Academic Freedom without Tenure: New Pathways

By Burgan, Mary A. | Academe, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom without Tenure: New Pathways


Burgan, Mary A., Academe


In issuing its "inquiries" on tenure in the mid 1990s, the New Pathways Project sought to avoid reverting to the old philosophical debates about tenure, according to Russell Edgerton, who was then president of the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE), the project's initiator. The need was, rather, to answer practical questions such as "What career paths are appropriate for the twenty-first-century professoriate?" and "What employment arrangements [are] necessary to one's tenure per se?" These questions appeared in a March 7, 1997, working paper titled "New Pathways: Faculty Careers and Employment in the Twenty-first Century: A Preliminary Statement for Consideration by Colleagues." Some fourteen New Pathways working papers sought to "reframe" the predominance of tenure by justifying the use of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty, advocating rigorous post-tenure review, detailing tenure's lack of popularity among junior faculty, and praising contractual and financial "buy-outs" of tenure.

But the New Pathways project also had something philosophical to say about tenure. This philosophical argument was staged in the fifth position paper of the project, "Academic Freedom Without Tenure?" by J. Peter Byrne, a Georgetown University law professor and a respected commentator on academic freedom. Byrne composed his paper as a thought experiment-making an effort to imagine a school in which academic freedom could be freely and fearlessly exercised without a tenure system.

Perhaps the most interesting fact about his effort was that it had to labor so hard to come to an affirmative conclusion. For one thing, AAUP historical statements on tenure have so carefully covered the issues that Byrne had to agree that alternatives would have a very tough job improving on the AAUP's formulations. Moreover, in suggesting that nontenure systems might be able "to adopt procedures that will still provide legal and practical substance to academic freedom for . . . faculty," his argument insistently returned to the fact that the evaluation of faculty would require some kind of permanent independence for their evaluators. He writes:

In our hypothetical tenureless college, these [evaluating] professors would themselves not be tenured. Their continued employment would rest to some extent on some of the very institutional decision makers whose actions they are reviewing. …

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