The Postsecondary Professoriate: Problems of Tenure, Academic Freedom, and Employment Law

By Bowden, Randall G. | Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, September 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Postsecondary Professoriate: Problems of Tenure, Academic Freedom, and Employment Law

Bowden, Randall G., Academy of Educational Leadership Journal


American postsecondary institutions and their faculty have come under expansive misconceptions and scathing indictments in recent years (Newman, Couturier, & Scurry, 2004). As a result, significant change is on the immediate horizon, but change is nothing new to colleges and universities or their faculty. What is new, though, are the types of changes affecting college and university faculty. From fewer tenure-track positions being available to court intervention of academic behavior, the professoriate is faced with "scrutiny and a widening misunderstanding" (Finkelstein, 2001, 324), particularly as it relates to faculty. This paper helps clarify the complex role of the professoriate in American higher education. Whereas scrutiny and indictments no doubt will remain, a better understanding of today's professoriate may diminish the severity of criticism and mitigate its impact on the academy. The intent of this paper, then, is to examine the dual role of the faculty, first, as teachers, researchers, servants, and second, as employees according to three performance concepts: (1) the nature and context of tenure; (3) academic freedom and its limited constitutional protections; and (3) faculty and their behavior as employees.


No doubt the American professoriate has undergone many considerable transformations since its colonial days. Those were times where faculty roles primarily centered on teaching and when students were trained in the professions, predominantly for religious, legal, and medical purposes. These began to be altered in the 1800s with the German influence of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to research and publish wherever it may lead), Lernfeiheit (freedom to shape courses of study), and Wertfreiheit (objectivity and impartiality to research). The introduction of these into US institutions helped shape the PhD as the preeminent degree for faculty. Moreover, research became the esteemed role across campuses and the nation. As late as the mid1960s, the professoriate experienced highly favorable reviews from public polls. Following World War II, American higher education experienced "prosperity, prestige, and popularity" (Thelin, 2004, p. 260). These ushered in the "golden years" of the professoriate to where the "biggest gains in income, power, prestige, and protections between 1945 and 1970 were those accumulated by the faculty" (Thelin, 2004, p. 310). In spite of criticism through the 1970s and 1980s faculty grew in rank and tenure in keeping with the expansion of community colleges, university systems, and student populations, both traditional and adults, but the admirable position of a professor scurrilously fell from grace over the next 20 years (Finkelstein, 2001).


The professoriate's fall from grace can be attributed to no one event. It is as though, in spite of the warnings and concerns of academic leaders, such as Boyer (1990) and Levine (1983), faculty woke up one day to find themselves indicted: Professors are self-promoters not interested in public good; They have little work ethic as seen by their lack of commitment in the classroom; Their tenure status promotes their incompetence; and, Tenure protects them from being accountable (Finkelstein, 2001).

One might consider the hand that helped feed institutional growth and faculty prestige may also be the one fostering the caustic indictments. During the "golden age" of higher education the federal government drastically increased funding allocations to institutions from $2.2 billion in 1950 to $23.4 billion in 1970 with an increase to $31 billion in 1991 (Bender, 1997). With this growth eventually came greater accountability by political leaders and other stakeholders (e.g., Baldwin & Chronister, 2001; Bennett, 1998; Mallon, 2001) for its institutions to educate citizens in a new economy (Newman, Couturier, & Scurry, 2004). Postsecondary institutions, now increasingly exposed in the public mind to be more responsible, have tremendous demands of quality and accountability imposed on them from the federal government (Taylor, 1999).

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The Postsecondary Professoriate: Problems of Tenure, Academic Freedom, and Employment Law


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