The knotty issue of academic tenure - politically untouchable until now - is suddenly under the microscope in the United States. Colleges are starting to offer alternatives to tenure for professors, and one or two, like the elite liberal arts college, Bennington, in Vermont, is deciding to replace tenure with individual contracts of one to five years, writes Lucy Hodges.
A new university planned for a county in Arizona is reported to be starting without tenure. Legislative bodies and governing boards all over the US are beginning to ask questions about what has hitherto been a taboo subject. And the American Association for Higher Education has set up a two-year examination of the topic.
When professors are awarded tenure, they effectively have jobs for life. They cannot be fired except for really egregious conduct. So all academics want tenure, but not all get it. Those granted tenure at a given institution receive the kudos, salary and freedom from teaching that comes with being highly regarded by their peers.
Those who do not make tenure, who constitute as many as 40 per cent of higher education teachers, are second-class citizens. They make less money, they are part-time and they teach. Yet they are around for years and they do the work the public values most.
Critics are concerned that it operates neither in the interests of students, the public or change. Tenure makes it difficult to discontinue programmes and renders it almost impossible to dismiss "unproductive" professors.
Russell Edgerton, president of AAHE, said: "What we need now within the academy is honest dialogue about a system that both administrators and faculty privately acknowledge is too rigid but are afraid to discuss publicly."
Others seem to agree. In a 1989 survey of 5,000 academics by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 29 per cent of all teaching staff under the age of 39 agreed with the statement: "Abolition of tenure would, on the whole, improve the quality of higher education."
Nearly all four-year US colleges and universities have tenure systems that underpin the power of departments and allow professors to slough off most of the teaching load on to poorly paid teaching assistants.
When academics come up for tenure, the most important criterion is how much they have published and how good is their research, not teaching. The three-rung ladder from assistant to associate to full professor, is again predicated largely on research performance.
But today - in a harsh financial climate - awkward questions are being asked about tenure and the career ladder.
As the AAHE says in its draft project description: "Many informed leaders in academe see too many faculty pursuing research and specialised graduate training, too few faculty teaching undergraduates and working to address the needs of their larger communities."
The US public wants to see more accountability. In higher education this translates itself into demands that institutions explain how they are performing. Colleges and universities are being asked to introduce systems for post-tenure review.
Tenure is also the subject of dissatisfaction from within. Recruitment of new academics has fallen off because of shortage of money and because higher education is no longer exempt from the Age Discrimination Act.
Older academics are not retiring as they used to at the age of 70. This means less room to hire new blood. At the same time in high-technology fields, where academe is competing with the private sector and government, many academics prefer to teach part-time so they are free to do other things. But the tenure system means they will be members of an underclass.
For women whose childbearing years coincide with the time when they should be publishing hard, the system can mean that by taking time off for children they are sacrificing their chances of gaining tenure.
One woman, Shirley Tilghman, professor of molecular biology at Princeton, is calling openly for the abolition of tenure.