A brief history of the brief history of academic tenure

If you are in academia, you probably hear the word “tenure” at least once a week. It seems like an entrenched policy, but you might be surprised at how relatively new this feature is. When I speak to people outside of academia, usually people are surprised to hear that I am facing yet another hurdle even after I got a faculty job. I thought I would summarize tenure, but will mostly point to other resources which reflect on this in more detail. I’m focusing on US higher education as I’m most familiar with those nuances, though higher education in other countries and/or research institutions around the globe also use tenure.

Tenure is a permanent and guaranteed contract (in academia). While it was initially used as early as the 1600s, it wasn’t until the 1900s with missives from the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure of the American Association of University Professors that formal policies and legislation began to pop up. The impetus behind tenure is to support academic freedom: to protect researchers from being fired for political or social retaliation, or because their work is less exciting than other topics. The pursuit of knowledge is inherently tied to social and political contexts, and certain topics are considered unimportant by people who don’t work in that field, but research directions should not be determined by opinions.

Once conferred by an institution, tenure can only be terminated for financial or legal malfeasance, or the dissolution of the academic/research program, and can supersede retirement age policies. In some encouraging cases more recently, the tenure was terminated for reasons of patterns of sexual misconduct and perpetuating a hostile work environment.

You must apply for tenure at your institution via an arduous, multi-year process, in which you essentially apply for the job you already have but forever. Not all positions are eligible, and those which are are labelled as “tenure-track”. Once you are hired, your tenure clock begins, with a few checkpoints along the way that vary based on institution and department. You will always have a 3 – 6 member peer-review committee (formally called the Promotion and Tenure Committee), made up of tenured faculty from your department/school who are qualified to assess your work. Committee members are elected to serve in 1 – 3 year shifts by the department. They are supposed to guide you, offer mentorship, and provide feedback. Ideally, you meet with your peer committee annually along your track to improve your tenure application over several years.

There are two major checkpoints, your third year review, and your tenure application review. The third year review is when the peer-review feedback carries more weight. If there is something your committee wants you to correct, you’ll only have a few years to ameliorate it before you formally apply. Most tenure-track positions allow up to 7 years to formally apply for tenure, although this varies and clinical research positions usually have longer. The common time to apply is five to six years after you begin your position, but you may apply sooner (depending on institution deadlines) if you meet the requirements, or “pause your clock” during parental, medical, or other approved care leave.

Your tenure packet is a giant application with reflections on your teaching, research, ability to obtain funding, outreach, and impact in your field. You need to solicit letters of support, but also have reviews from people in your field that you have no ties to. Your application is reviewed by many layers of oversight, which can include but are not limited to: your peer review committee, your department chair, your college/school dean, the provost, and the university president. Each layer of review needs to agree that you should be awarded tenure. For most assistant professors, you are assessed for promotion to associate professor at the same time, but you can be awarded tenure without being awarded a promotion (you’ll meet the peer committee every few years over your career to go apply for promotions or merit adjustments to your contract).

You can apply multiple times, but there is a significant risk associated with it after you have been denied somewhere in the chain at your institution. Typically when you apply in your fifth or six year you can only re-apply once, or challenge a denial once. Denial of tenure can occur because of poor performance, or perceived poor performance if you did not present yourself clearly, but there are also instances of outright discrimination. While your teaching evaluations and record are evaluated, it’s really your research record which counts (including papers published, citations, and grant funding received). In all cases, it can be demoralizing, traumatizing, incredibly disruptive to your career and success, and is costly – the institution put enormous amounts of time, money, and support into tenure-track faculty, and it is immensely more expensive to deny tenure and lose someone than it is to make sure they are actually getting the support and mentorship they need. However, it is not necessarily the end of the road for researchers.

Tenure policies are hotly contested, and many opponents cite that tenure promotes “laziness” despite the demonstrably long hours of faculty and the fact that many of us aren’t necessarily paid for our work during the summer. Faculty on 9-month contracts must obtain funding for their summer salary for research, and if funding sources are tight, you essentially have to work for free to still be productive enough to be deemed worthy of funding in the future. Notably, there is a very distinct relevance to the career level of the tenured person in these pro/con tenure arguments: tenure-track is seen as extremely beneficial in protecting early and mid-career faculty, but protective of unproductive faculty, particularly at or past the age of retirement. Thus, there are many examples of suggested alternative practices which offer protection alongside time limits.

Tenure is not just about offering protection for academic freedom, it also provides a structure for success in research and education. In the past few decades, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of tenure-track faculty in the US (only ~25% of faculty positions are currently tenure-track), despite the growth of student populations. Instead, this burden has been shouldered by an increase in short-term contracts, because tenured faculty are costly and adjuncts can be dismissed at any time. However, this trend is based purely on cost-savings for institutions, as it can be extremely disruptive to student education because inadequate contracts force adjuncts to work multiple jobs and undercuts their ability to interact with students. And, it can dramatically reduce the quality of life and quality of employment in academia.

Reducing tenured positions also hampers scientific progress and short-contract researchers. Funders can be less willing to reward funding to researchers without a secure job contract. Most importantly, though, it can take years to build the momentum to conduct thorough and cutting-edge research, and long-term contracts allow for better research, and more lab employees trained. Having had to pivot between a series of short-term contracts which ended sooner than expected, I often wonder if the quality and depth of my research would have been dramatically better if I had had a longer-term contract anywhere prior to my position as an assistant professor.

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