Does Tenure Have a Future? An Open Forum edited by Peter Martens

Peter Martens introduces the series on tenure at MRB

The tenure debate is no longer academic. For years impervious to pointed critique, tenure has increasingly become vulnerable to its growing list of detractors. In a 2011 survey, most college presidents admitted to preferring long-term or annual contracts — and not tenure — for their faculty. While universities rarely seek a complete revocation of this benefit from their faculty, new or existing lines are often reclassified as tenure ineligible. Nor have the numbers of tenure stream faculty risen proportionately to the increased student enrollment of the past decades. The percentage of tenured appointments appears to be on the decline, and news last week seems to confirm this trend. The Wisconsin legislature passed a vote to eliminate tenure from state law.

A few years ago my institution found itself mired in a protracted struggle over tenure. The lively debate captured the attention of the entire university community, and occasionally spilled over into the local and national media. But the discourse was also disheartening. Commentators characterized the debate using anecdotal evidence, oversimplified claims, and hardened convictions driven more by the ideological poles of America’s political spectrum than the complexities of the issue. Rather than attracting careful analysis attentive to the complexities of the debate, tenure has usually been relegated to slipshod op-ed pieces.

The following essays tackle some (and only some) of the pressing issues associated with tenure. One of the basic aims of this series is to demonstrate that tenure is not an issue, but a bundle of interrelated issues. We have highlighted three topics repeatedly associated with tenure: freedom, justice, and the role of confessional commitments. These issues are too complex to be treated exhaustively here, and we could have included an entire series on the role of finance alone, but each of the essays here complicates the routine perspectives with which those outside and inside academia have come to this controversy.

Another aim of the series is to underscore how difficult it is to speak about tenure in sweeping terms. Tenure is earned in very different ways: the standards at a teaching-intensive school differ widely from a research-intensive school. Indeed, within the same institution standards for earning tenure vary from department to department. Where professors of religion are in view, the picture is further complicated by the fact that a sizeable percentage of instruction transpires at confessional institutions (such as seminaries) that often do not have a tenure system in place.

There is an oft-forgotten corollary to the particularity of tenure: that the non-tenure world is no less complex. A non-tenured job can range from a one-year (and only one-year) contract, to a position that is basically as permanent as what a tenured professor would enjoy. Non-tenured positions can have expectations, benefits, and pay that differ widely, or only very narrowly, from those of tenure-track colleagues. The ubiquitous assumption that a non-tenure track job is less desirable than a tenure-track job does not always hold. A number of my colleagues have disclosed that they actually prefer their non-tenured position to the research-intensive expectations of tenure-track lines. The debate is hardly straightforward.

The essays here endorse tenure yet are written from different standpoints and are not without criticisms of tenure: John Haas alone among the essayists has earned tenure; Ken Garcia is a university administrator and author; and Kelly Baker is a freelance writer adjacent to academia. Where these essays come across defending tenure, I hope that readers find them nonetheless both reasoned and responsible. If tenure is to endure, it is because academics provided compelling reasons for its continued existence.

Our essays do not claim to speak the final word on tenure and how it relates to the three issues we have addressed or those we have not, such as job performance and the financial pressures our institutions face. We would be interested in receiving further essay submissions that respond to these three pieces here or open up new lines of discussion. If you should be interested, visit this page to pitch your essay idea so that we may consider it for inclusion in this series.


Kelly J. Baker, “’It’s gonna be forever or it’s gonna go down in flames’: Tenure and (In)justice”

The reality of academic labor is the separation of those who can gain access to tenure from those who cannot. The reasons for (more) secure and insecure employment are explained away by a myriad of factors, usually boiled down to excuses about finances, complicated scheduling, resource allocation, and shifting student enrollment. Institutions of higher learning are no longer equitable and fair workplaces, if they ever were. Academia is now a stratified workplace, in which the exploitation of the many support the security of the few. What, then, is tenure’s role in these academic labor systems? How can we reclaim justice for all teachers and not just a few?


Kenneth Garcia, “Tenure and Academic Freedom: Perspectives from Secular and Religious Institutions”

In both secular and religiously-affiliated universities, young scholars who wish to pursue truth beyond disciplinary and even interdisciplinary domains and engage theological perspectives are not likely to obtain tenure. Many young scholars know all too well that they must remain within a cetain limited academic frame of reference and be cautious about drifting into interdisciplinary realms, let alone theology. In this way, tenure becomes, in the eyes of critics of academe, the preserve of scholars who share the same disciplinary orthodoxies, while qualified scholars with differing and even opposing views are rejected. Tenure may even guarantee a lifetime professorship to those who have become intolerant of other scholars who disagree — with well-founded and reasoned arguments — with their own ideological orthodoxies, i.e., new conventional wisdoms. When this phenomenon becomes widespread throughout America’s universities, there may be backlash from various sectors of society.


John H. Haas, “Tenure and Confessional Institutions”

Tenure affords faculty a sense that the institution has confidence in their work, and that they will not be dismissed merely because they have advanced an unpopular opinion or ruffled some administrator’s feathers. At the same time, ensuring a free space for inquiry protects the reputation of the institution as a place of intellectual integrity, and helps to ensure that the wider society will not be deprived of genuine advances in knowledge simply because someone in power dislikes where inquiry is leading.