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Everything you need to know about academic tenure

Topics in Higher Education | Interfolio Review, Promotion & Tenure

Academic tenure refers to an educator’s employment status within a higher education institution. When a professor has gained tenure, he or she can only be terminated for a justifiable cause or under extreme circumstances, such as program discontinuation or severe financial restraints.

Earning tenure at a higher education institution is a great honor. It’s the reason why many educators have “tenure parties” to celebrate achieving this status in their career. And although it’s a privilege that many professors strive to gain in their career, recent research has shown that many higher education institutions are not rewarding academic labor with tenure. What’s more, some universities and colleges struggle to capture data about candidates who are being considered for tenure-track positions.

If your institution is trying to streamline its tenure process, it may consider using software that is specifically designed to support the promotion and tenure process. 

The history of tenure

Higher education has a long-lasting history in the U.S., dating back to the founding of the nation’s first university, Harvard, in 1636. However, tenure was not a mainstream right offered to faculty members until the twentieth century.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is an organization that is responsible for creating standards for higher education institutions and making sure they are following through in serving faculty members who have earned tenure status. Though the AAUP has been working toward securing rights for educators since its founding in 1915, its collaboration with the Association of American Colleges and Universities in cementing standards in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure made the most substantial difference. Over the years, this statement has been endorsed by hundreds of higher education institutions and has made its way into a fair number of collective bargaining agreements and faculty handbooks.

The purpose of the 1940 Statement was to improve the level of support offered to high-quality faculty members. The AAUP itself defines tenure as “a means to certain ends, specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” For a university to fulfill its “obligations to its students and to society,” it must ensure educators’ freedom of teaching and economic security.

The benefits of tenure

As the AAUP and Association of American Colleges and Universities assert, tenure improves society as a whole. By ensuring its educators are receiving comprehensive rights, colleges and universities are attracting the most qualified, talented faculty to work at their institutions, therefore offering the most high-quality education. To understand the particulars of tenure, it may be useful to dive into the details surrounding the two specific rights associated with tenure: academic freedom and economic security.

Pursuit of academic freedom

Before tenure protected academic freedom, educators were restricted in what they could cover in class. They typically strayed from discussing controversial topics out of fear it may be negatively received. After the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure passed, however, professors received protection to cover broader academic topics. Not only does this form of academic freedom benefit individual teachers, it benefits society by providing students with a more holistic, multi-dimensional education, in which they can learn about and discuss topics that educators might otherwise have avoided.

When institutions grant tenure, instructors gain full freedom in both research and publication as long as they are meeting the core academic duties necessary in their roles. In addition, tenured educators are granted freedom in discussing their subject in the classroom, though they should ensure any controversial material covered directly relates to their subject.

Finally, colleges and universities cannot censor or discipline tenured faculty members on what they say or write. However, as the public may judge the institution as a whole for the beliefs and actions of a faculty member, educators should show respect for others and make sure others understand that they are speaking on behalf of their own beliefs, not those of the university.

Adequate economic security

One of the major benefits of achieving tenure from an institution of higher education is the job security that results from earning this status. While many staff members are hired and employed on an annual basis, tenured faculty maintain employment for an extended period of time, potentially until they retire. Once an educator earns academic tenure, he or she does not have to worry about being asked to return the following year, except under two possible circumstances.

One such situation is considered “termination for cause,” or the dismissal of an educator for a specific reason. Although this is rare, tenured professors have historically been asked to forfeit employment for some of the following reasons:

  • Incompetence
  • Immoral conduct
  • Violation of school policies
  • Negligence

When a tenured teacher may potentially be terminated for a justified reason, the institution will inform the individual in writing of a hearing that will take place on his or her behalf. Teachers, administrators, and scholars from the institution in question may be called upon to attend and participate in the hearing. If the educator receives a notice of dismissal for a cause not related to moral turpitude, he or she should expect to receive their wages for at least one year from the date they are notified.

Another way tenured academics may be dismissed from their position is in the instance the institution experiences significant financial hardship that would make it difficult or impossible to pay a tenured faculty member’s salary. Additionally, if a university decides to cut a program, any associated tenured staff may lose their jobs unless they can transfer their skills to another program within the institution.

With the exception of these two uncommon circumstances, educators with academic tenure cannot be dismissed from their role for the remainder of their career.

Trends in academic tenure

The AAUP reported that about 73% of faculty roles are not tenure-track positions. Their information stressed the association’s concern about the decline of tenure and how this could affect employment in academia and academic freedom as a whole. The AAUP’s data indicated that tenure- and tenure-track roles are more common at four-year institutions, most specifically research-intensive universities; here, those with tenure or who plan on achieving tenure make up one-third of the total faculty. Meanwhile, tenure and tenure-track positions make up approximately 20% of all faculty jobs at two-year higher education institutions. The AAUP explained that this disparity exists because teaching assistants (who are students at four-year colleges) typically take on teaching responsibilities that two-year universities designate to part-time professors.

According to their study, higher education institutions hired 30,865 full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members and 21,511 full-time tenure-track instructors in 2016. They assert that the decline of tenure compromises academic freedom and economic stability, two crucial factors considered by top talent when seeking out careers in academia.

Qualifying for tenure

Knowing the benefits of achieving tenure, it should come as no surprise that most professors aspire for tenure-track positions. But once full-time staff members have worked with the institutions for a number of years, they do not automatically earn tenure. Higher education institutions have specific procedures on how they grant tenure to educators.

When institutions offer tenure to faculty members, they must state any exact terms and conditions in writing. Both the university and the faculty member should have immediate access to this documentation before the official meeting takes place.

The “probationary period” (when a full-time staff member works prior to being granted tenure) should not surpass seven years, according to the AAUP. While full-time service in all higher education institutions is typically considered in tenure appointments, educators may have their probationary period extended beyond the typical seven years. It is worth noting that during the probationary period faculty members should have the same academic freedom as tenured teachers. Institutions must provide educators with at least one year’s notice before the probationary period expires if they choose not to extend this teacher’s employment through tenure.

Common issues with the tenure process

There are a number of hidden costs of faculty promotion and tenure review. When institutions rely on a paper-based method of gathering information, they need to print several copies of files containing hundreds of pages. Not only does this lead to added expenses, it isn’t the most eco-friendly way of compiling data; you won’t want to kill a forest of trees with each review cycle. When universities rely on paper-based strategies, they need a storage system to archive their materials. Rooms filled with filing cabinets lead to a significant waste of square footage, which could be better used as office space.

Additionally, candidates and reviewers enduring inefficient tenure and review processes experience wasted time. This is even true of institutions implementing simple, digital systems. They might believe they’re being more productive by moving their paper materials onto their desktops. Though this is often a more effective way of managing documentation than paper-based strategies alone, there are still issues involved with using basic digital platforms. For instance, different administrators may keep candidates’ information in different places, so each time you need to review a tenure candidate’s file, you’ll need to search around for them, often asking other department heads and administrators to share the information with you. It works, but not as effectively as if all your information was compiled on a single interface.

Where paper-based and basic digital processes fall particularly short is in the security of confidential tenure materials. When paper files are kept in an area with poor security, they are at a high risk of being stolen or compromised. Even storing information in the form of digital files can pose problems, such as file corruption, misplacement, difficulty with permission settings, and even the danger of insecure files ending up in the wrong hands.

Transitioning to a digital tenure interface

When your higher education institution is ready to ditch the binders and switch to a comprehensive digital system, you might look into Interfolio’s Review, Promotion & Tenure technology. Rather than relying on manual, paper-based processes, your university can view and manage all documentation on a single web-based interface. This allows you to cut down on paper waste and removes space that might otherwise go toward clunky filing cabinets. In addition, a digital interface makes it easier than ever for multiple personnel to access files, a common occurrence in the review and tenure processes.

Interfolio’s system assists multiple participants throughout the tenure process. First, it helps faculty review their peers more efficiently, with user-friendly tools that are ideal for reviewing, making notes, receiving external peer evaluations, and sending messages. This software streamlines all administrative work associated with the tenure and review processes, with the ability to send the entire digital packet across committees, as well as the capability to add to it. Additionally, a comprehensive tenure software gives administrators the power to monitor the university’s commitment to diversity by tracking promotion and tenure results over time. Interfolio’s technology also helps administrators standardize the requirements for different types of reviews, thus supporting faculty and staff in creating an equitable system. Finally, Interfolio can improve candidates’ experience in the tenure process, giving them clear instructions on every step of the procedure and accessible tools that can build organized, professional digital packets with all the information they need.

To make your institution’s tenure and review processes more organized and less time-consuming and costly, consider implementing Interfolio’s Review, Promotion & Tenure software.