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Academic tenure is in desperate need of reform

In order to promote diversity and better protect academic freedom, universities should begin introducing term limits for tenured faculty.

Widener Library at Harvard University. Harvard reported that, in 2021, the number of tenured women faculty from underrepresented minority communities was 33 and the number of white male tenured faculty was 620.Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg

In 1902, G. B. Halsted, a mathematician at the University of Texas at Austin, was miffed when the school passed on his recommendation to hire someone he saw as a promising young talent in favor of a well-connected and less qualified teacher. So he publicly admonished the university for its decision. “The bane of the state university is that its regents are the appointees of a politician,” he wrote in an article. “If [the university president] were even limited by the rule that half of them must be academic graduates, there would be some safety against the prostitution of a university, the broadest of human institutions, to politics and sectionalism, the meanest provincialism.”

Suffice it to say, the university was not pleased with Halsted and consequently severed ties with him. But Halsted did what academics should be encouraged to do: speak freely and critically of the institutions they serve without fear of retaliation. The university was able to swiftly fire him, however, because that was before the academic tenure system we know today existed.


Cases like Halsted’s are why the American Association of University Professors eventually established the guidelines on faculty tenure that universities now generally follow. The idea behind it was to promote academic freedom by effectively guaranteeing faculty members a lifetime appointment without the possibility of termination unless there is adequate cause — insulating professors from any political pressure that could discourage them from studying or promoting unpopular ideas or, indeed, speaking out against their own institution. The idea is that society ultimately benefits when institutions of higher education are bastions of free inquiry.

But academic tenure as it stands in the United States today is in serious need of reform. Once granted, the ironclad protections of tenure too often serve to permit subpar teaching. The nearly irrevocable nature of tenure creates a perverse incentive for universities to rely on lowly paid adjunct professors instead, who lack basic job protections and can be fired at will. With tenured seats disproportionately occupied by white men, tenure stands as an obstacle to more diverse faculties. And the system even undermines academic freedom — the very principle it’s supposed to support — by creating an incentive for young scholars to self-censor in order to please an all-important tenure committee.


This is not to say that tenure is flawed enough that universities should do away with it entirely. To the contrary, tenure can be an important tool in advancing democracy by keeping educational institutions, particularly public ones, free from the whims of politicians seeking to censor certain areas of scholarship or simply install cronies in university jobs, as Halsted complained about a century ago. But it must be overhauled to promote racial, gender, and ideological diversity, as well as to better advance the academic freedom on university campuses that tenure is purported to protect.

First, colleges and universities should adopt tenure term limits. When tenure literally lasts a lifetime, schools that are either underfunded or unwilling to spend money on expanding the number of tenured faculty have to wait until a professor retires or dies until they can give that position to someone new. Imposing tenure terms would ensure that new people and fresh ideas are always given a seat at the table. These terms should be long enough to cover the bulk of someone’s career — somewhere in the range of 30 or 35 years — so that the long-term job security frees the academic from any fear of facing retaliation by criticizing the institution or state, or for studying important but off-trend questions or promoting ideas outside the mainstream.


A limit would also hasten the excruciatingly slow efforts to diversify university faculties. According to data provided by Harvard, for example, in 2007, there were only nine tenured professors who were women representing “underrepresented minorities” (a term that lumps together people who self-identify as Latino, Black, Native American, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander) at the school. By comparison, there were 665 white men in those positions that year. Fourteen years later, the number of women from underrepresented minority communities increased to 33 and the number of white men decreased to 620. While that’s certainly an improvement, it’s hardly an achievement to brag about.

These terms should not be mistaken for a de facto retirement age. Those whose terms expire should be eligible for reappointment at their school or to continue to teach and research at another institution.

Schools should move to adopt this measure now, but there has to be coordination to ensure that all universities play by the same rules in order to prevent those with more resources from poaching star professors. State legislatures could pass legislation to adopt this system at public universities, but they should only do so if the federal government conditions its grants to private institutions on reforming their tenure system in order to level the playing field.


Imposing a reasonable tenure term limit would also take away one of the excuses of universities for their increasing reliance on underpaid, unprotected adjunct faculty, non-tenure-track professors, and easy-to-exploit graduate students. Over the last several decades, the portion of faculty members who are either tenured or on the tenure track has steadily declined, from 45 percent in 1975 to 30 percent in 2015. Many of those scholars ought to be moved onto the tenure track, but universities are loath to do so when it may mean a lifetime commitment. And while some elite schools can certainly afford to make those changes, regardless of what they may say, the Massachusetts colleges that have closed recently, like Wheelock and Mount Ida, are reminders that higher education is under genuine financial pressure that may make lifetime tenure unaffordable.

The other component of tenure reform is creating a more transparent and objective tenure review process. Because despite its well-meaning purpose to promote academic freedom, tenure — or, more precisely, the often opaque nature of the tenure review process — might actually be inhibiting scholars from pursuing certain topics and causing them to self-censor in pursuit of tenure. Typically, it is tenured faculty members themselves who decide whom to allow into their club.

“[Tenure] does establish its own orthodoxy as far as scholarship and point of view among faculty,” said Michael Nietzel, a former president of Missouri State University. “So while tenure exists to protect individual point of view and freedom of inquiry and intellectual freedom, I think it is sometimes a disciplinary straightjacket, where you’re more likely to get it in departments when you’re seen as disciplinarily mainstream. And faculty know this.”


Many candidates for tenure have no idea who’s reviewing their cases or what is said about their work in their review processes. Setting explicit standards for tenure evaluations, and making schools justify their decisions, should assuage fears of ideological discrimination and of pigeonholing scholars into particular research areas in tenure decisions.

In the end, the tenure system as it currently stands is serving smaller and smaller portions of faculty with each passing year. It’s a flawed and unfair system, one that increasingly fails to deliver the academic freedom on campus that it was designed to guarantee. Academia looks increasingly like a caste system of the lucky few who’ve hit the tenure jackpot, and the far larger group toiling away with little protection and for meager paychecks. Schools and their faculty, as well as the public and democracy, would be better served under a reformed system that brings more scholars onto the tenure track while making tenure itself less of an unaccountable and opaque process. Universities would be more equitable, and more intellectually diverse, if they did.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.