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Bright lights, big tenure: Professors, call your agents

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.

At the same time, there are growing demands for accountability in higher education from consumers, the government, and media. As tuition rates rise, and the number of colleges and universities has grown amid a drop in the number of students throughout the Northeast, institutions are being pressured to demonstrate quality. Because it is illegal for them to set retirement ages for faculty, many are beginning to seek other ways to weed out poor performers, even among tenured professors. The result is that an increasing number of colleges and universities are instituting post-tenure reviews. Few faculty members nationwide have been dismissed under this new regime, but in the years ahead the review process and its outcomes are likely to become more stringent as government demands for evidence as quality grows and the need for new blood on campuses increases, further weaking the guarantee of lifetime appointments.

But the most profound threat to tenure is on the horizon. There are increasing incentives for faculty to turn their backs on the tradition. In the global economy, the audience for higher education has exploded, and digital media has multiplied the number of ways professors can reach the public. The mind and information have replaced physical labor and natural resources as the primary vehicles for generating wealth.


This combination creates an environment in which talent looms larger than the institutions that have historically employed it, as was the case in Hollywood. A top professor can become a rock star in a world in which an online course enrolls more than 100,000 students, a number larger than the student body at the country’s largest nonprofit universities.


That could entice the biggest names in American academe to forgo tenure in favor of hiring an agent, a representative to negotiate multimillion-dollar deals for books, social media, a cable television show, expert appearances, consulting contracts — and a part-time teaching job at a major university. If this happens, the real threat to tenure will be the perception that it is reserved for protecting second-tier faculty.

The bottom line is that, without making a deliberate decision but by drift, tenure is losing ground. The priority should be ensuring academic freedom is neither weakened nor that we reopen the door to earlier abuses. One alternative would be a conscious choice to introduce new approaches to faculty employment, such as a system of extended faculty contracts up to 10 years, that build in safeguards for professors, universities, and the public. Let’s start having those conversations now.

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Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. He was previously president and professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.