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LETTERS

The tenure question

Call to reform system stirs fierce debate in academic world.

Students on the lawn outside the Charles Deering Library at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., in September 2020. Because of the pandemic, Northwestern and other universities extended deadlines for faculty members to publish work that would help them earn tenure.
Students on the lawn outside the Charles Deering Library at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., in September 2020. Because of the pandemic, Northwestern and other universities extended deadlines for faculty members to publish work that would help them earn tenure.OLIVIA OBINEME/NYT

Bid to limit years of service wrongly blames faculty for woes in higher education

The May 9 editorial “Academic tenure is in desperate need of reform” (May 9, 2021) could not be more correct in identifying the need for more — and more diversity among — tenure-track faculty in higher education. Yet the proposal that tenured scholars have their years of service limited wrongly blames them, when declining government support is far more at issue.

The editorial is right that a crisis exists among the nation’s higher-education faculty. Between 1975 and 2015, tenure-track faculty fell from making up 45 percent of the academic workforce to about 30 percent. Not only are most faculty positions non-tenure-track, but most are only part-time. Yet the editorial offers no evidence linking these numbers to tenured professors’ longevity. It wrongly blames the tenure system despite abundant evidence of far more obvious causes.

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Significant research has demonstrated universities committing larger proportions of their budgets to increasing demands for facilities, financial aid, and student services.

But more important, the College Board and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities join others in identifying as a major concern a decline in per-student government funding since at least 2007. Concurrently, faculty salary increases have fallen far behind the rise in tuition costs.

To understand the problem, follow the money.

Peter Gottschalk

Middletown, Conn.

The writer is a professor of religion at Wesleyan University.

Replace lifetime appointments with long-term contracts

I agree wholeheartedly with the editorial “Academic tenure is in desperate need of reform.” Yes, universities should replace lifetime appointments with long-term contracts. I say this because this was precisely the kind of position I held at Boston University.

When I was hired in 1995, I had already been teaching for 13 years and had been awarded tenure at another institution. John Silber, who I believe would also have agreed with the Globe’s argument, offered me a 25-year contract with the option of renewal. My contract stipulated that I would have “all the rights and responsibilities” of tenure. The only difference was its fixed term.

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When my contract expired in 2020, the administration offered to renew it for three years. (I declined.)

Both the university and I were well served by this arrangement. A younger professor will replace me, and I left at the top of my game, with the opportunity to begin a new chapter of my life.

David Roochnik

Brookline

The writer is a professor emeritus of philosophy at BU.

The problem is standards for tenure keep getting higher

Your editorial addresses the end (timewise) of the tenure problem, with faculty potentially becoming less effective; the middle of the problem, with institutions being hard-pressed financially to make lifetime commitments and thus unable to expand numbers; but not the beginning, which is that standards for granting tenure keep getting higher. This is seemingly a good thing, but those standards tend to undervalue, or not even consider, many of the qualities that more diverse candidates might offer, and they overvalue things that are considered desirable by the committees, i.e., qualities they see in themselves.

I have held a teaching position at a major university for nearly 30 years on a renewable contract without tenure, reviewable (and rejectable) every contract cycle, but with full benefits. That worked out very well for me, but certainly it does not work out for many in similar positions, nor for adjuncts.

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I also write as someone who, as director of an academic program, has seen new hires held to standards I and many senior colleagues never could have met at our hiring and that are based on the kinds of criteria alluded to above; in other words, few of those new hires are those who would bring diversity unless it is diversity as defined by those in safe and established positions.

David McMenamin

Revere

The writer is an associate professor of the practice in philosophy at Boston College.

Growing corporatization of higher ed is the real problem

Is tenure responsible for a host of higher-education ills, including college closures, lack of faculty diversity, a poorly paid adjunct labor force, and ideological uniformity?

The Globe’s editorial board would have you think so. Your editorial is right to call out opaque tenure processes, and that tenure protects a mostly white male club. It’s unconscionable that Black women make up only 2 percent of the full-time professoriate, and that 25 percent of part-time faculty qualify for federal benefits.

But tenure’s not the problem. As Sekile M. Nzinga argues in the book “Lean Semesters,” higher education is a “hyper‐producer of inequity for marginalized populations.” Claims that older professors hog tenured “slots,” or that their salaries make colleges unable to pay contingent faculty a living wage, conceal the real problem. Under a veneer of inclusive mission statements lie policies (such as valuing research contracts over mentoring students) that advantage white men and follow the corporate golden rule: “Let’s make lots of money.”

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A simplification to be sure, but there’s no shortage of research on the growing corporatization of higher education. Administrative positions and salaries go up, along with new buildings. Students shoulder the cost in rising tuition, and faculty find themselves in a de-professionalized workplace where their labor is insecure and underpaid.

Hollowing out tenure with age-discriminatory term limits is not the answer. Instead, look to the American Association of University Professors’ New Deal for Higher Education for a plan that protects academic freedom, provides faculty economic security, and ensures that universities serve the common good.

Mary Battenfeld

Jamaica Plain

The writer is a nontenured clinical professor at Boston University and copresident of the BU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

This is no time to attack tenure’s protections

At a time when facts are shamelessly denied and truth is dispensable in pursuing power, a Sunday Globe editorial attacks tenure. Tenure frees and empowers faculty to teach the necessity of distinguishing fact (Globe news) from fiction (QAnon fantasy), and how to do so. Tenure is a necessary protection against political and economic subversion of intellectual integrity, and it allows fortunate faculty to discover and spread truth without opportunistic, authoritarian interference.

Tenured faculty have much more academic freedom than nontenured faculty, who can be fired at any time, for any excuse. After initially pleasing a tenure committee, faculty granted tenure enjoy a scholarly career protected from the vagaries and whims of politicized authority.

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Students may demonstrate ageism by being slightly more interested and learn a bit more from younger, hipper nontenured faculty than from their older, tenured colleagues. But your editorial’s recommendation of term limits is another form of ageism. A lifetime of teaching and learning makes faculty older and wiser — an academic virtue, not a cause for dismissal.

Tenured positions decline because it is cheaper to hire non-tenure-track faculty and pay them low wages with poor benefits. The Globe should advocate for tenure so that in the words of Charles Sears Baldwin, faculty are free to practice “the energizing of knowledge and the humanizing of truth” without fear of retribution.

George C. Wharton

Newton

The writer is president of the Massachusetts conference of the American Association of University Professors and professor emeritus of communication at Curry College.

Argument for tenure reform rests on mistaken assumptions

Your editorial on academic tenure is replete with mistaken assumptions. I would like to address three.

First, term limits on tenure will not necessarily clear the way for fresh faces. Tenure became an issue in 1994 when federal law was changed to end a mandatory retirement age for faculty. Under the system of term limits on tenure that you propose, the threat of age-discrimination lawsuits will become a factor in university decision-making. Turnover is less likely to be easily achieved than you imagine.

Second, even if term limits had some small effect, that effect would not be felt for a generation; those who now have tenure would keep their tenure.

Finally, objective standards for tenure may seem like a good idea — that is, until you attempt to lay down and apply those standards. Your next editorial should describe the standards to be used, the measures to be used for assessing how well those standards were met, the level of success required to meet the minimum necessary for tenure, the weighting for each standard, and who does the measuring. A thought experiment or two would prove instructive.

Steven S. Manos

Cambridge

The writer was executive vice president of Tufts University for 26 years.

Bring back mandatory retirement, and let younger faculty advance

One of the most counterproductive public policy decisions in US history was ending mandatory retirement on the basis of age. At universities, the reinstatement of an age 70 retirement would open the way for younger faculty to advance. Your editorial is right on.

If there has been a single lesson for education at all levels that has emanated from the pandemic it is that teaching requires an openness to new technology. Do old faculty protected by tenure have to adjust to new strategies? They do not.

As to academic freedom, ferreting out what the old guard on tenure committees deems acceptable is a career pathway that hardly promotes independent judgment and viewpoints. Pleasing minds too often calcified by age is not what tenure should be about.

Flexible and diversified thinking are essential to effective teaching and significant scholarship. Mandatory retirement would contribute to this goal.

Martin Quitt

Framingham

The writer is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston.