Two Takes on Tenure

Does tenure protect academic freedoms and allow professors to put down roots at their institutions? Or does it restrict growth and stifle innovation?
Two Takes on Tenure

Bring up the topic of tenure to a room of academics, and then step back—a heated debate is bound to ensue. Many educators hold that tenure offers needed support and protection for faculty and allows them to establish themselves at their institutions; others see it as a rigid, expensive practice that is rooted in the past and has outlived its usefulness. Here, Villanova’s John Pearce and Texas Tech’s James Wetherbe weigh the pros and cons of tenure in the 21st century.


The Value of University Tenure

When all benefits are taken into account, tenure remains a compelling and pragmatic option for academic institutions.

By John A. Pearce II

Although tenure allows universities to strengthen their ability to recruit talented faculty, it represents a long-term commitment to faculty who may not continue to make important contributions to the university over time. If that’s the case, why do so many institutions continue to employ tenured professors? Of business schools that responded to AACSB International’s 2013 Business School Questionnaire, 99 percent of schools in the U.S. (504 of 509) and 88 percent in Asia (52 out of 59) reported that they offer tenure.

I believe there are three compelling reasons. First, tenure helps universities attract and retain the best research faculty. Second, universities without tenure are at a disadvantage when it comes to securing top-tier faculty for the long term, which limits faculty involvement in the life of the institution. And, finally, tenure positively impacts a university’s reputation, performance, and ability to deliver quality education.

Tenure attracts faculty who publish high-impact research.

Over the last two decades, business schools increasingly have measured the impact of faculty by how often their faculty’s research is published in high-quality journals and cited by other authors. But scholarship with real impact on a field of study is relatively rare.

In a 1998 study, Eugene Garfiel found that of approximately 33 million articles included in the Science Citation Index from 1945 to 1988, 40 percent were never cited by others, and 56 percent were cited only once. Only 4 percent received two or more citations. Publishing articles in top-tier journals with rejection rates of 90 percent to 95 percent may be extremely difficult, but publishing articles with enduring impact on the field of study is extraordinarily so.  

In a 2008 study, Philip Podsakoff, Scott MacKenzie, Nathan Podsakoff, and Daniel Bachrach found that a mere 5 percent of faculty account for 50 percent or more of all citations. They also found that the number of a professor’s scholarly publications is positively related to the number of citations he or she receives. Likewise, the recognition a university receives for research is positively related to its number of faculty publications.

The only way universities can set themselves apart through scholarship is by hiring faculty with proven capability to publish high-impact articles in top-tier journals. Not surprisingly, these professors can command contracts with significant benefits, and many of the expect to be offered the possibility of tenure. Schools need to offer a tenure process to attract and retain such faculty.

Students are less likely to receive a high-quality education from one-off courses than from an integrated, theory-based, and pedagogically coherent package of courses provided by a committed tenured faculty.

The absence of tenure affects the quality of education.

The imbalance between part-time and full-time faculty appointments has steadily increased since 1975. The number of part-time, short-term, non-tenure-track—or “contingent”—professors has grown tremendously over the last four decades, across all institutional categories.

As of the 2012–2013 academic year, tenured and tenure-track full-time positions represented fewer than 24 percent of all instructional staff positions in colleges and universities, according to the American Association of University Professors’ “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession.” Authors John Curtis and Saranna Thornton note that non-tenure-track full-time and part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants represent the remaining 76 percent. While full-time tenured or tenure-track positions grew by only 26 percent since 1975, contingent academic positions increased by more than 300 percent. Although these trends are less marked in business disciplines, their direction is nearly identical.

Curtis and Thornton calculated the median rate of pay per three-credit course over all disciplines to be just US$2,700, which suggests that schools are cutting costs by relying on contingent professors. Unfortunately, such appointments provide very limited academic freedom because nonpermanent professors are subject to termination or nonrenewal without due process.

Non-tenure-track professors often serve as academia’s equivalent of professional baseball’s “utility players”—they are hired to teach a miscellany of courses and provide cost-efficient emergency service. But the often lack the expertise in theory, pedagogy, and practice needed to deliver quality educational experiences. Certainly, adjuncts can offer rich experiences in practice-oriented, standalone courses. But overall, students are less likely to receive a high-quality education from one-off courses than from an integrated, theory-based, and pedagogically coherent package of courses provided by a committed tenured faculty.

Tenured faculty are instrumental in maintaining mission over time.

The scholarly contributions of a school’s faculty are important to its reputation and ability to deliver quality education. But no less important is the value a school derives from its faculty’s myriad other contributions. These include textbooks and other pedagogical materials, books and articles targeted to practitioners, blogs, consulting, and interviews.

Through such work, tenured faculty contribute instrumentally to the stability, predictability, and continuity of a university’s mission. A school is much more likely to achieve long-term consensus among its faculty and administration—contributing to continuity in its programs, pedagogical integration, and student performance expectations—with a stable faculty roster. Such consensus affects crucial areas such as curriculum design, graduation requirements, and faculty tenure standards. Tenured faculty members also can link generations of stakeholders to the institution and inspire their trust and support. For many students, graduates, parents, community leaders, and employers, long-term faculty personify the university, implying an assurance of continuity.

When a university offers tenure to carefully vetted professors who share its values, it strengthens its culture and enhances its reputation. That makes a university’s investment in promising faculty worth it, even if only a few produce great scholarship. 

Tenure protects faculty’s academic freedom.

In his 1998 article “Is tenure necessary to protect academic freedom?” law professor Erwin Chemerinsky writes: “The reality is that a university that seeks to abolish tenure and replace it with an alternative is doing so precisely to provide less job security for faculty members. Inevitably, this will have a detrimental effect on academic freedom.”

Although some might think this aspect of tenure is obsolete, Chemerinsky’s statement highlights tenure’s original purpose—to promote academic freedom. Tenure preserves academic freedom by protecting professors against capricious and unwarranted dismissal. Although the risk is small, some administrators might wish to remove high-paid faculty members to reduce salary budgets or substitute new hires to support changed university priorities. For these reasons alone, tenure deserves widespread support.

Tenure emboldens a school’s faculty to excel.

Tenure doesn’t just strengthen a university’s ability to recruit and retain faculty or communicate its commitment to educational excellence. It also emboldens faculty members to accept positions of leadership and administration within the university. It reinforces the institution’s culture and strengthens the bond between administration and faculty. It encourages faculty to extend their work for the university community beyond contractual requirements.

The notion that intelligent, career-minded, ambitious, well-educated professors will lapse into decades of dramatic underperformance just because they have tenure is not credible.

The one thing tenure does not do is to encourage faculty inactivity. As much as professors pursue and appreciate tenure, their tenure does not guarantee merit raises, promotions, graduate assistants, summer employment, or access to funds for travel or research. It does not guarantee that they’ll receive their preferred teaching schedules, office spaces, course assignments, or other institutional resources, perks, and opportunities. The notion that intelligent, career-minded, ambitious, well-educated professors will lapse into decades of dramatic underperformance just because they have tenure is not credible.

Some critics of tenure believe that the future is too uncertain to offer faculty such a valuable and enduring benefit as tenure. After all, an institution’s priorities can change; a professor’s productivity can decline over time. Such concerns have merit, but uncertainty characterizes all future-oriented decisions. When university administrators grant a professor tenure, they undeniably make a large investment in the future. The value of tenure is well worth its price.


The End of Tenure

Professors teaching in the U.S. in the 21st century should rely on the Constitution’s First Amendment to protect their academic freedom—not lifetime tenure.

By James C. Wetherbe

“I can resign tenure?” I asked with pleasant surprise. This was not the response my dean had expected when he explained that my current situation was untenable. He had expected me to return to the University of Minnesota full-time. Instead, he offered me an alternative I had not yet considered—and one I was happy to take.

Previously, the dean and I had agreed that I could work part-time for three years as the FedEx Chaired Professor in Information Technology at the University of Memphis. While I helped found the FedEx Center for Cycle Time Research at Memphis, I would continue to direct the Management Information System Research Center at Minnesota. The dual responsibilities were demanding, but my work at Memphis was a boost to my teaching and research. After three years, the president of the University of Memphis wanted me to continue my work at the FedEx Center. I was game—I just needed to get the approval of my dean at Minnesota.

That’s when the dean made everything clear: “If you don’t come back to Minnesota full-time next year,” he said, “you will have to resign your tenure.”

By this point, I had come to disdain the way tenure protects the few faculty whose performance is complacent and subpar—who make the majority of faculty look bad. As a tenured professor, you have a guaranteed “job for life” unless you do something really heinous. During my 13 years of tenure, I grew weary of the sarcasm I heard from the businesspeople with whom I consulted. At times it felt as if tenure were an albatross around the neck of my credibility. “Easy for you to suggest changes needed in business,” they’d wisecrack. “You’ve got tenure.”

So, 20 years ago, I resigned my tenure. Just two years later, after I gave a speech to executives in Boca Raton, a participant challenged me during the Q&A with that oft-heard criticism: “You have tenure, so it’s easy for you to say….” This time, I had a clear response: “You and I share the same point of view on tenure. That’s why I resigned it.” A loud round of unexpected applause followed.

The albatross was gone.

In support of academic Freedom

Make no mistake—I am a strong advocate of academic freedom, just not lifetime tenure. And I am not alone.

Mark Taylor, a religion professor at Columbia University and author of the 2010 book Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, acknowledges that tenure has become less about academic freedom and more about job security. He discusses the history of tenure, which emerged at religious schools in the late 1800s to protect the jobs of professors, even if their doctrine offended donors. However, he takes the still somewhat controversial position that tenure has outlived its usefulness.

Tenure often serves as a barrier to innovation. With today’s fleeting product cycles and agile business models, tenure remains the ultimate business school irony—and business leaders know it.

Taylor joins many business experts and academics who have called for the end of tenure. Before becoming the United States’ 28th president, Woodrow Wilson served as president of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910. From that experience, he noted that “it is easier to change the location of a cemetery than to change the school curriculum.” As Wilson found, tenure often serves as a barrier to innovation. With today’s fleeting product cycles and agile business models, tenure remains the ultimate business school irony—and business leaders know it.

In a 1989 lecture, professor and management guru Peter Drucker asked: “Can even tenure be morally justified? We do need a safeguard against political and administrative tyranny over faculties. … Could we not design a way to protect the individual against the pressures and yet protect the community, the school, the student against sloth and incompetence?” Another prominent critic is author Jim Collins, who wrote the 1994 bestseller Built to Last. In a June 2000 white paper called “Aligning Action and Values,” Collins notes that freedom of inquiry is sacred, but tenure is not.

My experience supports that point. When I received tenure, I didn’t celebrate the fact that I could now speak the truth without fear. I already did that before I got tenure. What self-respecting professor would do otherwise?

In fact, in nearly 40 years in academia, I’ve never heard of a business faculty member who needed tenure to exercise his or her academic freedom. In the U.S., the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees all citizens, including faculty members, freedom of speech. Is that not a sufficient safeguard for academic freedom?

However, I have heard from faculty who have said they needed tenure to protect their positions from capricious administrators, as Drucker suggested. I argue that, at the very least, we should no longer claim that the purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom, as it was in the 1800s. In today’s academia, tenure has a much different purpose—job security.

In a recent interview, a student journalist for the Daily Toreador, Texas Tech’s newspaper, asked if I thought tenure protected subpar professors. I responded, “Yes.” He then asked if I thought there were such professors at Texas Tech. I said, “You’re a student here. Have you had any?” He laughed and responded, “Point made.”

Advocates of tenure argue that post-tenure reviews address this problem of giving “jobs for life” to faculty whose performance is less than stellar. But do they? Loss of tenure through post-tenure review is so rare that it’s a nonissue. A 1994 Chronicle of Higher Education study found that out of 280,000 tenured professors in the U.S., only 50 to 75 lost tenure each year. Cathy Trower, a senior research associate and director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, notes that those numbers are likely unchanged today. In my 40-year academic career, I have never heard of a single business professor at any university losing tenure.

A Rational Alternative

I suggest that, rather than guaranteeing lifetime employment, colleges and universities offer faculty rolling contracts, which last three years for newly promoted associate professors and five years for full professors. Please note that a rolling contract is different from a renewable contract. In a renewable contract, a professor’s job is at risk each time his or her contract renewal approaches. In a rolling contract, however, the length of the contract rolls forward each year. So with a five-year rolling contract, a professor would receive a minimum of five years’ notice prior to contract termination.

That means that when an administrator calls for a professor’s dismissal, faculty have time to organize and respond. On the other hand, if administrators need to dismiss professors, the worst-case scenario is that they will have to negotiate a multiyear contract buyout. Is this not a better exit strategy for both sides? It’s certainly preferable to subjecting tenured professors to terrible teaching schedules and office accommodations in hopes of making them quit, and it’s much better than subjecting students to poor teaching indefinitely.

Rolling contracts were well-debated by commenters responding to my March 2013 Harvard Business Review commentary, “It’s Time for Tenure to Lose Tenure.” But I think the debate will become more one-sided, in favor of rolling contracts, as time goes on. In an ongoing poll in The Wall Street Journal—whose audience has a high concentration of college graduates, senior managers, and educators—three out of four respondents indicated a preference for abolishing tenure.

Abolishing tenure only reinforces faculty’s credibility in the business community. It also improves their ability to negotiate with administrators to design less traditional academic careers, as I did 20 years ago. It’s already happening in other countries: The United Kingdom abolished tenure more than two decades ago with its Education Reform Act of 1988. Wouldn’t it be better for U.S. institutions to initiate change now, rather than wait until public pressure forces more drastic measures?

John A. Pearce II is the VSB Endowed Chair in Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship and professor of management at the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania.

James C. Wetherbe is the Stevenson Chaired Professor of information Technology at the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He resigned tenure from the University of Minnesota 20 years ago after previously earning it at the University of Houston. He has opted for one-year rolling contracts at the University of Memphis and Texas Tech.