Tenure is so firmly embedded in American academic culture, says Richard T. De George (University of Kansas), a philosopher, that many college and university professors view the concept and practice as indisputable.(1) "In fact," write Robert W. McGee (Seton Hall University) and Walter E. Block (College of the Holy Cross), two economists who have assessed tenure as a management issue, "it is very difficult to find an academic, especially one with tenure, who is not in favor of tenure."(2) The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, currently bearing the endorsement of the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, provides a succinct rationale for justifying this stalwart defense of academic prerogative: "Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) Freedom of teaching and research and of extra-mural activities, and (2) A sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society."(3)
But strident critics of tenure in the society academia purports to serve argue vehemently that lifetime assurances of guaranteed employment for college professors are an extravagant luxury. As the Wilson Quarterly recently observed: "Long a sacred cow in academia, tenure lately has come under challenge as never before."(4) Richard De George distills the objections of complainers: "the downsizing that has gripped the corporate world has led some governing bodies to ask why, in a time of fewer available tax dollars, universities should not also be made leaner and meaner." Further expressing the outlook of detractors he adds: "The role, function, and justification of academic tenure are often simply equated with unnecessary, undeserved, and counterproductive job security for an elitist, self-serving group of overpaid and underworked college and university professors."(5) The increase in part-time college instructors (so-called "adjuncts") and faculty appointments to non-tenure track positions cause critics and advocates of tenure alike to wonder if this bulwark is crumbling. The consensus of a meeting in October 1998, organized by Harvard University's Project on Faculty Appointments, directed by Richard P. Chait, is "Few colleges will eliminate tenure in the next fifteen years, but many will become stingier about offering it and more creative in finding alternatives to it."(6)
Unfortunately, when historians look at tenure as a component of academic culture, they are constrained by the paltry number of first-person accounts drawn from memories of tenure quests and consequences, and by the evidential problematics these recollections impose on their interpreters. This essay gauges the difficulties of such reminiscences, especially from the viewpoint of a practicing oral historian, and suggests how a broad-based oral history project could productively enrich documentation of how tenure as a mechanism in academia has actually functioned over several recent decades. Additionally, this knowledge might helpfully provide correctives for prevailing folk-histories and mythic versions of tenure battles and outcomes since so many accessible narratives of tenure quests are authored by candidates whose aspirations were thwarted. As David Greenberg remarks: "When you've been denied tenure, it's hard to avoid both the suspicion that someone has wronged you and the desire to vindicate yourself."(7) William G. Tierney and Estela Mara Bensimon (both of the University of Southern California) note "If academe is to deal effectively with the issues surrounding junior faculty socialization, then our collective memory about promotion and tenure must be reconstructed."(8) Knowing more thoroughly the history of tenure as an academic procedure, in effect, will enlarge understanding of it, and thereby contribute fruitfully to the stormy public debate now underway about its future.
Of the four narratives considered in this article, let's begin with one by August Meier, who in 1964 was teaching history at Morgan State College in Baltimore when he was offered a job at Roosevelt University in Chicago. "There are at least two different accounts of how I came to be invited to teach at Roosevelt, though they are not really mutually exclusive," he has written. "One account stresses a personal network, the other the appearance of a good book at the appropriate time." The personal network linked three people: Meier's brother, a mathematician at the University of Chicago, knew the chairman of the Mathematics Department at Roosevelt, who in turn knew Jack Roth, head of Roosevelt's History Department. Earlier efforts on behalf of August Meier had failed; "without a book at least accepted for publication Roth had no interest." But "a very different chain of events" was started when Meier's Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915, was issued in 1963, at the same time that John Bracey, a history major at Roosevelt, together with other activist students and faculty members like St. Clair Drake were agitating for a course in black history. "There was some discussion as to whether I was black or white--at the time, at least, one could not tell from the content or style of the book itself, and indeed the book was consciously written with the kind of detachment that characterized the best black scholarship of the period, including the work of figures like Charles S. Johnson, Drake, and John Hope Franklin, as well as other historians like Lorenzo J. Greene, Benjamin Quarles, and Luther Porter Jackson. Moreover, my career trajectory--from Oberlin to Morgan State--could well have been that of a black person. I understand that in the discussion at the time they decided that, whatever my race, it was a good book, and they proceeded successfully to press their case with the history department."(9)
Meier says he would not have moved to Roosevelt if Martin D. Jenkins, the president of Morgan State, had promoted him to full professor when Negro Thought in America was published late in 1963. "Jenkins for some reason often played a cynical game with promotions, compelling qualified individuals to work an extra year or two beyond the date of their promised promotions."(10)
This summary of Meier's first-person account, although not derived from an oral history interview with him, poses evidentiary problems familiarly encountered by oral historians and shrewd readers …