Lessons from Our Upgrade to a Non-Tenure University

Douglas Campbell

Social, economic and technological changes are fueling a vigorous reexamination of our higher education institutions. In particular, people are challenging the traditional tenure system. Once a hallmark of faculty employment, many people both inside and outside of academia now question the value of a system that rewards some faculty with a near permanent guarantee of employment regardless of ongoing performance. In this essay, we share our observations of tenure at one university and compare them to our experiences in a university without tenure.

Between us, we have 50 years of employment at residential universities with traditional tenure systems. One of us, James E. Fletcher, worked as a fully tenured professor and department chair, and the other, Douglas Campbell, as a long-term, full-time lecturer. Both of us are now retired from California State University at Chico and are currently employed as faculty by a private for-profit online university which does not have a tenure system.

Our move to a non-traditional university without a tenure system and without a faculty union has been an improvement in every aspect. The traditional tenure system was created before labor laws, before a realistic world-wide competitive market for academic talent, before the Internet made national and international job searches rapid and inexpensive, and before relocation became relatively easy. Today, with modern labor laws and a management team that recognizes how productive faculty members contribute to student learning, enrollments, institutional reputation, and profitability, we feel more secure, appreciated and inspired at our non-traditional university than we did at traditional residential public universities.

Tenure is a root of three problems in higher education. First, it creates an oppressive work environment for all faculty members and lecturers. At CSU Chico, the tenure system encouraged the management team and human resources department to show little interest in most issues or problems brought to them by the faculty. The university’s bureaucrats knew that on most issues the tenured faculty could be safely ignored or pacified because the vast majority of the faculty would not dare leave their safe shelter to enter a competitive world where they would be held accountable for quality teaching. These bureaucrats also knew that the endless procedures, negotiations and arbitration requirements of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the faculty’s union, which is the California Faculty Association (CFA), insulated them and the university from any realistic threat of legal action. With a tied-down work force of tenured faculty, there was no reason for the university’s bureaucrats to treat the non-tenure track faculty and lecturers, who taught a large percentage of the courses, as anything more than expendable migrant labor. As one would expect, this class or two-tiered faculty system inhibited any sense of unity, organizational pride or esprit de corps among the faculty, a fact that university system’s negotiators leverage in contract negotiations with the CFA.

Second, tenured faculty became virtually untouchable and therefore free to loaf their way through the remainder of their academic career. Defenders of the tenure system point to studies that claim that most tenured faculty members continue to be productive. We observed, to the contrary, that a significant percentage of tenured full professors showed little interest in their academic duties. In our former department at CSU Chico, some tenured faculty members were seldom seen except during their limited, but required office hours or required faculty meetings. They would often show up to their classes late, poorly prepared, and with out-of-date material. Their lack of preparation, interest, or even currency in the basic subject of the course was most evident to the students. Many of these errant faculty members were spending the majority of their time in private pursuits, such as operating local businesses, tourism cooperatives, government consulting contracts, and other means of gaining additional income. For them being a professor became their part-time job with full benefits. This frustrated the department chair, the serious and committed faculty, and the students because due to tenure, not even inactivity, dereliction, or outright incompetence could prompt personnel action that would result in discipline or improved performance.

Of course there were tenured faculty members who continued to research, publish, and grow professionally. Their efforts were not driven by having tenure, but by their inquiring nature and sincere commitment to their profession. Unfortunately, this group comprised the minority of tenured faculty.

Third, the tenure system is applied unfairly and thus propagates a pattern of unfairness. Some candidates at CSU Chico were expected to establish a publishing record after they joined the university to be eligible for tenure, but other “diversity” candidates could receive tenure for minor work done prior to joining the university. While post-tenure reviews were required in theory, in practice they were little more than a pro forma endorsement of anyone under review.

Defenders of tenure often say that it is necessary to ensure academic freedom. We observed, however, that while it was invoked to protect those who espoused politically correct points of view, it did not protect faculty members who publicly challenged ideological orthodoxy. To punish a tenured professor, the administration needed only to reinterpret what was said or done as vaguely threatening or as hate speech. Of course the administration did not have to act formally to punish a tenured faculty member, but instead would resort to a subtle campaign of denial of opportunities, reduced funding, reassignment of office space, and covert encouragement of ostracism.

Some years ago, two CSU Chico professors of history dared to publicly speak against the political orthodoxy of the administration. Both were accused of threatening speech and conduct. One relied on the force of tenure and assistance of the CFA to protect him. Unfortunately neither did, and without so much as a whimper from the CFA the university’s president reduced him in rank and banished him to a closet-like mini-office on the periphery of the university. It was implied that other faculty members should stay away from him or incur guilt by association. The other accused professor, seeing what happened to his colleague, wisely engaged a team of highly specialized attorneys who promised legal action if university’s administrators in any way violated their client's rights. Open persecution immediately ceased. 

In the California State University (CSU) system, the CFA has a critical interest in maintaining the tenure system to justify its existence. Unable to defend or obtain pay raises, increased benefits, or improved working conditions in a de facto bankrupt state, the CFA has fallen back on to the position of the defender of tenure and opponent of merit-based pay and promotions. The CFA is therefore in collusion with the CSU system to maintain the inequities of the tenure system which oppress competent and productive faculty members. Few of the CSU Chico faculty members were aware that the provisions of CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) trump legal protections found in labor law. The CBA actually limits a faculty member’s access to seek equity or redress from the legal system because it binds faculty members to a time-consuming grievance procedure that often stretches on for many years and values compromise over justice.       

CFA representatives are wedded to a tenure system for three reasons. First they are, with few exceptions, a contradictory combination of socialists and elitists that sincerely believe that there is an elite class to which they and the tenured faculty belong, and a proletariat which includes lecturers and other non-tenured faculty. Second, they believe that all elites should be compensated on the same schedule based on longevity or length of service regardless of competency or merit, and should have permanent employment if they are appropriately aligned politically or choose to remain silent. Finally, the end of a tenure system would call into question the need for the CFA, thus endangering the privileges and political advantages of leaders within the CFA.

Most of the tenured faculty at CSU Chico appears to implicitly support the tenure system. However they have been asked to defend it, their responses are often incoherent with vague and uncomfortable references to free speech, the possibility of termination, and the incompetency of the administration. The reality is that a threat to the current tenure system represents a threat to the unencumbered lifestyle of unproductive, incompetent or disengaged tenured faculty members. Even among very hardworking and competent faculty members there is often an implicit attitude of “I suffered through the system, so new faculty should have to suffer like I did.” This is not exactly an attitude conducive to progress. The current tenure system combined with the CBA allows the university’s administrators the protection to act inbad faith, and since most faculty members do not fully understand this relationship, the arrangement allows the CFA leaders to feed on the frustration of faculty by claiming that the tenure system, the CBA and CFA are all that stand between them and "evil" management.

In contrast to the CSU, our current university’s culture is equitable. Core (regular) faculty and contributing (part-time) faculty are treated equally, must perform to the same standards, and must demonstrate the same degree of professional commitment. Expectations of faculty remain high, regardless of their number of years of employment. The university places far greater emphasis on quality teaching and upholding academic standards. Research and professional development requirements are driven by accreditation agency requirements and therefore are somewhat different between disciplines and schools, but are applied equally to all faculty. Instead of a threat to publish or perish, our faculty members actually receive positive encouragement in the form of financial rewards for publishing. Excellence in teaching and professional development activities are also factored in to full-time employees’ end-of-year bonuses. Faculty are treated more equitably, encouraged to be productive, and rewarded for productivity without a tenure system.

We recognize that all universities and all tenure systems are not the same, but the tenure system we observed was an arcane and counter-productive class system that engendered an attitude of false elitism and contributed to a false sense of entitlement. The resulting culture was ripe for abuse of the lower tier of temporary full-time and part-time faculty, and failed to appropriately recognize the contributions and value of non-tenured and non-tenure track faculty. We saw no evidence that the tenure system truly protected academic freedom or encouraged a career of serious research efforts or a continuing commitment to teaching excellence. The tenure system we observed degraded the quality of instruction and the working conditions of faculty by not rewarding competency and merit.

Dr. James E. Fletcher and Dr. Douglas G. Campbell are both with Walden University’s School of Management in the BS in Business Administration program. Dr. Fletcher can be reached at [email protected], and Dr. Campbell can be reached at [email protected].

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