Tenure Tension: Tenure System Reform Pressed by Public, Legislative Bodies

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Tenure Tension: Tenure System Reform Pressed by Public, Legislative. Bodies

ATLANTA -- The changing nature of higher education's tenure system, and the growing debate surrounding it, pose critical questions about the future attractiveness of life in the professorate.

In an uncertain climate for education funding and increased public pressure for higher education to be more accountable, the venerable tenure system is facing perhaps its greatest challenge.

Some are calling for an aggressive reassessment of the system to make it more cost-effective, while others characterize it as outmoded and call for its abolishment.

The assault on tenure recalls the public education reform movement of the 1980s, when many states bowed to public frustration and hastily drafted legislation that created new programs, policies and standards -- often with minimal input from the education establishment, then widely condemned as part of the problem.

Financial Drain?

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), at least two dozen state legislatures have felt compelled recently to delve into the issue of professorial workloads.

A popular notion in American society is that unproductive and unaccountable tenured professors, in particular, overpopulate higher education, effectively draining the academy financially and creatively.

"Outside of higher education, there is much misunderstanding about tenure," says AAUP spokeswoman Dr. Iris Molotsky.

Tenure is granted to professors, who, having completed a tenure-track probationary period of several years, are judged competent enough by peers and administrators to receive status that carries strong job and economic security in higher education.

According to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, tenure status guarantees academic freedom in teaching and research, and "a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability."

Molotsky says the public generally regards tenure as a system that shields professors from regular performance evaluations, allows them to rest on their laurels and avoid heavy workloads, and protects faculty deadwood from being fired.

Academic Freedom Threatened?

But the tenure issue, Molotsky argues, fits into a larger puzzle.

"Cutbacks in the budget have really fueled the whole question of faculty productivity and accountability," she says.

AAUP President Dr. James Perley, a professor of biology at Ohio's College of Wooster agrees. "The bottom line is the economy."

The public is making a clamor about rising tuition and room-and-board expenses, which average from $10,000 a year at public schools and more than twice that amount at private ones.

In a climate of diminishing revenue projections for higher education, colleges and universities are being pressed to improve faculty productivity as one way of saving money.

Perley says the image of an underworked and overpaid tenured professor offers a tantalizing target. "We are being increasingly seen as laborers who can work as adjunct professors without benefits."

He likens it to the business world downsizing and efforts to hold costs by getting rid of the senior employees. "This is a corporate model being imposed on the academic world," Perley says.

The assault on tenure, Perley and others insist, threatens the very academic freedom tenure is designed to protect.

Advocates of the tenure system also argue that growing hostility toward it could hurt the recruitment of new faculty and the retention of veteran professors.

To counter the image problem and promote better understanding of what tenure is and what college professors do, the AAUP, Perley says, is conducting an ongoing "positive proactive" response to the "threat," through guest media appearances, position papers, letters to the editor and other public forums. …