Over just three decades, the proportion of college instructors who are tenured or on the tenure track plummeted: from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The new report is expected to show that that proportion fell even further in 2009, dropping below one-third. If you add graduate teaching assistants to the mix, those with some kind of tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors.
What does vanishing tenure mean for higher education? For starters, some observers say that college faculties are being filled with people who may be less willing to speak their minds: contingent instructors, usually working on short-term contracts. Indeed, the American Association of University Professors says instructors need tenure to guarantee that they can say controversial things inside and outside the classroom without being fired.
But others argue that the disappearance of tenure is actually not the worst thing that could happen in academe. The competition to secure a tenure-track job and then earn tenure has become so fierce in some disciplines that academe may actually be turning away highly qualified people who don’t want the hassle. A system without tenure, but one that still gave professors reasonable pay and job security, might draw that talent back.
And is tenure even worth it for those on the track?
Cathy Trower, a senior research associate at Harvard University who has studied tenure for about a dozen years at the institution’s Graduate School of Education, says tenure’s harsh up-or-out system—and the escalating demands for research and publication at the nation’s top universities—is actually driving away talented young people. “More and more men and women are saying, I don’t want to be on that fast track,” says Ms. Trower, who has studied 11,000 tenure-track professors at the nation’s research universities. “Many are saying, This system is broken, I don’t want it.”
Only 70 percent of the tenure-track professors Ms. Trower studied at research institutions said they would choose to work at their universities if they had it to do over again. Another study, this one of Ph.D. students at the University of California that was published last year, showed that the proportion of men who said they were interested in faculty jobs at research institutions dropped from 45 percent when they first enrolled in graduate school to 39 percent later in their graduate-school careers. The proportion of women dropped from 36 percent to 27 percent.
Ms. Trower says it is possible to run a university with hard-working, committed scholars who are off the tenure track. “I’m outside the tenure system,” she adds, “and I work really, really, hard.”
And about how tenure is granted:
“I think we’re at a crossroads,” says Mr. Bousquet. “Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen a growing trend to misrecognize tenure as a kind of merit badge for research-intensive faculty.” Meanwhile, he says, “the majority of teaching-intensive faculty have been shunted out of the tenure system.” In his view, all professors should be included on the tenure track, and that’s what a report on the issue by the AAUP will call for this fall.