Tenure vs. contracts

I’m on the Promotion and Tenure Committee here, and my two colleagues and I on the committee just finished the first of two solid weeks of reviewing evaluation portfolios of all the faculty up for promotion, tenure, and annual review. It’s great fun. But seriously, I’ve been thinking a lot about tenure this week. In the more exasperating moments, I’ve wished that we were one of those colleges that doesn’t do tenure any more at all, but rather some kind of contract system.

First of all, that would make us rare. According to the blurb for this book on colleges without tenure, 97% of research universities and 99% of four-year public universities offer tenure — and apparently 91% of small private colleges (like mine). The number of colleges without tenure is small, but I think it’s growing. Certainly I hear a lot of rumbling among administrators (although I haven’t ever heard it among my own) that tenure is an antiquated system that does nothing more than guarantee that you’ll end up with a bunch of professors who have precisely zero incentive to improve on anything once they’ve busted their humps to get tenure in the first place; and colleges ought to make it easier to get rid of recalcitrant profs — or simply make it easier to get rid of everybody in case of financial troubles. And as a P&T member, contracts sure do sound easier to deal with than tenure.

But I wonder just how much different things really are under a contract system. Wouldn’t professors still have to put together some sort of case for renewal of contracts that amounts to a post-tenure review? And wouldn’t there have to be some faculty body — a P&T Committee — to review all that stuff? The only difference I can see is that (1) the prof’s job is really on the line every five years, unlike in the tenure system, (2) your academic freedom is never really guaranteed, and (3) under contracts, you have to take on faith the idea that the administrators you work with over the years will not abuse the ability to deny a contract renewal in the future.

If this is really true, then why do some people prefer contracts over tenure, and why are some administrators really interested in replacing tenure with contracts?



Filed under Academic freedom, Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Tenure

6 responses to “Tenure vs. contracts

  1. elementaryteacher

    Well, I am in a private school, not a university. We have no tenure, only one-year contracts. We also have no annual reviews. I see that this makes it easy on management to terminate anyone for any reason at all. I now see that yearly reviews are less to protect the employer’s interest than the employee’s interest!


  2. The answer is too easy – they’d like to have the power to terminate, easily and barely-fettered. Having that power might keep professors in line, might reduce discussion on policy-setting committees, etc, etc.

  3. virusdoc

    Tenure is meaningless in my field, although it is used by my department. It’s meaningless because my research (and to a large degree, my salary and that of my students, technicians, etc) is supported by grant funds. If I cease to be productive and innovative, I lose my grants and my entire research program collapses. Tenure does guarantee me 70% of my salary even if I had no grants, but what would be the point if I couldn’t do any science?

    I disagree with the suggestions that administrations want the freedom to easily terminate anyone who becomes a thorn in their sides. If a university used such power, they would rapidly get a reputation for doing so (academia is a small world and we all talk to eachother). The consequences for that institution over time would be dire–an inability to recruit or retain outstanding faculty, followed by an inability to compete for research funding and top-notch students. So I don’t see this as an argument in favor of retaining the tenure system. Maybe it was the case 100 or 50 or even 25 years ago, but not today.

  4. Rather than use such power, administrations might simply hold such power to chill discussions (of, for example, university policies)

    But for deeper reasons, look at what some schools have done with non-professor teaching positions. I’m not sure about where you are, but around here the number of adjuncts has exploded. No tenure, lower pay.

  5. rightwingprof

    I don’t see that it would make a difference either way. After all, the nuts are in charge of the asylum, so to speak (if you know of a university where trustees actually do what they’re supposed to do and run the place instead of rubber-stamping faculty decisions, do tell). If tenure were replaced by contracts, those contracts would have the force of tenure, as long as faculty run the university.

  6. virusdoc

    I can’t speak as high up as the BoT where I work, but I can say that the mid-level leadership (College of Science) has their own agenda that often isn’t driven by the faculty. They ultimately need a vote of the whole faculty to implement things, but the rule there is simple majority, so it is not uncommon for issues that are exceptionally fractious at the faculty level to get implemented 51% yea to 49% nay. For example, last year the CoS implemented the first curriculum overhaul in 40 years by such a slim margin, and it was widely perceived that one administrator had forced the entire issue through and ignored many significant concerns. So we don’t really feel like we’re running the asylum.

    Now maybe we could put forth a motion to change the rule to a 3/4 majority for certain types of changes that affect multiple departments. I’m still not quite sure how all this works.