Tenure: the Institutional View

How does tenure appear from the point of view of the institution?  We’ve discussed how the candidate sees it as a reward for past achievement and the department sees it as a marriage, but the institutional view is more complex.  First and foremost, the institution sees tenure as an investment with a payback period of thirty-plus years.  It’s a momentous decision with dramatic fiscal and political implications; hence it must be made with due diligence and care.

Faculty culture and union contracts have traditionally made tenure an obligation for institutions, part of the cost of doing business with faculty.  Administrators have viewed it as annoying and inconvenient, an obstruction to the managerial discretion they feel is needed to solve problems.  More enlightened leaders have  recognized how it fosters institutional stability and brand identity, the “college family” so important to loyal alumni and, by extension, to fund-raising. Less commonly recognized is tenure’s long-term economic advantage: because it reduces mobility, institutions can keep salaries low compared to those in other learned professions.  On balance, the economic benefits outweigh the costs, otherwise the tenure system would not persist.

For administration, which is tasked to operate and preserve the institution, economics is a big part of the picture, but not the only thing.  Administrators tend to move around, because that is the only way they can move up, so their involvement with a given institution seldom exceeds ten years.  During this relatively short time they have to do a good job, show progress, and exercise their creativity; appointments, tenure, and promotions offer one prominent means.  Administrators prefer to grant tenure as little as possible in order to preserve flexibility, discretion, and opportunity; the candidate and the department must make a bomb-proof case, first to the college-wide review committee, and thence to administration, which holds the power to decide.

Thus, all kinds of factors come into play that have nothing to do with a candidate’s actual merit.  Administrators pay close attention to the tides and breezes of politics, and tenure decisions can send strong messages to reward or punish key players, especially if there’s conflict over budget, curriculum, or institutional identity.  Budget pressures, such as low enrollment or the high price of heating oil, can dry up a tenure slot that a candidate has been promised at hire and toward which he or she has been toiling in good faith.  The institution’s public image may need polishing; racial, ethnic, gender or other criteria may enter in. (I know one up-and-coming university whose president has decreed that any new hires must be members of Phi Beta Kappa.)  And if all this weren’t enough, there seems to be a kind of rhythm in institutional life whereby almost everyone gets tenure for several years, and then some people don’t, leading to widespread outcry and attempts at reform, after which the whole cycle repeats.  The underlying reason seems simple enough: no dean or president looking to move up would want to appear soft on tenure; nor would any institution, for that matter.

In the end, the system can’t work unless some people are denied.  Merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.  Many are called but few are chosen; the others are cast out and left to fend for themselves.  No one follows their stories.  Those left inside close ranks and get back to business as usual.  Indeed, it is very difficult to think of giving up hard-won privileges.  But the fact is that tenure requires that the institution expel some deserving colleagues, who, in today’s depressed job market, can seldom find comparable jobs.  Even if they do, they’ll have to go through the whole ordeal again.

The tenure system persists because it confers many benefits.  But it also demands human sacrifice.