What is tenure in education – and how to get it

For many scholars, permanent employment is the light at the end of a years-long tunnel. Here, Henry Reichman explains the US tenure system and why it is key to protecting academic freedom

Henry Reichman's avatar
California State University, East Bay
12 Jul 2022
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Academic tenure, the practice of providing faculty members with continuous employment after a probationary period, is in the news. Several US states – including Texas, Georgia, Wisconsin and Kansas – have seen legislative efforts to limit or eliminate tenure systems at public institutions. Even without such frontal assaults, over the past half-century the percentage of US faculty members with tenure or who are eligible for it has declined dramatically. About 75 per cent of all who teach in higher education are now employed off the tenure track, compared with only about a quarter decades ago. At four-year public institutions, 56 per cent of full-time and part-time faculty members are ineligible for tenure; the figure at private institutions is 66 per cent. 

Still, if in the 1930s few universities offered tenure to more than a handful of exceptionally qualified full professors, today, according to a 2022 survey conducted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), 87 per cent of four-year institutions report having a tenure system.

What is the definition of academic tenure?

But what is tenure? It is not, as many mistakenly assume, a guarantee of lifetime employment. Nor, for that matter, should it be understood as a privilege granted to a select few, a reward for merit or a symbol of prestige. While some institutions employ an “up or out” system in which tenure is achieved only on promotion to a specific rank, in principle tenure need not be granted in conjunction with promotion. It simply denotes a continuing appointment, not professional standing.

In 1940, the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the American Association of Colleges and Universities, or AACU) issued a Joint Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure that offered this definition: “After the expiration of a probationary period, teachers or investigators should have permanent or continuous tenure, and their service should be terminated only for adequate cause…or under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies.” In this vision, tenure is treated as a right accruing to anyone successfully completing a suitable testing period. Although the 1940 statement did not require promotion-like review, in practice most institutions require such a review, even where tenure is not linked automatically to promotion. 

The 1940 statement defined the appropriate probationary period as up to seven years, “including within this period full-time service in all institutions of higher education”. Since most institutions provide a year’s notice if tenure is to be denied, for practical purposes this period often amounts to six years. Indeed, demonstrating the continued impact of the statement, the AAUP 2022 survey found that 96.8 per cent of four-year institutions with a tenure system have a probationary period of fixed length, averaging 5.7 years. 

What does tenure have to do with academic freedom?

The 1940 statement declared: “Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” 

Tenure is therefore widely recognised as the strongest bulwark in defence of academic freedom. This is because a continuous appointment that can be terminated only for “adequate cause” is essentially a guarantee of due process and presumption of innocence. 

What is meant by “adequate cause”? This may vary among individual institutions, but in 1973 a commission sponsored by the AAUP and the AACU recommended that grounds for dismissal be limited to “(a) demonstrated incompetence or dishonesty in teaching or research, (b) substantial and manifest neglect of duty, and (c) personal conduct which substantially impairs the individual’s fulfillment of his [or her] institutional responsibilities”. At the same time, widely accepted principles of academic freedom would deem inadmissible as grounds for dismissal such charges as insubordination, political affiliation, damaging the reputation of the institution or the mere fact of negative performance reviews. 

All who teach or conduct research should be entitled to academic freedom, including those in the probationary period for tenure and those on contingent short-term contracts, but the existence of a sufficiently large group of tenured faculty may ensure that dissenters and gadflies among the untenured also have a community of supporters free to advocate on their behalf.

The 1940 statement defined tenure as applying to both “teachers and investigators”. While many institutions prioritise research as a criterion for awarding tenure, its purpose is to ensure academic freedom and security in all professional duties. Hence, tenured positions should be equally available to those in teaching-intensive positions and those whose primary responsibilities lie in research. 

How to get tenure

If you are one of the fortunate minority of newly hired faculty members on the tenure track, you may wonder how these principles apply to your situation. In theory, if you do your job reasonably well for the length of the probationary period, tenure should be awarded all but automatically.

In reality, however, tenure systems vary greatly, and criteria for its award have tended to grow more stringent as the proportion of faculty eligible for tenure declines. The AAUP survey found that 17.6 per cent of responding institutions made standards more rigorous in the preceding five years. 

You should carefully read and study your institution’s policies and procedures, which may be quite detailed. Tenure decisions are – and should be – mainly the prerogative of faculty bodies, but administrators up to and including the campus president will often have veto power, which may in some institutions extend even to the trustees. Individual departments will probably have their own criteria and standards that they apply during tenure reviews. Research institutions may prioritise scholarship and publication, but even teaching institutions increasingly include requirements to, at minimum, demonstrate continuing scholarly activity. At many institutions tenure reviews are preceded by periodic developmental reviews of progress. Most institutions have mechanisms for appeal. 

While tenure requirements will vary, often considerably, in all cases decisions should be based on well-defined criteria measuring only an individual’s fitness to fulfil the requirements of the position. These should not be discriminatory, based on irrelevant personal characteristics, including “collegiality”, or violate principles of academic freedom.

The AAUP has developed a set of Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure, derived from the 1940 statement and the 1958 joint AAUP-AACU Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings. While these are not obligatory, many institutions have incorporated some or all their provisions in policy documents. They provide a useful measuring stick to assess whether the process for achieving tenure at a given institution is fair and adequately protective of academic freedom. 

At institutions where tenure-track faculty are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, candidates for tenure are well advised to seek the union’s assistance. Although the AAUP cannot be an arbiter of the wisdom (or lack thereof) of any specific tenure decision, it can provide advice to individual faculty members who have reason to believe that at some point in the tenure process their academic freedom has been violated. Where such violations are both clear and egregious, additional support and assistance may be available. To contact the relevant AAUP department write to academicfreedom@aaup.org.

Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay. He is a former AAUP vice-president and chair of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure (2012-2021). His latest book is Understanding Academic Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021). 

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