibility, teaching excellence, and administrative or community service. They limit the number of years that any employee can remain employed as a non-tenured instructor or professor, compelling the institution to tenure or terminate an individual, with significant advance notice, at the end of a specified time period. Some institutions require promotion to Associate Professor as a condition of tenure. An institution may also offer other academic positions that are not time-limited, with titles such as Lecturer, Adjunct Professor, or Research Professor, but these positions do not carry the possibility of tenure and are said to not be "tenure track." Typically, they have higher teaching loads, lower compensation, little influence within the institution, few if any benefits, and little academic freedom protection.
Academic tenure's original purpose was to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. Thus academic tenure is similar to the lifetime tenure that protects some judges from external pressure. Without job security, the scholarly community as a whole may experience pressure to favor noncontroversial lines of academic inquiry. The intent of tenure is to allow original ideas to be more likely to arise, by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to investigate the problems and solutions as they see fit, and to report their honest conclusions. However, it has also become a type of job security for professors.
In North American universities and colleges, the tenure track has long been a defining feature of professorial employment; although it is less than universal. In North American universities, positions that carry tenure, or the opportunity to attain tenure, have grown more slowly than non-tenure-track positions, leading to a large "academic underclass". For example, most U.S. universities currently supplement the work of tenured professors with the services of non-tenured adjunct professors, academics who teach classes for lower wages and fewer employment benefits under relatively short-term contracts.
In the 19th century, university professors largely served at the pleasure of the board of trustees of the university. Sometimes, major donors could successfully remove professors or prohibit the hiring of certain individuals; nonetheless, a de facto tenure system existed. Usually professors were only fired for interfering with the religious principles of a college, and most boards were reluctant to discipline professors. The courts rarely intervened in dismissals.
In one debate of the Cornell Board of Trustees, in the 1870s, a businessman trustee argued against the prevailing system of de facto tenure, but lost the argument. Despite the power retained in the board, academic freedom prevailed. Another example is the 1894 case of Richard Ely, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor who advocated labor strikes and labor law reform. Though the Wisconsin legislature and business interests pressed for his dismissal, the board of trustees of the university passed a resolution committing itself to academic freedom, and to retaining him (without tenure):
"In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."
A later case at Rollins College, widely publicized and investigated by the American Association of University Professors, also played a role in establishing the validity of the tenure concept. This case led breakaway professors to found the innovative and influential Black Mountain College.
In 1900, the presidents of Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago each made clear that no donor could any longer dictate faculty decisions; such a donor’s contribution would be unwelcome. In 1915, this was followed by the American Association of University Professors' (AAUP) declaration of principles—the traditional justification for academic freedom and tenure.
The AAUP's declaration of principles recommended that:
While the AAUP pushed reform, tenure battles were a campus non-issue. In 1910, a survey of 22 universities showed that most professors held their positions with "presumptive permanence". At a third of colleges, assistant professor appointments were considered permanent, while at most colleges multi-year appointments were subject to renewal. Only at one university did a governing board ratify a president’s decisions on granting tenure.
Tenure is also offered in many states to public schoolteachers. Louisiana, under state education superintendent T. H. Harris, led the move to establish a teacher protection policy in the 1930s because of past political considerations in hiring and dismissal of educators.
In 1940, the AAUP recommended that the academic tenure probationary period be seven years—still the current norm. It also suggested that a tenured professor could not be dismissed without adequate cause, except "under extraordinary circumstances, because of financial emergencies." Also, the statement recommended that the professor be given the written reasons for dismissal and an opportunity to be heard in self-defense. Another purpose of the academic tenure probationary period was raising the performance standards of the faculty by pressing new professors to perform to the standard of the school's established faculty.
The most significant adoption of academic tenure occurred after 1945, when the influx of returning GIs returning to school led to quickly expanding universities with severe professorial faculty shortages. These shortages dogged the Academy for ten years, and that is when the majority of universities started offering formal tenure as a side benefit. The rate of tenure (percent of tenured university faculty) increased to 52 percent. In fact, the demand for professors was so high in the 1950s that the American Council of Learned Societies held a conference in Cuba noting the too-few doctoral candidates to fill positions in English departments. During the McCarthy era, loyalty oaths were required of many state employees, and neither formal academic tenure nor the Constitutional principles of freedom of speech and association were protection from dismissal. Some professors were dismissed for their political affiliations. During the 1960s, many professors supported the anti-war movement against the Vietnam War, and more than 20 state legislatures passed resolutions calling for specific professorial dismissals and a change to the academic tenure system.
Two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases changed tenure in 1972: (i) Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 US 564; and (ii) Perry v. Sindermann, 408 US 593. These two cases held that a professor’s claim to entitlement must be more than a subjective expectancy of continued employment. Rather, there must be a contractual relationship or a reference in a contract to a specific tenure policy or agreement. Further, the court held that a tenured professor who is discharged from a public college has been deprived of a property interest, and so due process applies, requiring certain procedural safeguards (the right to personally appear in a hearing, the right to examine evidence and respond to accusations, the right to have advisory counsel).
Later cases specified other bases for dismissal: (i) if a professor’s conduct were incompatible with his duties (Trotman v. Bd. of Trustees of Lincoln Univ., 635 F.2d 216 (2d Cir.1980)); (ii) if the discharge decision is based on an objective rule (Johnson v. Bd. of Regents of U. Wisc. Sys., 377 F. Supp 277, (W.D. Wisc. 1974)). After these cases were judged, the number of reported cases in the matter of academic tenure increased more than two-fold: from 36 cases filed during the decade 1965–1975, to 81 cases filed during the period 1980–1985.
During the 1980s there were no notable tenure battles, but three were outstanding in the 1990s. In 1995, the Florida Board of Regents tried to re-evaluate academic tenure, but managed only to institute a weak, post-tenure performance review. Likewise, in 1996 the Arizona Board of Regents attempted to re-evaluate tenure, fearing that few full-time professors actually taught university undergraduate students, mainly because the processes of achieving academic tenure underweighted teaching. However, faculty and administrators defended themselves and the board of trustees dropped its review. Finally, the University of Minnesota Regents tried from 1995 to 1996 to enact 13 proposals, including these policy changes: to allow the regents to cut faculty base- salaries for reasons other than a university financial emergency including poor performance; to fire tenured professors when their programs were eliminated or restructured if the university were unable to retrain or reassign them. In the Minnesota system, 87 percent of university faculty were either tenured or on the tenure track, and the professors vehemently defended themselves. Eventually, the president of the system opposed these changes, and weakened a compromise plan by the Dean of the law school before it then failed. The board chairman resigned later that year.
The period since 1972 has seen a steady decline in the percentage of college and university teaching positions in the US that are either tenured or tenure-track. United States Department of Education statistics put the combined tenured/tenure-track rate at 56% for 1975, 46.8% for 1989, and 31.9% for 2005. That is to say, by the year 2005, 68.1% of US college teachers were neither tenured nor eligible for tenure; a full 48% of teachers that year were part-time employees.
In 1994, a study in The Chronicle of Higher Education found that "about 50 tenured professors [in the US] are dismissed each year for cause." While tenure protects the occupant of an academic position, it does not protect against the elimination of that position. For example, a university that is under financial stress may take the drastic step of eliminating or downsizing some departments.
In 2012 tenure for school teachers was challenged in a California lawsuit called Vergara v. California. The primary issue in the case was the impact of tenure on student outcomes and on equity in education. On June 10, 2014, the trial judge ruled that California's teacher tenure statute produced disparities that " shock the conscience" and violate the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. On July 7, 2014, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented on the Vergara decision during a meeting with President Barack Obama and representatives of teacher's unions. Duncan said that tenure for school teachers "should be earned through demonstrated effectiveness" and should not be granted too quickly. Specifically, he criticized the 18-month tenure period at the heart of the Vergara case as being too short to be a "meaningful bar."
The AAUP (American Association of University Professors) has handled hundreds of cases where it alleges that tenure candidates were treated unfairly. The AAUP has censured many major and minor universities and colleges for such alleged tenure abuses.
Tenure at many universities depends solely on research publications and research grants although the universities' official policies are that tenure depends on research, teaching and service. Even articles in refereed teaching journals and teaching grants may not count towards tenure at such universities.
At some universities the department chairperson sends forward the department recommendation on tenure. There have been cases, such as one case at The University of Texas at San Antonio (2008), where the faculty voted unanimously to tenure an individual but the chairperson sent forward a recommendation not to grant tenure despite the faculty support.
Tenure decisions can result in fierce political battles. In one tenure battle at Indiana University, an untenured professor was accused of threatening violence against those who opposed his promotion, his wife briefly went on a hunger strike, and many called for the entire department to be disbanded. In another instance in February 2010, Dr. Amy Bishop with the University of Alabama in Huntsville reportedly shot and killed colleagues after losing her appeal for tenure.
Since the 1970s philosopher John Searle has called for major changes to tenure systems, calling the practice "without adequate justification." Searle suggests that to reduce publish or perish pressures that can hamper their classroom teaching, capable professors be given tenure much sooner than the standard four-to-six years. However, Searle also argued that tenured professors be reviewed every seven years to help eliminate "incompetent" teachers who can otherwise find refuge in the tenure system.
It has also been suggested that tenure may have the effect of diminishing political and academic freedom among those seeking it – that they must appear to conform to the political or academic views of the field or the institution where they seek tenure. For example, in The Trouble with Physics, the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin says "...it is practically career suicide for young theoretical physicists not to join the field of string theory....". It is certainly possible to view the tenure track as a long-term demonstration of the candidate's political and academic conformity. Patrick J. Michaels, a controversial part-time research professor at the University of Virginia, wrote: "...tenure has had the exact opposite effect as to its stated goal of diversifying free expression. Instead, it stifles free speech in the formative years of a scientist's academic career, and all but requires a track record in support of paradigms that might have outgrown their usefulness."
Other criticisms include the publish or perish pressures creating trivial or junk research, a caste system treating those without tenure poorly, and indolence after having achieved tenure. The tenured faculty can resist necessary reforms by administrators who they generally outlast. The tenured faculty also usually can control appointments which contributes to political correctness and groupthink.
As more academics publish research in Internet and multimedia formats, organizations such as the American Council of Learned Societies and Modern Language Association have recommended changes to promotion and tenure criteria, and some university departments have made such changes to reflect the increasing importance of networked scholarship.
After the Ward Churchill controversy, a telephone survey of “a thousand Americans aged 18 and older” by the American Association of University Professors found that, while “generally supportive of the tenure system”, "only about 17.9 percent of respondents say the tenure system should remain as it is". Another poll found that 65% believed that "non-tenured professors are more motivated to do a good job in the classroom".[better source needed]
The root of some of these criticisms is that elsewhere in the world, there are very few tenure systems, and no time-limited employment. The system in the rest of the English speaking world, for example, is based on promotion up union-negotiated payscales, usually with automatic advancement towards the top of a grade, with the luckier faculty members being on 'permanent contracts' with no end-date. To go to the next grade (e.g. from associate professor to professor), an application must be submitted, and the criteria are as exacting as in North America. Simon Batterbury argues this system offers less opportunity for sabotage, and more adherence to social justice goals, even though 'permanent' staff members can be fired at any time.
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