Faculty Tenure: Improve It, Don't Remove It

W. Lee Hansen

Faculty tenure, to paraphrase Winston Churchill on the subject of democracy, may not be the best or perfect way to defend and promote academic freedom and freedom of expression on college campuses, but nobody has come up with a better way of doing so.

The battle over faculty tenure flared up again recently. It was prompted by a plan advanced by Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker and members of the Wisconsin State Legislature. The plan called for rewriting the state’s statutes governing the operations of the University of Wisconsin. Faculty members viewed its abolition of statutory tenure protection and faculty governance, not to mention its proposed $300 million budget cut for the next biennium, as a direct attack not only on the University but on them personally.

The Board of Regents moved quickly to repair the damage by assuring the faculty that the old statutory provisions relating to tenure would be incorporated into Board of Regent policies. Meanwhile, a Regent-appointed committee is reviewing the tenure policy and will report its findings to the Board early next year. Everyone hopes the Board continues its firm commitment to academic freedom and tenure, consistent with the long-standing principles of academic freedom and tenure established by the American Association of University Professors.      

Recent critics of faculty tenure, including “Professor X,” as well as Professor Anomaly and others, have seized the opportunity to open a much-needed debate on the rationale for faculty tenure. They advance reasoned arguments for eliminating tenure in contrast to what appears to be a mindless, political approach---let's get rid of those cushy lifetime jobs held by elitist unproductive professors.  

The challenge is how to improve the effectiveness of the University of Wisconsin’s long-standing tenure system without compromising its essential function---protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression. 

An important strength of the tenure system not mentioned by critics is its operation as a form of quality control, certainly at major universities similar to UW-Madison. The performance of newly hired tenure-track faculty who typically receive three-year contracts is closely monitored by their departments, and the most promising among this group receive a second three-year contract, provided, of course, the institution has the financial resources to compensate them.

By the end of the sixth year, after a rigorous evaluation by their peers in consultation with national experts in their fields, those who have demonstrated exceptional performance are promoted to associate professor with tenure. Tenure means that those holding it cannot be fired without “just cause.” Those who do not get tenure must search for employment elsewhere. It is the tenure system and its focus on quality that helps to account for the world-wide preeminence of American universities and colleges.

The UW tenure system has always been far more demanding than Wisconsin legislation governing civil service jobs. State employees with at least 12 months of continuous employment cannot be transferred, demoted, or discharged from their jobs without showing of “just cause.” Not only do these employees have statutory tenure but their tenure is granted without the intensive, peer-reviewed evaluation of their current job performance and future promise on the job.

Historically, the tradition of tenure emerged to protect faculty members from outside pressures on college presidents and governing boards to fire professors whose utterances in their teaching or the results of their research offended powerful interests outside the academy.  Situations like that faced by University of Wisconsin economist, Richard T. Ely, led the Board of Regents to enunciate its famous and easily understood “sifting and winnowing” defense of academic freedom. For more than a century the Board has maintained its long-standing commitment to academic freedom and tenure.

In recent years, pressures to fire professors have come increasingly from inside colleges and universities. These pressures are fueled by groups of faculty members who view one or more of their colleagues as out of touch with prevailing views about what is and is not politically correct. The ambiguity of speech codes and harassment policies has led to problems where faculty members are at times accused, investigated, and often face the threat of disciplinary action or even termination. Their only salvation may be to submit themselves to required sensitivity training designed to purge them of their “unacceptable” thoughts and behaviors.  These developments reflect the era of political correctness that infiltrated the academy several decades ago and continues to hold it in a firm grip.

Now a new threat is emerging, a fixation on “microaggressions.”  These are remarks seen by campus administrators, students, and even some faculty members as sexist, racist, or otherwise offensive to one or another marginalized social group. For example, in teaching a course on labor markets function, I might make a comment about the influence of racial discrimination. A minority student may regard what I say as offensive even though I had no intention of offending anyone. Or I may on occasion challenge students’ assumptions, something that is more important than possibly hurting their feelings.

Without the protection of tenure, one can imagine a faculty member, who inadvertently commits a series of microaggressions, being called on the carpet by campus administrators and dismissed without the benefit of due process. The concept of victimhood that underlies microaggressions can derail faculty careers under our current tenure system. Without tenure, it could easily destroy faculty careers.

What about the argument that tenure should be abolished? It suffers by failing to consider who in the absence of tenure would do the firing of faculty members. It completely ignores the role of campus officials who would be charged with making decisions about disciplining and even discharging professors for speaking on issues that they, and perhaps their governing board members, find not to their liking.

In our new world of itinerant campus administrators---those presidents, chancellors, and provosts who are constantly angling for better paying jobs at more prestigious institutions, not to mention politically correct deans of students and chief diversity officers who in the absence of tenure would be more likely than ever to have an important voice in hiring and firing decisions---the playing field is not a level one. With the elimination of tenure and increased authority lodged in campus officials, they would have an incentive to be “tough” on tenure as a way of burnishing their credentials.  What better way to do so than firing a professor, or two, or even three of them?   

At the same time, there is a problem. Some departments may seek to hire and promote people like themselves who hold similar political views. This is exactly what should not happen. Instead, there is need for greater intellectual diversity so that students can be exposed to the full range of views on a wide array of issues. Increased intellectual diversity enriches discussions among faculty colleagues and also among students. It stimulates the quality of both faculty teaching and research.  Ensuring intellectual diversity remains a challenge. A major responsibility of university presidents, chancellors, and academic deans is to press for ever greater intellectual diversity when departments seek authority to hire new faculty members.   

Evidence shows the academy is dominated by faculty members who are on the left and Democratic in their party affiliations. This does not seem to be the result of some conspiracy that reflects deep-seated biases in hiring and promotion decisions. Rather it appears to be in part a matter of choice. College students with leftist views are more likely to indicate a preference for academic careers. College students with conservative views are more likely to show a preference for private sector careers. Whatever may be the political leanings of academic departments, students are a skeptical group and not easily swayed by the politics of their professors.

A more fundamental problem still needs to be addressed. Public concerns about tenure arise because of the inability and sometimes the unwillingness of institutions to implement meaningful periodic post-tenure reviews of the performance by their tenured faculty members. When a post-tenure review system is in place, campus officials and particularly academic deans must insist that departments conduct careful post-tenure reviews. 

The real responsibility for post-tenure review rests at the top. Governing boards must require the implementation and operation of effective post-tenure review systems. These systems must provide help to tenured faculty members whose quality of performance in teaching, research, and university service is unacceptably low. They must also include a process for seeking the removal of tenured faculty members who have, so to speak, “gone out of business.” But such a process requires that individual faculty members selected for termination be given adequate notice, due process procedures must be observed, and there must be the right of appeal. With effective post-tenure review, the public will no longer be able to view tenure as part of a dysfunctional system that provides lifetime job security for the undeserving.

But, there is more to the story. The effectiveness of the tenure system in protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression is undermined by salary schedules that call for automatic salary increases based on years of service. When tenured faculty members reach the top of their salary range they may face a decade or more when they are no longer eligible for automatic salary increases. Such salary schedules do little to elicit the high levels of performance that should be expected of tenured faculty members.

By contrast, a system of annual merit-based salary increases based on peer review procedures avoids this problem. But for this system to work effectively, faculty members must live in an environment that requires them to evaluate in unbiased ways the merits of their colleagues. Individuals not regarded as meritorious may receive little or nothing in the way of salary increases. If this persists for a number of years, these faculty members may seek employment elsewhere and resign their tenured positions.

Whether the lack of salary increases is enough to cause many of these faculty members to leave their tenured jobs is not clear. Ironically, their low salaries are likely to make it financially more difficult for them to retire at the "normal" retirement age of 65 or 70. The reason? Retirement benefit levels are usually tied to the level of salaries received in the final few years of employment.

Prior to the end of mandatory retirement, these professors would have had to retire at age 65 or 70. Now that is no longer the case. Regardless of their performance, they can remain on the faculty payroll until they decide to retire. Hence the need for a career-long system of post-tenure review such as the one instituted some years ago by the Board of Regents.

A remaining challenge is developing a mechanism to accommodate changes in the demand for programs and departments, including in some cases their elimination. The newly approved Wisconsin statutes put tenured faculty at risk of layoff or termination due to budget or program changes. Strangely, tenured faculty slated for layoff have the right to notice and a hearing, but that is not the case for tenured faculty who are slated for termination. Shouldn’t there be a higher standard of protection for terminations than for layoffs? Fortunately, the new legislation gives the Board of Regents an opportunity to adopt procedures consistent with prior legislation that granted due process guarantees in the event of terminations of tenured faculty members. It sounds as if the Board will move quickly to do this.

Several questions about program changes need to be addressed. On what basis are decisions to be made to terminate programs and departments? Who should make such decisions? How should faculty members be involved in these decisions? What kind of accommodations and severance compensation should be provided to tenured faculty members who are to be terminated?

There must be an objective way of determining the reasons for these closings. Care must be taken to ensure that these decisions are not dictated by the cyclical ebb and flow of student interest in particular fields of study. Above all, these decisions must be insulated from any personal “dislike” for a particular program or department by either the Board of Regents or the campus administration.  One reason for great concern is the vagueness in the new statutes about how this process will work and the roles that will be played by the Board of Regents, campus chancellors, and campus faculties.

Yes, faculty tenure, post-tenure review, and academic reward systems have their problems. But we must remember the real purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom. It is to encourage and support the free expression of ideas in college classrooms, research laboratories, student dormitories, and other gathering places on college campuses. The challenge is to improve the tenure system so it preserves and even more important strengthens the exercise of academic freedom.

The robust discussion of ideas is essential to the university’s mission of creating and disseminating new and existing knowledge. It is prerequisite to the search for truth whose benefits accrue to everyone---professors and students and the general public. It is prerequisite to the social and economic advancement of the people of the state of Wisconsin who have long provided generous support for the University Wisconsin System and its network of campuses located throughout the state.  

Perhaps the kind of university everyone wants is described best by John Henry Newman as a “place where inquiry is pushed forward and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind and knowledge with knowledge.”  

The challenge remains:  Improving the tenure system, not removing it.

* * *

Other tenure critics referenced by Professor Hansen:

Carl M. Cannon, “Can College Tenure Survive the 2016 Election?

John O. McGinnis and Max Scdanzenbach, “College Tenure Has Reached Its Sell-By Date”       

W. Lee Hansen is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of WisconsinMadison. 

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