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Tenure Is under Attack Once Again, Part 1: Reasons for Higher Education’s Vulnerability

Legal Issues Promotion, Tenure, and Evaluation

Tenure Is under Attack Once Again, Part 1: Reasons for Higher Education’s Vulnerability

This article is the first a series of four that provides an update on the activities and progress of those groups who want to eliminate tenure. This article focuses on why higher education is vulnerable to these attacks at this time. Part 2 will describe the efforts of some state legislatures and governing boards to eliminate or cripple tenure as well as the actions of some of our college and university administrations that fail to recognize the due process requirement granted through tenure. Part 3 will give some examples of how students have played roles in the loss of academic freedom and will provide an example of one state that found a way around legislative interference. Part 4 will discuss some steps we can take to deflect the attacks on tenure.

While most of us have been occupied by the many facets of the pandemic and the attention that systemic racism and the social justice movement have generated, threats to the continuation of tenure have increased considerably. This is manifested by lawmakers who seek to legislatively ban or change aspects of tenure, governing boards that insert their mandates into basic institutional decisions, and campus administrations whose moves ignore the due process and academic freedom protections afforded by tenure. Like virtually every other facet of life in this country, the tenure issue has been become embroiled in the vicious political partisanship that dominates our culture. All this comes at a time when public trust in higher education is at a low point (Kanelos, 2018), a situation that will make it more difficult to protect tenure.

It seems unfair to burden faculty—who have risen to the occasion in changing their mode of instruction to online, who may have had to work in unprotected environments where they are exposed to a lethal virus, who have taken on extra work, and who in many cases have received little or no increase in compensation for several years—with the prospects that their job security is now in danger and the subjects of their scholarship and content of their classes may now require outside approval. Yet the benefits of job security and the freedom in selecting the subjects of their scholarship that tenure guarantee are at stake across the US. It will take concerted effort at all levels of our institutions to discourage the opponents of tenure and preserve our academic freedom.

The promises of tenure

The guarantee of lifetime employment, though not as ironclad as critics would believe, is a perquisite not found in many other organizations. It remains a source of criticism from our publics. On this occasion, there are also points of view emerging from within higher education that tenure inhibits innovation and hampers diversity efforts. Both objections relate to the reduction in tenured positions within the academy due to the conversion of tenure lines into nontenure lines, including those for adjuncts, to avoid the costs associated with full-time positions. With no mandatory retirement age, tenured faculty can stay on indefinitely, thus preventing new blood and ideas as well as diverse individuals from taking those limited slots.

The major benefit of tenure is that it guarantees academic freedom. This means that faculty can explore research or inquiry into any subject in their discipline in which they have the interest and competence without the fear of outside (administrative, external) interference or sanction and that they can decide what content to teach in their courses. Regarding the latter, most departments have faculty-approved curricula that list topics to be covered and specify learning outcomes for undergraduate students. If respected, these restrictions should prevent faculty from subverting the intentions of the department.

As I implied above, there are circumstances under which tenured faculty can be dismissed. They include dismissal for cause, program elimination, and financial exigency. For the first of these, “cause” can be incompetence or serious personal or professional misconduct. The latter can include felony convictions, plagiarism, research fraud, theft of institutional resources, sexual harassment, dereliction of duties, and other infractions of similar seriousness. Significant deviations from the faculty-approved curriculum for undergraduates might be construed as “dereliction of duty,” an example of serious misconduct that could harm students. Institutions can vary on their policies regarding dismissal for cause, and readers should consult their institutional documents. Also, a check on the procedure and definition of terms should be done for dismissal on the basis of program elimination and financial exigency. All dismissal actions for tenured faculty must respect due process, which includes the opportunity for a hearing and review by a committee of faculty peers.

Why higher education is in trouble

The reasons that higher education has lost the trust of many of its constituents are easy to understand. We have not been able to contain our costs, which has resulted in substantial tuition and fee increases each year. This has been coupled with low completion rates that translate into high student loan debt while leaving many of those who drop out without the prospects for an income sufficient to repay their loans. For this reason and others, the interest among high school students in obtaining a four-year degree has shrunk, and almost half of parents of high school students would like an alternative to a four-year degree (Jaschik, 2021). To be fair, some of the expenses we have incurred were taken on to remain competitive with institutions that were responding to student and parental desires or demands that are outside of the academic sphere. Elegant campus dining facilities that offer international cuisines, workout facilities that are second to none, air-conditioned classrooms and dorm rooms, and non-revenue-generating varsity sports are examples we rarely found on campuses 50 years ago. Other institutional expenses that we have incurred are those associated with increased student services and compliance responsibilities. Also, for many public institutions, states have not been generous with appropriation dollars, thus transferring more of the costs to students. Beyond student debt and retention to degree, we are also criticized for operating degree programs for which there is low demand, thus leaving graduates un- or underemployed.

A second major area where higher education’s reputation has lost its luster is what I will call the “environment of intolerance” that exists on many of our campuses. For this concept I will refer to a recently published survey, the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, where 37,000 students from 159 US colleges and universities were asked a series of questions that were designed to learn how campuses compared with regard to their environment for free speech (FIRE, 2021). The survey revealed information beyond the rankings that is relevant here. It confirmed that our institutions, in general, are liberal-leaning environments in which many students feel inhibited, with some practicing self-censorship, in expressing their views on controversial class topics if they are conservative and disagree with the position of the faculty member or the class majority. Many of the excerpted comments from the students used terms such as “nullified,” “silenced,” and “dismissed” to describe responses they received when they expressed an opinion that disagreed with classmates or the professor. Students also expressed fears that the positions they take in class discussions and on written assignments would determine their grades. In addition, there were student comments indicating that the pandemic had exacerbated the suppression of student opinion due to the online classroom and the ease and speed with which digitized material can be spread through social media. Faculty who coerce and intimidate students, violate their right to free expression, or allow others to do so place tenure at risk because these behaviors are the primary reasons, whether mentioned or not, for the recent attacks on tenure in conservative states.

Republicans have responded to the suppression of alternative views at public universities in red states with legislatively approved bans on diversity training, through intrusions into curricular content, with restrictions on academic freedom, and with legislation to eliminate tenure. Their strategy seems to be to erode the protections of tenure and to pressure campus administrations to remove those faculty who are “indoctrinating” students or denying their free expression. They can accomplish this budgetarily because the legislatures also control the university’s purse strings. Administration could face the impossible choice of removing a faculty member or facing a significant budget reduction.

Other factors that tarnish our image with the public include the recent admissions scandals and our inability to prevent or deal effectively with sexual assaults on campus. Admission to a university because of bribes is illegal, and legacy admissions violate the principles of equity for all applicants. Prospective students and their parents rightfully expect that campuses will be safe places.


FIRE. (2021, September 21). The 2021 college free speech rankings. https://www.thefire.org/the-2021-college-free-speech-rankings

Jaschik, S. (2021, April 7). Parents want alternatives to 4-year college. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2021/04/07/parents-want-alternatives-4-year-college

Kanelos, P. (2018, October 19). The public is losing confidence in higher ed—Here’s why. The Hill. https://thehill.com/opinion/education/411924-the-public-is-losing-confidence-in-higher-ed-heres-why

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.


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