In an era of rapid change, long life spans, economic strains and a dwindling college-age population, there is a high cost to awarding professors lifetime job guarantees.
Gov. Scott Walker’s move to weaken tenure in the Wisconsin public-university system is bold — and, at least for a while, it is likely to remain an outlier.
Tenure is such a central part of the fabric of U.S. higher education that it is difficult to tamper with, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, even as colleges and universities face many of the same economic pressures as businesses, and public institutions deal with state funding cuts.
“The question is whether other states will follow Wisconsin’s lead,” Hartle said Friday. “It’s way too early to say, but we don’t see any movement in that direction.
Referring to Gov. Greg Abbott, he added: “Just yesterday, Governor Abbott in Texas agreed to spend $500 million to lure Nobel Prize winners and National Academy members to Texas, and you can’t do something like that if you don’t give them tenure.”
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Still, in an era of rapid change, long life spans, economic strains and a dwindling college-age population, there is a high cost to awarding professors lifetime job guarantees. As a result, universities nationwide — public and private, large and small — are becoming far more cautious about awarding tenure, particularly in departments in which enrollment is declining.
Tenure can be a long commitment for a university, particularly now that mandatory retirement is illegal. Someone who gets tenure at 30, for example, may still be teaching 50 years later, which could hinder universities in reinvigorating their professorial ranks with younger people better versed in current scholarship or specializing in the interests of the moment.
Nationwide, only about one-quarter of the instructional workforce is tenured or on a tenure track. A few colleges and universities do not even offer tenure, instead using a system of long-term or rolling contracts.
It is unclear what will happen in Republican-led Wisconsin, where Walker is a presidential hopeful. Last month, a committee of the state Legislature passed a proposal that would remove tenure protection in the public university system from state law, and leave tenure policy to the Board of Regents, most of whose members are appointed by the governor.
Regents are responsible for tenure policy in most states, so that in itself might not mean much. But the Wisconsin proposal would substantially restrict tenure protection, since existing law allows for the termination of tenured professors in the public system only if an institution declares a financial emergency. The new proposal would allow termination whenever deemed necessary if a program is discontinued, curtailed or modified.
The Wisconsin proposal is also controversial because it would dilute faculty authority over areas such as curriculum, instruction and research, explicitly making faculty views on such matters subordinate to those of the regents, chancellor or president.
The proposal is expected to go before the full Wisconsin Senate and House this month.
On Friday, the Board of Regents passed a temporary measure to incorporate existing tenure protection in its policies. But if the Legislature enacts the Republican proposal, the board will have to comply with it. The board also created a task force to draft a lasting policy on tenure by April.
Many academics emphasize that tenure is of profound importance, not so much as a guarantee of lifetime employment but as the bulwark of academic freedom. It protects them, they say, from being fired for teaching unpopular ideas, such as climate change or income inequality — or for opposing the views of politicians or powerful donors.
Critics of the tenure system say it is an anachronism that interferes with accountability, encourages professors to be irresponsible and restricts universities’ ability to change their course offerings to keep up with evolving knowledge and market demands.
Some educators have begun to question why the debate is stuck in all-or-nothing mode.
“If it’s so difficult for institutions to make that long-term financial commitment in today’s environment, why don’t they look at options like a termed tenure, or longer-term contracts?” asked Adrianna Kezar, an education professor at the University of Southern California. “Or if the worry is that tenured faculty might not keep up-to-date, maybe there could be requirements for recertification, or recredentialing after a certain number of years, as in some other professions.”
Cathy Trower, a consultant for university governing boards, said some institutions should be thinking about alternatives to tenure. “Some of these liberal-arts colleges,” she said, “are limping along with all this tenured faculty in German or some other language no one’s taking, and you can’t just move them into some other field, so you have to wait for them to retire.”
Whatever happens with Walker’s effort, concerns about tenure have led to some changes.
Tom Chema, who retired last year as president of Hiram College in Ohio, after 11 years, said that when he started the job, more than 76 percent of faculty was tenured, but that when he left, only 57 percent were.
“There’s no doubt that we got way more cautious about awarding tenure, and we also pushed the envelope for getting tenure back a little so people had to wait a little longer,” he said.