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Tenure vs. contracts

January 11, 2008, 9:35 pm

I’m on the Promotion and Tenure Committee here, and my two colleagues and I on the committee just finished the first of two solid weeks of reviewing evaluation portfolios of all the faculty up for promotion, tenure, and annual review. It’s great fun. But seriously, I’ve been thinking a lot about tenure this week. In the more exasperating moments, I’ve wished that we were one of those colleges that doesn’t do tenure any more at all, but rather some kind of contract system.

First of all, that would make us rare. According to the blurb for this book on colleges without tenure, 97% of research universities and 99% of four-year public universities offer tenure — and apparently 91% of small private colleges (like mine). The number of colleges without tenure is small, but I think it’s growing. Certainly I hear a lot of rumbling among administrators (although I haven’t ever heard it among my own) that tenure is an antiquated system that does nothing more than guarantee that you’ll end up with a bunch of professors who have precisely zero incentive to improve on anything once they’ve busted their humps to get tenure in the first place; and colleges ought to make it easier to get rid of recalcitrant profs — or simply make it easier to get rid of everybody in case of financial troubles. And as a P&T member, contracts sure do sound easier to deal with than tenure.

But I wonder just how much different things really are under a contract system. Wouldn’t professors still have to put together some sort of case for renewal of contracts that amounts to a post-tenure review? And wouldn’t there have to be some faculty body — a P&T Committee — to review all that stuff? The only difference I can see is that (1) the prof’s job is really on the line every five years, unlike in the tenure system, (2) your academic freedom is never really guaranteed, and (3) under contracts, you have to take on faith the idea that the administrators you work with over the years will not abuse the ability to deny a contract renewal in the future.

If this is really true, then why do some people prefer contracts over tenure, and why are some administrators really interested in replacing tenure with contracts?

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