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A Consideration of Tenure and Its Effect on Women Faculty Members: A Proposal for Increasing Parity between Men and Women on College Campuses

Article excerpt


The 1960s are memorable for many reasons, including the emergence of the women's rights movement, which gained full momentum during that era. (1) Notwithstanding the years since then, and notwithstanding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment discrimination based on sex, there still exists a gender gap in higher education. It has been well-documented that women are underrepresented in the ranks of university faculty, and even more underrepresented in the class of tenured professors. (2) In this stratified professional community, tenured faculty as a group are accorded the most prestige and their status results in a level of job security that is almost the equivalent of a life appointment. As such, there are qualitative differences between one's status as a tenured professor as compared to one who holds only a tenure-track position or one whose status is that of a lecturer or contract instructor.

This paper asks a basic question and offers a proposal. The question posed is what, if anything, might be done to increase the parity between female and male faculty members. (3) The proposal for consideration is that we seek a structure different than that which currently exists, a structure that serves to preserve the benefits of tenure without also having the potential collateral effect of disadvantaging women.

This paper will start by reviewing the nature of tenure and the tenure process. It will then describe and evaluate other means by which women might gain parity, particularly focusing on the current status of the anti-discrimination statutes as they apply to the tenure decision and concluding that the laws inadequately protect women, and for that matter, minorities in general. Finally, it will envision how the environment might change for women if a different structure for university faculty existed. This article asks the question might tenure, or more accurately the tenure process, disadvantage women in higher education such that women would fare better in an environment in which a different process were utilized. The Nature of Tenure and the Tenure Process

Academic tenure sets college and university professors apart in significant ways from professionals in other fields. Tenure is described as a formal assurance that no professor retained beyond a specific probationary period who meets the criteria set out by her college or university can be dismissed without adequate cause. (4) While technically a tenured instructor does not have a guarantee of lifetime employment, (5) that tends to be the practical result for the vast majority of tenured professors. (6)

Contrast the status of a tenured professor with that of virtually any other professional. Barring an enforceable contract, that employee is an employee at-will. Stated in its most simple iteration, employment at-will means that unless an employer and employee are bound by a contract, either is free to terminate the employment for any reason or no reason at all. From the employer's perspective, it is not required to have cause to terminate an employee. There have been many encroachments on the concept, (7) but essentially, the employee has little job security.

When viewed in this light, academic tenure, while long-recognized and accepted, is actually a fairly radical idea: it results in a status that is not available to the vast majority of other American workers. (8) Even those who are parties to employment contracts generally have contracts of a defined duration, as opposed to the open-ended duration of a tenured position.

Nonetheless, tenure is widely considered necessary given the unique mission of colleges and universities, namely to educate and to discover new knowledge. The idea is that tenure protects the academic freedom necessary to engage in the search for knowledge, unfettered by concerns of termination or discipline for unpopular research or ideas. Tenure facilitates the pursuit of disinterested scholarship and teaching, which is reviewed by one's peers, free of threat to the individual. …