What Good Is Tenure?

Peter Wood

What good is tenure if it cannot protect someone like Joshua Katz? Katz was the tenured classics professor at Princeton University who was recently fired after he troubled President Christopher Eisgruber by objecting to proposals aimed at favoring black faculty members and students at the expense of Princeton’s traditional standards.1 The story has been widely reported and discussed. The official reason for Katz’s firing is the resurrection of a case from fifteen years ago in which he had a consensual affair with an undergraduate student. That case had been investigated and settled with Katz receiving a one-year unpaid suspension. In 2021, Princeton reopened the matter, deciding all these years later to impose the additional and drastic punishment of revoking Katz’s tenure and firing him.

To many observers, Princeton’s action appears to be reprisal against Katz for his public stand against the university’s eagerness to adopt new racial preferences. If that is so, Katz’s long-ago affair with the student was mere pretext. But we will have to wait to see how well Princeton’s position holds up if Katz, as expected, sues.

I bring up the Katz case only because it shines a spotlight on the institution of tenure, which many people suppose to be very strong protection against ideological and political persecution of faculty members by university boards and administrators. It does indeed pose a barrier, but it is nowhere near as impregnable as widely thought.

I’d like to enter this subject obliquely, by putting academic tenure in a larger context—the context of durability.

Trees, Senators, Quarterbacks

A tree growing in a gulch in a small national park in southern Chile has recently been pronounced to be the world’s oldest living tree—or actually the oldest living “single organism.” It has a name, the Alerce Milenario, and a nickname, Gran Abuelo (great-grandfather) tree, and is thought to be over 5,000 years old.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), each having served over 47 years in the U.S. Senate, have a way to go to catch up with Gran Abuelo, but they are tied for the title of longest-serving current senator. They share with the tree what might be called tenure. Sheer rooted survival, whether in a gulch or on the Hill, counts for something.

If you endure long enough in your chosen endeavor, it seems impertinent for anyone to suggest you move aside for anything but the most pressing reasons. Of course, the beginning and duration of tenure depends on the arena. If you belong to a family of extremely long-lived conifer trees, you might be granted arboreal tenure at age 1,000 with no end in sight. If you are an NFL quarterback, perhaps tenure begins when you have successfully passed for 40,000 yards and ends when Tom Brady (84,520 yards and counting; 22 seasons) finally decides to hang up his cleats.

Because even Gran Abuelo is mortal, no form of tenure is forever. It just seems like that.

In that light, tenure is not a uniquely academic institution, though we often speak as though it were. In fact, the word has a history that long predates academia. It derives from a French verb meaning “to hold,” and it came into English law as meaning the right or title to a piece of property which set the conditions for holding it. The word “tenement” derives from this, and we might indulge the idea of tenured faculty members as ivory tower tenement dwellers. In general, tenure means you have possession of something, but not necessarily forever.

Academic Tenure

These days, when we talk about academic tenure, we often speak as though it were an ancient and fixed institution. It is neither. A hundred years ago, tenure was a rare arrangement in American colleges and universities—an honor bestowed on a handful of senior full professors. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a tenure “system” became what one historian called “an established norm in American higher education.”2

That norm characteristically takes the form of allowing certain “tenure-track” junior faculty members to apply for tenure review after six years of service. The review is a thorough examination of the tenure candidate’s teaching, research, and service to the college or university. It proceeds through several layers starting with the candidate’s academic department and continuing through various committees; assessments by experts in the field employed at other universities; and review by a dean, provost, college president, and the institution’s board. Upon being awarded tenure, the faculty member can expect an extraordinary level of job security, but also benefits of high status and considerable privilege.

The path to tenure is often grueling, and the faculty member who seeks it makes numerous sacrifices along the way. The candidate is racing the clock to complete and publish significant scholarly or scientific research. He (or she) often faces a demanding teaching load and can rarely decline opportunities to serve on committees and to assist students. This puts pressure on marriages and often means having to defer a family. And, despite the numerous sacrifices, the bid for tenure may fail. If it does, that typically means the faculty member will have to seek an academic appointment at another college or leave the academy altogether.

In that sense, seeking tenure is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. It can mean the end of a promising career that for relatively minor reasons didn’t quite make the tenure cut. I say this with considerable personal experience. I held a tenured position as an associate professor at a major research university, and I served in a university administration for seventeen years, during which I played significant parts in the tenure reviews of more than four hundred tenure candidates. I sat in on the classes of most of these to evaluate their teaching. And I read and analyzed their tenure files.

In most cases the candidates were successful. If their prospects for success looked doubtful, we declined to reappoint them several years before they would have applied for tenure, or we shifted them off the tenure track. Few people got as far as a tenure review without having built a substantial record of achievement. But sometimes things did not go well. Teaching evaluations raised red flags. Scholarly publications met sharp or even devastating criticisms. The candidate seemed to have lost his way after a very promising start.

Tenure, in other words, was not automatic. Candidates could punch all the boxes and still fall short. Everybody knew that. Typically, a candidate could rely on unanimous support within his own department, but as the tenure application proceeded up the pyramid to college-level and then university-level review committees, the ascent became steeper. Individuals who had no personal acquaintance with a candidate would be more inclined to look with a cold eye. Either the standard of achievement was met, or it wasn’t. There were no points for unrealized promise.

I doubt that tenure systems work with this level of severity everywhere. I was at a university central administration that took the prospect of tenure very, very seriously. Among other considerations we had in mind was that granting an individual tenure typically meant that person would be holding his position for decades to come and helping to shape his department all during that time.

Tenure and Retirement

Another consideration was retirement age. Before 1982, faculty members at most universities faced the mandatory retirement age of 65. That year, amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 changed the minimum mandatory retirement age for faculty members to 70. And then in 1994, the Act was abolished altogether.3 The Gran Abuelo professor of English or dance could keep going as long as he was not manifestly incompetent. And that now does happen. Not long ago, I participated in a seminar with a professor who plainly had an Alzheimer’s-like memory disorder manifest in her repeating herself verbatim.

Abolishing mandatory retirement had benefits in allowing rich and productive careers to extend beyond an arbitrary chronological age, but it also complicated the picture for tenure. It meant a significant decrease in the number of tenure-track positions available to younger faculty members and a significant increase in the awkward problem of what to do with superannuated faculty members who are perfectly ready to keep on teaching long after their expertise had become detached from intellectual progress in their fields and their capacity to connect to students had faded.

As in many aspects of tenure, however, this coin has two sides. The active tenured faculty can well become a resource for students who find themselves trapped in academic departments that are fully committed to the trends and ideological fashions of the moment. Especially because we are experiencing an academy that as never before become locked into conformity on ideas about race, climate, disease, national borders, and other such issues, students have few opportunities to hear contrary or dissenting opinions. The “wisdom of the tenured elders” may be one of the few places where students can hear well-informed and articulate alternative points of view.

Public Dissent

As universities become more and more immersed in political conformity—typically conformity to progressive political causes—and as universities become more and more “postmodern” in their preference for viewpoints, perspectives, and opinions over well-substantiated facts and the search for truth, many members of the American public have begun to question the value of academic tenure. There are at least two branches of public criticism of tenure: tenure is a refuge for those who don’t earn their keep, and tenure is a bunker for those who abuse their privilege. To these we can now add a third with Professor Katz in mind: tenure fails to protect those for whom it was devised.

The first of these criticisms surely has an element of justice. In most of the work-a-day world, people do not get to hold well-paying positions indefinitely with little or no regard for actual performance. The bartender, the plumber, the accountant, and the musician may have bad days or weeks, but if their performance doesn’t recover, they lose their jobs. The great exceptions to the work-if-you-want-to-eat rule are school teachers, postal workers, and other government jobs, where sloth and idleness are endemic. In those fields, a relatively few diligent workers carry the load for a great many who uphold an ethic of minimum effort and maximum excuse.

I have been too many decades in higher education not to have observed a similar ethic among many tenured faculty members. Perhaps it is part of the syndrome that people like this always seem to believe they are overworked and underpaid. But a lack of strenuous commitment is definitely one of the moral hazards of a tenure system. After making considerable effort to obtain tenure, some tenured faculty members relax into a life of relative ease. The general public may not know the details, but they recognize the reality. So do many colleges and universities that fret about how to motivate the underperforming tenured faculty. The idea of “post-tenure review” frequently comes up, but I know of no evidence that such reviews significantly change the situation.

The second criticism deals with the radical faculty members who treat their tenure as a hardened bunker from which to snipe against American institutions and American society in general. In this case, the academic establishment generally recognizes what they are doing and approves of it at least up to the point at which it draws intense public reaction. Using a tenured position as cover for extolling the nation’s geo-political adversaries, attacking Republicans or conservatives, vituperating against people who hold non-leftist positions on guns, abortion, transgenderism, and so forth, is celebrated by many in higher education as a righteous and proper use of academic freedom and tenure as the most protected redoubt for exercising academic freedom. The public is well aware of their re-purposing of tenure.

What was once designed to ensure that faculty members could be free of pressure from the anti-intellectual mob has become instead the weapon of an intellectual mob to attack the freedom of anyone who dares disagree with the regnant political positions with the academy. Tenure was once urged for the institution to protect the faculty member’s pursuit of the truth against those who would impose political conformity. It has become the blunt force of conformity itself, often ranged against the freedom of thought and expression in society at large.

To these two lines of criticism, we can add the Katz case and similar developments. What Princeton appears to show us is that the freedom to dissent enshrined in the 1915 Statement of Principles, the founding document of the American Association of University Professors, is now a dead letter at one of the nation’s premier universities.4 Princeton at least tries to pretend that it upholds these principles as they were conveniently restated in the “Chicago Statement of Principles” in 2014.5 In April 2015, the Princeton faculty endorsed the Chicago principles with minor adjustments.6 The Princeton statement says in part:

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

Katz was not credibly accused of violating any part of this statement, hence the subterfuge of going after him on an extraneous matter. The Katz case is far from the only instance in which the public has watched such paper walls crumble when they got in the way of a strong political animus intent on driving a dissenter out of the academy.

Academic Freedom

I have nearly a whole bookcase full of books on the topic of academic freedom. Most of them mention tenure, but few treat it at length. Still fewer treat tenure as sufficiently important for the word to appear in the title. The outstanding exception is William W. Van Alstyne’s edited volume, Freedom and Tenure in the Academy (1993), which still only devotes a single chapter to the topic.7 But that chapter, by Ralph Brown and Jordan Kurland, is an excellent point of departure for those seeking a deeper history of the institution.8 Because I have written extensively about academic and intellectual freedom elsewhere,9 here I want to treat the connection between tenure and academic freedom with little more than a nod. When it deals with tenure at all, the professional literature treats tenure as the camel bearing the precious cargo of academic freedom. Tenure is a beast of burden. It carries academic freedom across the dry and desolate sands of public hostility to the brilliant insights of faculty members. Brown and Kurland observe, “Academic tenure is always [their emphasis] under attack.” But they allow that the attack in those days, the early 1990s, was mostly “grumbling and rumbling.” Tenure they admit imposes “economic and social costs[,]” but it does indeed “reinforce academic freedom.”

Brown and Kurland live in a world where the dangers to academic freedom originate outside the university. Within the university, “there is little ground here for seizing on heterodox or unpopular views as a ground for dismissal or for any lesser sanction.” This assertion, if it was ever true, no longer holds in our own era, which has seen Professor Nicholas Christakis hounded out of Yale; Professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying resigning from Evergreen State College; Professor Ilya Shapiro suspended from Georgetown; John Eastman fired by Chapman University; Peter Boghossian unwelcomed from Portland State; Walter Block attacked at Loyola University New Orleans; Amy Wax relentlessly blackballed at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; and Nicholas Meriwether sanctioned for pronoun misusage at Shawnee State University. The National Association of Scholars maintains a running list, “Tracking Cancel Culture in Higher Education,” which currently has 226 cases.10 The list is by no means comprehensive, but it gives some sense of the landscape. Every single one of these attacks on intellectual and academic freedom originates within the academy, often at the faculty member’s home institution and often abetted by a virtual mob that spreads by digital media across higher education in the U.S. and beyond. Those who are attacked range from highly regarded tenured professors to highly insecure adjuncts.

Tenure may have been a system designed as a sturdy support for academic freedom in American higher education, but it has become little more than a broken trellis for hundreds or perhaps thousands of tenured faculty members, who are well aware that tenure does little to protect them against colleagues and administrators who wish to silence, intimidate, or expel them.11

To say that tenure does little to protect them is not to say that it does nothing. I am well acquainted with faculty members who are fighting back against unjust efforts to silence them. That they can fight back at all is due to tenure. Without tenure, they would in most or all of these cases already have been dismissed from their positions.

Where Shall We Go?

I am met frequently by faculty members, many of them NAS members, who either want NAS to stand forthrightly in defense of the institution of tenure or who, to the contrary, want NAS to stand forthrightly in favor of abolishing tenure. On the one hand, I agree that the institution of tenure has rumbled into a disreputable state. But I also agree that, absent tenure, matters would be far worse for some faculty members who are determined to resist the campus autocracy that aims to bludgeon them into submission. Is there any path ahead that could meet both of these concerns?

I will put one idea on the table. Let’s grandfather the faculty who already have been awarded tenure and call for the abolition at public universities of tenure going forward. Florida Gulf Coast University already operates without tenure, so we know that such a system can be put into practice. The tenure system will have to be replaced with some form of contractual employment that gives faculty members breathing room to continue to develop their careers. Perhaps something like five-year renewal contracts with a university obligation in the third year to renew or not after the fifth year would provide a degree of security well above that available in the commercial sector. Such a system would provide an incentive to under-performing faculty members to step up their work. It would not by itself, however, do anything to break the political orthodoxy problem.

NAS has been working on that in other contexts. A radical reduction in the number of academic administrators would be one important step toward breaking the ideological Balkanization on campus. Especially important would be removing the ideological enforcers from any role in faculty recruitment, hiring, reappointment, and tenure.

Intervention in public universities by state boards of education and state legislators is not out of the question. These entities possess abundant legal authority to intervene in public universities in their states. Historically, they have been reluctant to exercise that authority, but there are signs that this is changing, and NAS encourages that maturing view. Plainly, universities are less and less to be trusted to govern themselves responsibly. Our national system of relying on non-profit boards of trustees or overseers of public universities has in the overwhelming majority of cases been subject to “capture.” Instead of facing accountability, administrators have been able to manipulate their boards to achieve their policy preferences. Possible steps to correct this include making all board seats independently elected and term limited and providing boards with staff who are funded directly by the legislature rather than by the universities. Legislators could take other steps to curtail the ability of college presidents and trustees to wield undue influence on members of boards.

Steps such as these may appear at first glance to be at a considerable distance from the reform of tenure. But once we consider why tenure has proven so ineffective as a bulwark for academic and intellectual freedom, it is clear that the deeper problem lies in the misdirection of the authority of academic administrators. No repair, including a switch to five-year term appointments instead of tenure, will solve the underlying problem if university administrations remain besotted by their ambition to transform American society rather than to educate American students.

Real Tenure

What good is tenure if it cannot protect someone like Joshua Katz? Not of any great good, but there is residual value in it. For example, tenure is helping Amy Wax fight back against the enormities visited upon her by her dean and some of her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Law School for her speaking out against racial double standards.12

But let us keep in mind that academic tenure as we know it is a relatively recent institution. We had not just viable but excellent colleges and universities before we had tenure. And institutional efforts to “protect” academic freedom have proven rather hapless. They cannot substitute for good character or the principled determination of academic administrators to uphold the freedom of faculty members and students to think their own thoughts, express their own mind, and seek the truth regardless of prevailing opinion. That tree in southern Chile is older than civilization itself. American higher education can come through its current spiritual and intellectual crisis only by taking the long view. And the long view in this case is that the human pursuit of knowledge has survived worse catastrophes than a system that rewards obsequious conformists and punishes independent thinkers. The truly independent may need to build new institutions, and there is no rule of nature that says we have to devote endless public support to colleges and universities that mean us no good.

The tenure we should care about is not the tenure within corrupt institutions, but the tenure of intellectual freedom. That we will possess only so long as we have the determination to keep it.

1 NAS Statement on Princeton's Firing of Professor Joshua Katz,” National Association of Scholars, May 25, 2022; Joshua T. Katz, “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor,” Quillette, July 8, 2020; Quillette Editorial Board, “The Disgraceful Firing of Joshua T. Katz,” Quillette, May 26, 2022.

2 Henry Reichman, The Future of Academic Freedom, Johns-Hopkins University Press. 2019. p. 3.

3 Richard C. Larson and Mauricio Gomez Diaz, “Nonfixed Retirement Age for University Professors: Modeling Its Effects on New Faculty Hires,” Service Science, 1 March 2012.

5 Geoffrey R. S Stone, et al., “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” University of Chicago, January 2015.

6 Faculty adopts statement affirming commitment to freedom of expression at Princeton,” Princeton Office of Communication. April 7, 2015.

7 William W. Van Alstyne, ed. Freedom and Tenure in the Academy, Durham: Duke University Press. 1993.

8 Ralph Brown and Jordan Kurland, “Academic Tenure and Academic Freedom.” In Alsyne 1993. Pp. 325-355.

9 Peter Wood, The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom (National Association of Scholars, 2016).

10 David Acevedo, “Tracking Cancel Culture in Higher Education,” National Association of Scholars, 2022. 

11 The publishing world continue to produce many books on tenure, but almost all of them are how-to books aimed at anxious junior faculty members. These include The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure--Without Losing Your Soul; Tenure Hacks: The 12 secrets of making tenure; Success After Tenure: Supporting Mid-Career Faculty; A Nurse's Step-by-Step Guide to Academic Promotion & Tenure; Candid Advice for New Faculty Members: A Guide to Getting Tenure and Advancing Your Academic Career; Preparing for Promotion, Tenure, and Annual Review: A Faculty Guide; Tenured AF: A Sweary And Snarky Coloring Book For Getting Tenure: An Adult Coloring Book For Tenure Track Professors; Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year; How to Get Tenure: Strategies for Successfully Navigating the Process; Moving Up in Academia: Essential Skills for Tenure and Promotion; Demystifying Promotion & Tenure: A Resource For Black Women; Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror; and A Survival Guide for New Faculty Members: Outlining the Keys to Success for Promotion and Tenure.

12 Roger Kimball, “Fahrenheit 451 Updated,” The New Criterion, April 2018.

Image: Natalia Reyes Escobar, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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