Tenure, the practice of awarding university faculty lifetime appointments, may be heading the way of the Hollywood studio system.
Major movie studios once exerted almost full control over an actor’s career. That began to shift in the late 1940s under the twin assaults of the advent of television and a Supreme Court ruling that broke up studios’ monopoly over film production, distribution, and exhibition. Suddenly actors found themselves with a bounty of new opportunities for work, and the era of the studio system unraveled. A film’s marquee talent trumped the box office power of the studios that produced their movies.
The United States’ transformation to a global, digital information economy promises to have the same impact on tenure.
Today, tenure remains the third rail of higher education. For a university president to oppose it is the equivalent of a New Hampshire politician calling for a state income tax. Advocates assert tenure is essential to preserving academic freedom, a means to protect research and teaching from the political, social, and ideological abuse that was rampant in the decades before World War I. Critics counter that tenure protects unproductive faculty, maintains the status quo in scholarship, and diminishes the intellectual vitality of universities.
The irony is that this passionate, polarizing, and perennial debate is being overtaken by changes on campus. Tenure jobs are already disappearing — and financial pressures may drive the numbers down further. According to US Department of Education data, the number of tenure and tenure-track positions has plummeted over the past four decades, from 56 percent of professors in 1975 to 29 percent in 2011. The new majority of faculty (54 percent) are part-timers, up from 31 percent in 1975.
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