Opinion

opinion | Kathryn Lynch

Do we still need tenure? Yes, but bring on reform

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This month, tenure turns 100. But there will be no cakes and candles. If it were a centenarian, tenure would be on life support, with relatives considering whether to pull the plug.

Voices from inside and outside the academy have weighed in against tenure, which in the memorable title of one invective (“The Faculty Lounges”) breeds dead wood. Some specialty institutions, like Olin College of Engineering or Cornish College of the Arts, have successfully eliminated it.

So do we still need tenure, which provides lifetime job security to its holders after a rigorous probationary period? My answer is: Yes, but we also need to reform it.

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It is true, as critics of tenure often say, that other professions do not provide similar job security. But the job of a professor, which includes scholarship, is different. In tenure’s 1915 founding declaration, the newly formed American Association of University Professors laid out why: Inquiry cannot advance under duress, so scholars must be empowered to study and teach “without fear or favor.”

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Some argue that the need for tenure has vanished. But there will always be pressure on teachers and creators of knowledge to bend their views to prevailing political winds. On today’s campuses, where fettered speech is sometimes deemed an acceptable price to pay for safe space, tenure protects freedom. In my own writing as a literary scholar, the security of tenure allowed me to focus my work on the history of ideas when theory was the rage.

But though easy to champion as an ideal, tenure is much harder to defend as a contemporary practice. Tenure’s founders in 1915 recognized that the privilege would require candor and an appetite for self-assessment: “The dignity of a great profession” they wrote, requires that “the responsibility for the maintenance of its professional standards . . . be in the hands of its own members.”

That appetite is too often lacking today. Defenders of tenure rarely acknowledge the serious problems that accompany it. It is disingenuous to pretend that tenure never provides safe haven for unmotivated, coasting, or misbehaving faculty when dismissal of tenured faculty is estimated at just a fraction of a single percent.

Nor does tenure accommodate current demographics. The tenure timeline puts unreasonable pressure on a woman professor during her childbearing years. Current mandatory-retirement prohibitions contribute to the aging of the professoriate. Nearly one third within the ranks expect to work until 70 or beyond. Tenure for a 30-year-old is something different from tenure for an 80-year-old.

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Those of us in the academy who have tenure also have a professional responsibility to reform it. Yet the defenders of tenure are mostly silent on reform. As the number of tenure-ineligible faculty closes in on 75 percent, there are fewer and fewer of us. We can pretend that everything is fine until the lights go out, or we can do the task the creators of tenure left to us: Make hard decisions and alter course if necessary.

If tenure protects incompetence, we must admit it — and expand the conditions under which faculty can be fired for cause. If tenured faculty are teaching and collecting full salaries beyond the age at which they are effective in the classroom or in their research, we need to fight for legal changes to permit mandatory retirement.

Or we might substitute long contract terms (25 to 30 years) for the custom of lifetime tenure. We need merit reviews that affect paychecks. Reforms will be unpopular, but we must not shy away from the challenge. As the AAUP warned in 1915, if the academy fails to police its own members and uphold its own standards, “it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”

Kathryn Lynch is dean of faculty affairs at Wellesley College and a tenured professor of English.