US academics hit out at ‘erosion of tenure system’

Universities and colleges are violating own policies to fire tenured faculty because of Covid-related financial troubles

February 9, 2021
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Several US universities are attempting to change their tenure policies to lay off professors during the pandemic in a move that academics fear will accelerate the erosion of the tenure system and diminish the quality of higher education institutions.

Hans-Joerg Tiede, director of research at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said that there were about 10 cases that had been brought to the organisation’s attention where institutions were attempting to fire tenured staff, usually by saying that “certain institutional policies that protect tenure were suddenly no longer in force”.

However, he suggested that the number could be higher because in many cases tenured faculty were being offered severance packages on the condition that they would not take legal action.

One of the most high-profile cases is at the University of Kansas. Last month, the Kansas board of regents approved a two-year policy that would allow the state’s six public universities to more easily suspend and fire employees, including tenured academics. Five of the institutions said that they did not plan to implement the policy, but the University of Kansas is considering it.

Meanwhile, four academics at Canisius College in New York state, who were told that their employment contracts would be terminated at the end of this academic year because of expected budget deficits, are taking legal action after rejecting severance packages. The lawsuit argues that the college violated its faculty handbook in several ways, including failing to declare any “financial exigency”.

Tenured scholars can typically only be dismissed if this is declared, or if they engage in serious misconduct or their department is cut.

Professor Tiede said that there was no incentive for institutions to officially announce that they had abolished their tenure systems, but this was happening in essence given that “tenure is nothing but the protections offered in these policies against lay-offs”.

He said he feared that the firing of tenured staff would be compounded by the majority of any new appointments being hired on non-tenure-track positions. The share of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the US had already been falling steadily pre-pandemic, with less than a third of scholars in the country on one of those two contracts in 2019-20, down from more than half in the 1970s, according to the AAUP’s latest report.

Professor Tiede added that while institutions have framed the policy changes as temporary responses to the financial challenges of Covid, they pose “longer-term threats”.

“There are reasons to think that over the next several years other types of financial difficulties will arise in US higher education,” he said.

“The more faculty are off the tenure track, more and more of them have to worry about what they say in the classrooms and what they say in their publications that could offend people. Certainly students’ education suffers and research accomplishments that our society at large depends on will be curtailed.”

Ronald Ehrenberg, Irving M. Ives professor of industrial and labour relations and economics at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, said that the lay-offs were generally happening in small, poorly funded private colleges and public regional universities.

“The bottom line is when we come to the end of the pandemic, the share of faculty on tenure and tenure-track appointments will certainly be diminished more,” he said.

“At liberal arts colleges, the things that attract students are the teaching faculty and the curriculum. But if the teaching faculty don’t have permanent connections to the university, it’s not clear that the strength of the teaching programmes can continue.”

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