On Sep. 20, 2021, Molly Worthen wrote in the New York Times that legislators in several states have attempted to ban tenure in higher education. A major objection is that tenure review at many universities focuses more heavily on a candidate’s scholarly publications than on competence in teaching. Universities argue that scholarship and teaching are compatible activities. Brilliant scholars can be inspired teachers. Teachers who are not also scholars may become stale instructors who rarely update their lectures.
Typically, a newly hired assistant professor has a 6-year probationary period, called a tenure track, during which to earn tenure. Navigating a 6-year tenure track can be a tense experience. At most universities, untenured faculty must publish or perish. In general, an applicant for tenure must demonstrate significant scholarship, and provide evidence of teaching effectiveness. Service to the university is also expected. An untenured assistant professor’s scholarly publications are often evaluated by a committee of older associate and full professors who achieved tenure at an earlier time when lower scholarly productivity was expected. A candidate denied tenure is given a terminal contract for a seventh year during which he or she must find other employment. The search by an unsuccessful candidate for another position will sometimes have priority over professional responsibilities to students and faculty colleagues.
On Oct 1, 2021, the New York Times reported that Yale Professor Beverly Gage objected to donor influence over the curriculum of the university’s renowned Global Strategy program which she directed. She insisted that program content was solely a faculty responsibility. When Yale rebuffed her argument, she resigned as program director, but not as a faculty member. Happily, as a tenured professor, she has the academic freedom to defend academic integrity.
In July 2021, when Professor Cornel West of Harvard was denied tenure, he rejected Harvard’s offer of a renewable 10-year contract, resigned from Harvard, and accepted a professorship with tenure at Union Theological Seminary. He preferred tenure at another school over a renewable contract at Harvard. (He asserted that his denial of tenure by Harvard was retribution for his support of the Palestinians.)
Many small private liberal arts colleges are devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. They place a greater emphasis on faculty teaching and a lesser emphasis on faculty scholarship than do universities. Let us briefly compare two small, private, highly selective undergraduate colleges which offer engineering programs, Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts and Harvey Mudd College in California.
Olin has no tenure system. In place of tenure, all faculty receive multiyear contracts. Olin does not have separate academic departments, although professors teach courses in their individual disciplines. Olin has unconventional standards for reappointment and promotion. A faculty member seeking either action must provide evidence of student development, continual revision of courses, and impact on the broader community. Despite the absence of tenure, Olin reports a high faculty retention rate. With approximately 45 full-time faculty members, generally no more than two people leave in any year. The percentage of full-time faculty at Olin is about 81%.
Harvey Mudd, on the other hand, has a tenure system and separate academic departments. Faculty seeking tenure or promotion must demonstrate excellence in teaching, which is of primary importance, scholarship, professional development, and service. The percentage of full-time faculty at Harvey Mudd is about 88%. Both colleges, Olin without tenure and Harvey Mudd with tenure, have stable faculties dedicated to teaching undergraduate engineering students. However, we have found no evidence to suggest that the success of one small, private undergraduate engineering college without a tenure system can easily be replicated by America’s large and diverse array of public and private colleges and universities.