Marcia Brown Mintz

Marcia Brown Mintz

Senior Advisor

The challenge is to explore and imagine what the institution of tenure could and should be in the 21st century and to find a way for it to happen. CFAR’s “campaign approach to change” is especially useful in overloaded settings such as academia with many stakeholders where change depends on enlisting many constituents. Here’s an idea for a nationwide campaign—a “challenge” to engage all of higher education to design, test, and implement improvements and innovations to advance the institution of tenure.

The basic tenets of tenure—academic freedom and employment security in service of the common good—may be timeless, yet the broader institution of tenure including the process of awarding tenure and the structure of faculty employment has many acknowledged shortcomings. Discussion among higher education leaders of solutions and changes to the institution and implementation of tenure is often met with reluctance or reflexive defense of the status quo. Even so, out of necessity, some adjustments are made around the edges and at the institutional level, though these are often not strategic and even can be passive when decisions taken elsewhere in the system affect the tenure process. Comprehensive review of and a process to effect broad structural improvements to the institution of tenure have not been embraced despite some very good research and thinking. The general reluctance and inaction may be explained in part because the cherished principles of tenure are in many ways conflated with the firmly established (and difficult to change) systems, policies, and practices through which tenure is implemented.

It seems the challenge is to explore and imagine what the institution of tenure could and should be to address the realities and opportunities of the 21st century. What would it take to implement a more sustainable and equitable structure for faculty work that still rests on the long-standing foundational principles of academic freedom and secure employment for the common good? If ever there was a moment to purposefully engage the academic community to reimagine the structure for faculty work, isn’t this it? The pandemic-enforced detour around usual ways of doing business bypassed traditions and entrenched practices that normally block change and allowed interim solutions that now call into question whether it makes sense to go back to previous ways.

Moreover, events of the past year shone a spotlight on, called into question, and politicized the institution of tenure in intense ways (and continue to do so!). Pressure points include DEI imperatives, calls for flexible pathways for individual advancement toward tenure (prompted by experiences related to the pandemic disruption), high-visibility tenure denials, tenured faculty firings (political speech) and layoffs (pandemic-related financial exigency and program terminations), and non-academic stakeholders’ and authorities’ interference with tenure decisions.

DEI alone is reason enough to engage the broad academic community to propose new ways forward and to imagine the features and structure of faculty appointments that would realize commitments and do no harm, and that at the same time would serve to preserve the principles and bring needed change to the institution of tenure. In 2020, many colleges and universities nationwide announced renewed commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion through immediate faculty hiring and other initiatives. Some colleges and universities formed collaborative organizations to explore these issues together (e.g., Faculty Advancement Network and Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance). Fundamental to almost all of the explorations, proposals, and their success is the institution of tenure. How can the reform of faculty employment be strategically linked with the DEI conversations and, in so doing, lead to more justice, more diversity, more reasonableness, and more understanding that tenure is not a third rail but an opportunity? This is all the more difficult because tenure is not a single concept or policy. The structure for faculty work that is shaped by and supports tenure is determined by many thousands of policies and practices. These policies and practices are layered and vary from unit to unit within individual colleges and universities and from institution to institution across the spectrum of more than 4,000 colleges and universities nationwide.

One idea is a national “challenge” to engage all of higher education to design and test/implement improvements and innovations to advance the institution of tenure. It would challenge established outdated practices and processes that too often lead to damaging results both for individuals and across higher education and rather than challenging tenure per se. Indeed, the goal would be to bolster and modernize the institution of tenure—its policies, process, practices, and outcomes–-using design thinking or whatever best approach from within the institutions in small or large ways.1 Participants could be faculty, academic leaders, and those across the many dozens of relevant higher education associations (including, of course, the AAUP). The challenge would place the thinking and innovation on the ground with those who best understand and are affected most directly by the institution of tenure. It would provide a structure for not just talking about change. It would facilitate sharing and actually implementing new designs, at first incrementally but with the possibility for ever greater impact across all of higher education.2

If not a “challenge,” there are bound to be other ways to launch a campaign to inform the issue, socialize the opportunity, spur the activity, share the results, and eventually institutionalize sustainable and equitable tenure policies, practices, and outcomes—that is, together to find a more sustainable structure for faculty work in the 21st century, one that does no harm.

[1] An organization could be identified to host the challenge, provide or gain funding, register the participants, and then track all of the efforts to meet the challenge (trends, themes, best practices) and report out through the host organization, across the colleges and universities, and in the higher education media and beyond.

[2] Recent articles indicate that the campaign in effect has begun. For example, “Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis says it’s putting its policies where its mouth is, approving new promotion and tenure options based on diversity, equity and inclusion work”; three USC faculty developed a “customized guide about liberatory design thinking processes that have been tested within college settings to support changes that enhance equity in policies and practices within institutions.” And, “Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts has quietly been working for about three years to improve its process for granting tenure to faculty in order to better reward those who are more focused on teaching than research.”